BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
As we were approaching the 30th anniversary of the devastating Gyumri Earthquake, I had planned to stay a week in Gyumri and to do some research about the earthquake and learn how people continue to live in makeshift homes called Domiks.
The city of Gyumri is known for its wealth of distinctive architectural style homes, mostly in the form of mansions, dating back to 1800s and which tell us about the aristocratic lifestyle of Gyumri’s yesteryears. The sublime architectural designs are characterized by black and red stones which blows your mind away.
Gyumri is the second largest city in Armenia after Yerevan. However, this beautiful city is off the grid and not many tourists are ushered to that city. But those who travel to Gyumri will notice that alongside of beautiful buildings, many ruined structures from the earthquake of 1988 are still standing — patiently waiting restoration.
Also if you take a stroll in the back streets of Gyumri you will see some rusted tin shacks, placed at some of the streets corners. The sight of those shacks, invariably drifts your mind back to the 1988 earthquake. Those shacks in Russian language are called Domik meaning a small home.
Very soon, within a month after the quake, the Domiks, or metal containers, were shipped from all over the world to provide temporary relief for people who had lost their homes at the earthquake.
The harsh reality is that after 30 years, some impoverished families, are still living in those rusted tin shacks with no insulation and with limited amenities. I was curious to learn about how life is in a Domik.
I had booked a room at a home in Gyumri. My host was Varduhi, a school teacher, who during the summer days had spare time to help me with my project. I asked her if she could arrange for me to meet someone who lived in one of those shacks. She said she would take me to the part of the town where there are Domiks installed close to each other.
The next day we took a taxi to visit the area, at the outskirts of the city. While there, first we met a guy strolling outside of his home. Varduhi asked him if he would let us into his home. He refused because his mother was sick, and he didn’t feel like having guests over.
So we drove to the next shack. My host, again, came out of the taxi and knocked at the door. A young woman opened the door. Varduhi asked her if she wouldn’t mind having us inside her home. She was very kind to accept.
She told us her life story. Her name was Shushanik. She was four-year-old when the earthquake hit. Before the arrival of the Domiks, families with young kids who had lost their homes were shipped to other cities within the Soviet Union. Shushanik’s family was sent to Sochi in Russia.
The government also gave them money to compensate the loss of their home. With the money Shushanik’s family was able to buy a small hut in a village near Sochi. After a year or so, the government decided to have a head count of the displaced people, and they were called back.
Her family sold their home and returned to Gyumri. This time they received an apartment at the outskirts of Gyumri. She said, the quarters that they received was a deplorable place to live. The construction was extremely poor, and it had no running water nor electricity. “The smell of urine was suffocating,” she said.
Fortunately, they could sell that apartment for $1,700 and with part of the money they bought a Domik. The rest of the money was spent on food and firewood.
Around that time, a war arose between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Shushanik’s father was called to fight and he died. Her mother and her three sisters continued to live in that Domik.
A few years later, her older sister got married, then she followed suit at age 17. In Armenia, tradition requires that the bride moves to the home of the groom’s parents at the time of marriage.
Shushanik married a young guy whose family lived in a Domik. She moved with her young husband to his family’s Domik. After a few years they were able to rent a small apartment but then they moved to this Domik, which originally belonged to Shushanik’s sister.
The day I met Shushanik at the Domik, she was home with her one-and-half-year-old daughter. Her 12 and 15-year-old sons were not at home. Her husband, like many other Armenian men, had gone to Russia to find a better opportunity to work and maybe earn a higher wage.
Life in a Domik was not as bad as I had imagined. Although from outside the metal sheet was rusted, the inside was pretty decent. The main door opened into a tiny kitchen. From there, we entered the living room, where a rug covered the floor. Although compact, but there was enough space for a sofa. They had a TV and a computer in the corner. There were two small bedrooms and a small bathroom connected to the living room.
She said the main problem is during the harsh winter of Gyumri, when all their money goes to buy firewood. During the winter they bring a wood burning stove and put in the place of the TV.
I felt that with her limited means, she had created a clean and comfortable home. She had arranged for her younger son, during the academic year, to stay at the Terchounian orphanage.
I gave her some money. She thanked me a lot and said that she will spend the money to buy new clothes for her sons for the start of the academic year.
Here in Armenia, the first day of the school, which falls on September 1st, has a special significance. They call it “Knowledge Day” and it is observed throughout Armenia with a lot of pomp. On that first day of the school, every parent makes sure that their child is wearing, if not new outfits then at least clean and crisp ironed clothes.
As Shushanik mentioned about the Terchounian orphanage, it reminded me that I wanted to visit that facility as well. So after we left Shushanik we asked the taxi driver to take us there.
Before I move on to tell you about my visit to the orphanage, I’d like to give you some statistics about families who had lost their homes during the earthquake and essentially became homeless.
To get some data about the earthquake, I was able to contact an official from Marzbedaran, the regional agency that has dealt with the earthquake. I learned that 20,612 homes were destroyed. 3,548 homes became not habitable. Within the last 30 years, 21.184 families have been moved to newly built homes. Today, about 500 households live in Domiks.
My curiosity to see a life in a makeshift home setting, brought me to Shushanik, however, as we were leaving, Varduhi, my host, told me that this was one of the best situations of a life in a Domik. She said, “Living conditions in other Domiks are deplorable. Most are unsanitary and rat-infested.”