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Life inside Armenia’s fallen city

Gyumri was once a thriving trading point between east and west. A 1988 earthquake, poor Soviet rebuilding and a closed border with Turkey have kept it in the shadows since then.

25.03.2015
Life inside Armenia’s fallen city

By Handan Kazanci

Gyumri, ARMENIA 

“I don’t want Gyumri to be known for this,” says Arsen Vardanyan.

The young man is walking through the dilapidated streets of Armenia’s second city, Gyumri, a once-renowned town which still bears the scars of a devastating earthquake which struck in 1988.

Arsen, 24, is a law graduate who volunteers with the A. D. Sakharov Armenian Human Rights Center.

Named after the nuclear physicist-turned-human rights activist and Soviet dissident, the center is just a 15-minute drive from the Turkish border, a frontier which has remained closed for more than 20 years.

Arsen was born three years after the 6.8 magnitude earthquake which killed around 25,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

The effect on this ancient city in Armenia’s northwest further damaged its legacy as a trading point for centuries between east and west.

Gyumri has seen better times. Once it was home to Armenia’s first opera house and some of its unique black-and-red limestone buildings can still be seen.

Since then, Soviet planning, the earthquake and the closed border have seen Gyumri – a two-hour drive from the capital, Yerevan – become resentful of its second-city status.

Although 27 years have passed since the earthquake and there has been some reconstruction, the city – home to around 146,000 people – still looks abandoned in parts, with run-down houses and streets.

Ashot Mirzoyan, a local architect and urban planner, claims that late-Soviet plans to reconstruct the city were too costly.

According to Mirzoyan, who is manager of a NGO called the City Research Center, Gyumri’s economy is based mainly on trade with Turkey although the border has been closed since 1993.

The Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh – a disputed territory between Azerbaijan and Armenia – led to the closing of the frontier with Turkey, which sides with Baku in the drawn-out dispute.

Although sources differ, Azerbaijani writer Arif Yunusov in 2007 put the number of Azerbaijanis killed in the 5-year war at 11,000 people.

Figures quoted in an Austrian newspaper report in 2013 claim that  724,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced due to the conflict. Thousands of Armenians were also forced to flee their homes.

Political ties between Ankara and Yerevan remain frozen owing to the Karabakh conflict as well as the legacy of killings during the First World War, which the Armenian diaspora and government describe as “genocide” – a description which Turkey refutes.

Another Gyumri resident, Harutyan Filyan, sits inside the Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God in the city center. Speaking in Turkish he says: “We want the opening of the border."

“We could just cross the border in 15 minutes instead travelling around 400 kilometers,” he adds.

According to the 54-year-old, people in Gyumri have an “aggressive” mentality; one reason for this is the 1988 earthquake and the other are high-profile killings committed by some Russian soldiers based in the city.

Russia has its 102nd Military Base in Gyumri since Armenia’s independence in 1991. Ostensibly there to protect the Turkish-Armenian border, violent incidents have soured relations between local residents and the 5,000 or so troops stationed there.

In January, Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript, was accused of killing seven members of an Armenian family; the shootings triggered a huge outcry across the country.

That was not the first such incident; in 1999 two drunken soldiers killed two locals and injured many others when they started shooting in the city.

- Opening the border

An attempt was made to implement a protocol agreement between Turkey and Armenia in October 2009 in Zurich, but this eventually failed.

The deal would have begun moves to open the border and establish official relations.

Seyran Martirosyan, head of a local human rights center which helps Gyumri earthquake victims, says that not too much meaning should be read into the protocols.

“The protocols were the result of the pressure on both sides,” Martirosyan says, adding: “The communities should be involved in this kind of process and they [negotiators] did not get our opinions.”

Martirosyan believes opening the border would make the city teeming once more.

- Links with Turkey

An economics professor at Yerevan State University, Tatoul N. Manasserian, agrees: “Gyumri will be one of the first cities where the effect of opening the border would be most tangible.”

“Traditionally, Gyumri has experience in dealing with Turkey, even during Soviet times,” he adds.

According to Manasserian, Turkish companies would invest in the construction, food processing and IT sectors. Gyumri already hosts a "technopark" free-trade zone for IT start-ups as well as hosting food processing industries and construction firms. 

Back in Gyumri, Arsen Vardanyan believes a path which would carry Armenia into European Union is “better” and “preferable.”

But, for now, he believes that “one day the border will be opened.”

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