BY ARA KHACHATOURIAN
Once again we are commemorating the anniversary of the tragic earthquake that hit Armenia on December 7, 1988. As we honor the victims of that tragedy, we must tell ourselves that we, as a nation, have failed to rebuild the earthquake zone, which almost 30 years later is still labeled the “disaster zone.”
Some 550 families are still homeless victims of the earthquake, living in makeshift metal containers scattered around Gyumri, Spitak, Akhourian and other rural areas that were devastated by the earthquake. Yet some 47 miles from Spitak, the epicenter of the earthquake, cranes dot the skyline of Yerevan, with new residential and commercial building mushrooming in a city that has become a virtual construction zone.
It is unclear who is occupying those new buildings, but what is crystal clear is that those who lived through the shock of the earthquake and saw their loved ones perish in an insta-second are still without homes to call their own.
Yes, the early days of Armenia’s independence were fraught with complex socio-economic challenges that continue to plague the majority of the population, except that percentage—the ruling elite—that chose to nurture its greed and continued to pillage the country’s national wealth and essentially forgot about the “disaster zone.” After all, when you’re building a mansion, who cares if your fellow citizens are living in squalor in metal containers.
The earthquake zone only becomes a priority during election campaigns, when politicians who siphoned the national wealth pledge and promise to rebuild the region. More than 26 since Armenia’s independence that hasn’t happened because greed has prevailed and is guiding our national policy. Why build homes and apartment buildings in Gyumri, Spitak and the other earthquake-impacted areas when one can make a pretty penny by raising old neighborhoods in Yerevan and building gargantuan edifices that only accommodate those who can afford them?
The communities in the Diaspora sprang into action on December 7, 1988 and elevated the international rapid response to the earthquake, with community organizations coming together to collectively provide crucial assistance and also rebuild some of the impacted areas. Of late, however, Diaspoan business people have also turned their attention to money-making ventures elsewhere in Armenia, with the earthquake zone generally getting less and less attention.
This is all a result of successive regimes adopting policies that are not guided by national interests but rather financial interests. A quick glance at a development package proposed by Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan contains some initiatives that can advance Armenia’s energy and agriculture sectors, but is very construction-centric aimed at gentrifying neighborhoods with nary a mention of the earthquake zone. In the past several years alone, three sprawling malls have opened in Yerevan all financed by another set of oligarchs who got their post-Soviet riches in Russia. They can now boast that there is a Gap store in Yerevan not caring or realizing that Armenia has become a full-fledged Banana Republic.
A new circle of investors, populated by Russian-Armenian businessmen, has been introduced with the promise that they would bolster Armenia’s economy. None of those plans include concrete measures to eradicate homelessness in the “disaster zone” and to bring back families that left the area after the earthquake, most of whom have left Armenia all together.
We have seen the largesse by the Russian-Armenian businessmen have a positive impact in Artsakh, where they have invested heavily in infrastructure building and rebuilding of war-torn areas because a comprehensive needs assessment was carried out and specific projects were undertaken to quickly take Artsakh out of its war-ravaged state. It is questionable whether Armenia’s authorities, in engaging these businessmen, have advanced the notion that the disaster zone must be a national priority.
It is sad that 29 years after the devastating earthquake we as a nation have failed our own people. As we commemorate those who perished during the disaster, we must also take responsibility for our national shame.