Three decades following the earthquake 420 families in Spitak still live in temporary houses.
In Spitak, which spreads on the slopes of Bazum and Pambak mountain ranges, the temporary housing districts stagger across the landscape along the newly built apartment blocks complementing the modern-day image of the town.
Today it seems unimaginable that some 30 years ago the town was one of the main industrial centers of Soviet Armenia. The devastating earthquake on December 7 1988 claimed lives of 4,000 people of the town with 18,400 population and ruined it to ground.
German, Swiss, Czech, Finnish, Norwegian, Russian, Uzbek, Estonian, Tambov districts named after countries and settlements, which joined reconstruction following the earthquake, and located only few kilometers away from the improved center of the town, are home to part of today's 13,000 population.
For thirty years now German and Italian temporary housing districts built with only 5 year perspective still survive in the new Spitak. The districts are located also in Panragortsneri, Aygestan, Odkayan, Muratsan neighborhoods of Spitak.
It has been 15 years now the big family of Mkhitar Gagikyan and Hasmik Bostanjyan lives in one of the temporary houses in the German district.
“We get along… The wind has twice swept our roof away. We have no conditions, the room is too small. The roof leaks every time it rains; look behind the curtain – the window frames are rotten, walls are swollen. Our bedding soaks. The house has gone half meter into the ground. Pit-holes under the wall are filled with water every time it rains,” says Hasmik Bostanjyan, 47.
Repairing the crumbling roof of the rotten house is no more a solution, says Mkhitar Gagikyan, pointing to the stains on the ceiling.
Two of Gagikyans’ sons are abroad to provide for the family’s leaving; their younger son has suffered from cerebral palsy.
The Italian district in Spitak like the major part of temporary districts was built on locations, which avoided the damages caused by the earthquake. Time seems to have stopped here.
47 yo Valya Vardanyan’s family has been living in Odkayan temporary district located 5 km away from the town from 1989.
The windows of the two-room house are covered with film; concrete of the flooring is crumbling; and there is no hint of even the basic living conditions.
Valya’s three sons and two daughters were born in this house. “One of my sons is in Russia; the other one has been conscribed, despite health issues. My 13 yo Inga has first category disability: she was born with curvature of hip, and now needs surgery,” she says.
"In Soviet times real estate belonged to the state; people owned other property. Part of the money remained on people's bank accounts and was lost. The state says it has fully completed the process of compensation for those who lost state-owned apartments. Part of those people were handed apartment purchase certificates; others received monetary compensations," says head of Spitak community.
Muratsan district, almost 3 km far from the center of Spitak, is located at an altitude with a view to the center of the town and the new church of St Harutyun. Residents of this district have renovated the temporary wooden houses they occupy by remodeling and veneering with stone in an effort to prolong the life of the houses meant for only five years.
65 yo Susanna Ghazaryan's family of seven lives in the district for 30 years now. She says in 2007 the family received about AMD 2 million as compensation and decided to build a new house on the 400 sqm land lot next to their current house.
"We prepared the ground – dug a 10x10 pit – and ran out of money. Probably, we could use the money to buy an apartment in those days, but opted for building a house of our own. Now we are homeless," says Ghazaryan, who lives in the temporary house along with her husband, her son, his wife, and three grandchildren.
The Unfinished Reconstruction of Spitak
Ghazaryans, who used to have two apartments before the earthquake, would prefer farming, but the banks do not give them a loan, because the family members are unemployed. These families are among those 420, which remain in the temporary houses. According to the data provided by the community administration there are 560 families in need of housing in Spitak.
Gagik Sahakyan, head of the community, says even 30 years after the earthquake, the town still has temporary housing districts, where people continue to live due to the lack of alternatives, although the life span of the houses was only five years. Sahakyan recalls compensations to people who had lost private houses in the earthquake were compensated in Soviet roubles, while those, who lost apartments, were given property as compensation.
Ashkhen Babayan, the chairwoman of "Spitak Helsinki Group" rights advocacy organization, says it has supported many of the town residents by providing legal consultancy services on housing issues.
"There have been more than 20 court suits starting from 2010; we have won in 18 cases. However, people are not always patient enough to stand those long-lasting court procedures: many of them get disappointed and refuse from continuing to fight," she says.
founding chairwoman of "White Falcon" non-governmental organization
"People with special needs are isolated, secluded in their homes, and it looks like there are no handicapped people in Spitak", - Marine Asatryan says.
The earthquake left some 750 people disabled; it was expected that the restored town would be adjusted to people with special needs. However, even today the buildings and structures are inaccessible to those people.
Marine Asatryan, founding chairwoman of "White Falcon" non-governmental organization for protection of rights and interests of persons with disabilities, is wheel-chaired. Remaining under school debris in the 1988 earthquake, Marine got a spine injury. She says there are 2000 persons with disabilities living in Spitak, 20 of which have mobility problems.
"I stop by steps or edge stones of pavements and ask occasional passers-by to help me; I can also ask someone to accompany me," shares Marine Asatryan, 46. Asatryan founded the organization in 2013, specializing in defending the rights and interests of people with disabilities.
"Among the newly opened shops ramps are available only at supermarket entrances, which, however, do not have the required width and fall. That's because they are meant for shopping carts. People lack the understanding that no one is guaranteed against disability," shares Marine, who also works at the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
Spitak used to be one of the developed towns of Soviet Armenia, where some 14 industries operated before the devastating earthquake.
The only reminder of the good old times in the town is the tall tower of the famous sugar plant, which was built by German war prisoners in 1947.
Pre-earthquake Spitak was exceptional in terms of its industrial capacities. The largest industries included flour mill, rubber and technical items, sugar, and elevators plants, as well as shoe productions.
The majority of the new buildings in the town were constructed in late 1990s.
The bridge, which was meant to unload the highway connecting Yerevan and Vanadzor and to detour the twisting road to Spitak, remained unfinished after the earthquake.
Ashkhen Babayan of "Spitak Helsinki Group" recalls her parents' stories about the once flourishing town of Spitak. She confesses her generation has seen only the post-earthquake town, bending under the burden of social and economic problems, and says she and her peers have to fight for its restoration and revival. Babayan says unlike Gyumri, which has managed to overcome the consequences of the disaster to a certain degree, Spitak, with a population of 13,000, still pays a toll.
"Part of people has moved from Spitak, but those who have stayed, fight. Of course, there are also those who are broken. Young people are disappointed and indifferent to everything. People in Spitak are reluctant to share about their problems, and are not consistent in fighting for their well-being like people in Gyumri. I would say they haven't overcome the shock yet," says Babayan.