The earthquake that struck Armenia in 1988 left 25,000 people dead, and thousands homeless. Today, 22 years after the disaster, many families are still waiting for the government to provide those who lost their homes with an apartment. In the wake of the disaster, the government distributed metal containers to house the homeless. Although they were supposed to be temporary, they've become permanent staples in Gyumri's landscape. Thousands of families have made their homes in these metal bins, and an entire generation of children has grown up in Gyumri's sprawling shanty towns.
FAR's Gyumri staff took us on a tour of one such area. We weaved in and out of metal containers and makeshift yards.The roads are unpaved and dusty. We stopped and talked to people who live there. In true Armenian fashion, one couple invited me into their shelter for coffee. Armine Stepanyan and her husband Harutyun Amirkhanyan have lived there for five years. They have one son, Garlenchik. According to Armine, her in-laws, who were victims of the earthquake, did receive an apartment from the government, but they were forced to sell it to cover medical bills. This is a familiar story in Armenia, where most people cannot afford to visit the doctor or pay for their medicine.
Like many men in Gyumri, Harutyun is unemployed. His family survives on disability payments he receives because of an injury he sustained while serving in the army. The disability payment, or monthly toshak, is 20000 dram (roughly $55 per month). With that money Armine purchases a gas tank for cooking, and flour to bake bread. Although they have running water, the family uses it infrequently. Armine saves water in empty soda bottles and leaves them out in the sun. When they warm up, she uses the water for washing dishes or showering.
Armine and Harutyun's story is one of many in this sprawling patchwork of rusting bins and containers. As important as it's been to tour Armenia's museums, monasteries, and national monuments, it's also been important to witness the realities of daily life.