GYUMRI, Armenia (Reuters) – Zhora Azizyan felt lucky when he was granted temporary housing made of concrete blocks rather than the railway cars given to others after the earthquake that devastated northwestern Armenia.
But that was 1988.
Now he struggles to paper over the cracks in the walls, and the single gas stove is no match for winter temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius.
“After the earthquake, the Soviet Central Bank donated temporary accommodation for two years, made of concrete blocks 10 centimeters thick,” he said. “We were very happy at the time. But then two years became 20.”
Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the Spitak earthquake that flattened towns and villages across swathes of then Soviet Armenia, killing 25,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
For many in Gyumri, Spitak and other towns shattered by the magnitude 6.9 quake, the memory has faded. But for others it remains as real today as it was when it struck at 11.41 a.m. (0741 GMT).
An estimated 7,000 families are still in the woeful temporary accommodation given to them in the weeks after the quake. For them, it has been 20 years of empty promises.
At the time, Soviet officials said the recovery would be quick. But they struggled to cope with the scale of the disaster. Then the Soviet Union collapsed.
War that followed with neighboring Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh is still proving costly and is slowing recovery efforts in this mountainous and poor corner of the Caucasus.
Successive governments have promised to finish the recovery job. And the current administration of President Serzh Sarksyan is no different, pledging $250 million to finish rehousing the homeless and rebuilding the region by 2012.
“The situation is not as we would like,” said Albert Margaryan, a senior official at the regional administration, overseeing construction work. “But every day we can feel improvement, we can feel the activation of local investment.”
“We hope that by 2012 we will solve this problem thanks to the government program to rehabilitate the disaster area.”
Local officials say unemployment in the region stands at 60 percent. They promise to build an industrial park in the former textile hub of Gyumri, invest in small and medium-sized enterprises and create 5,000 jobs.
The homeless are given vouchers to buy property anywhere in Armenia, but they complain only those with money to add can actually make use of them because of high property prices.
Azizyan, 75, lost 12 relatives in the earthquake. Reports at the time spoke of unimaginable destruction, coffins stacked in the streets.
Azizyan and his wife together receive 55,000 drams ($180) monthly pension, plus 24,000 drams in government aid. The family of six lives within 30 square meters.
“I haven’t lost hope,” said Azizyan. “I’m sure that everything will be good. Without hope, life is not worth living.”
His wife Zina shares his optimism. “I feel we’ll get an apartment next year,” she said. “We have to think about our grandchildren.”