Once upon a time there was Gyumri, the cultural center of Armenia, breathing art and literature, the capital of humor, an industrial city with many factories, with its phaetons, cinemas and barbershops and a growing population before December 7, 1988, at exactly 11:41 a.m. local time. The maximum intensity earthquake hit the northern region of the country, turning Gyumri into a city of ruins, death and destruction and dividing life into before and after.
This phoenix-like city is strong enough to go on, but each of its vintage doors, windows, staircases are still wrapped in a scar-like bandage of the earthquake. Today, 31 years later there are still trailers, called “domiks” by the locals, where people, who have lost their homes live. They patiently wait for their turn on the list to get an apartment. But the layers of people in Gyumri are innumerable and much deeper.
Gyumri is made of people, although it is beautiful by itself with its unique and proud architecture. Proud, because all of the lines, patterns, fretworks are always pointed upward, looking down on you from their height, ready to pose. Gyumri is multilayered, an amalgam of completely different people, even those who stay invisible, like guardian ghosts. No one notices or talks about them, those who lost their homes once upon a time, but do not have trailers or domiks. They made homes out of demolished buildings, including historical ones. They are united forever with the same tragedy – 11:41 a.m. local time and the dampness, reigning in the places where they live.
No matter what age they are, strong and proud like their phoenix-like city they hope for a better future and try to preserve the history of their city. Forgotten guardian ghosts live in the center of the city and captivate people with their memories, emotions and dreams.
Stuck in the Same Place Forever
For over 19 years, the ruins of the former building of the radio factory has been home to Karine and her husband Hovik. Together for 37 years, this couple survived the earthquake. A fews years prior to the earthquake, Karine worked in this same building as a cleaner. “I guess I am stuck here forever,” she says, still trying to joke.
The building is officially condemned, the roof is rotting; it can come crashing down any second.
“My husband, Hovik, you know, he is sick, very sick. With nitrogen levels in his body reaching 450, the doctors are surprised how he still lives. I have no money to support him, but I’ll do everything possible to save my husband,” Karine says.
After the earthquake Karine’s family was one of the lucky ones to receive an apartment. But because of health issues of her family members, she was forced to sell the new apartment.
There is no bathroom in the dilapidated radio factory building. Karine goes to the public bath that costs 1000 AMD.
“My husband was so handsome, I fell in love with him immediately,” Karine says. “He was a director during Soviet times, a tall, handsome man. He was seriously injured during the earthquake, but he survived, because the building crashed down on the opposite side. Maybe, tomorrow he will be gone. All I want for him, at least, is to die in his own home.”
Karine and her husband Hovik.
The building of the former radio factory in Gyumri.
The Guardian Ghost of the Radio Factory
Gayane’s laughter can be heard from the entrance of the building. She laughs constantly. She’s 49 and suffers from mental issues and lives on the opposite side of the radio factory. She lives there with her dog, all alone. “My dog protects me, I am scared at nights,” Gayane explains. The narrow room has been her home for over 17 years.
Gayane used to live in the very center of the city, near the square, with her parents and sister. First, she lost her parents, then, the earthquake partially destroyed her home. Then, her sister sold the remaining part and decided to be rid of Gayane, leaving her in a mental hospital.
Gayane’s neighbors say she is a nice woman and believe she could be beautiful after getting her teeth fixed. She receives her monthly pension, but there are people who always come and take her money, or the food from this guardian ghost of the radio factory.
Sisters by Choice
“Come in, come in, don’t even hesitate. Be a guest, have some coffee, feel free in my house, though I know it is illogical to call this place a home,” says 83 year old Gayane. She has has spent 31 years of her life in a building that used to be a textile factory once and is waiting for the day, when she is given a home.
“My hair became whiter, wrinkles appeared on my face, we continue to complain and fight, but still, no luck, no honesty in this world. But I still hope and believe, you know my darling, that I will get my own home one day,” she says.
This part of the city used to be one of the most vibrant ones with the textile factory, the working class dormitory, a tailor, a barbershop, a department shop, hospital and a salon for dancing classes. The woman remembers there were over 600 workers living in the dormitory, now she and her “roommate,” Klara, are the only survivors of the “old stuff.”
Gayane lost everything, her apartment and her job after the earthquake. She used to be a spinner in the factory and has 50 years of working experience. Gayane proudly states that she had also 34 students and taught them the skills of spinning. “I have been working all my life, even after the earthquake, when I lost everything, I continued to work as a cleaner. I am so active, I would like to work now, to earn money to be able to support myself, but everyone says I am too old to work. But work is what makes a person alive, my darling,” Gayane says.
Gayane, and her friend, 87 year old Klara were from the same orphanage. Now they live together. Each of them has their own “room,” but when it gets too cold, it is only possible to sleep in one room with a stove.
Both women are on the list to receive an apartment. They were told they can get rooms in a dormitory, they refused, and were forgotten by everyone.
“Why should we take rooms in a dormitory, we want an apartment. We are not sisters by blood but by choice and we dream of being neighbors,” Gayane says, becoming agitated.
Thieves often come to the women’s “house” and steal things, or find money. “Once a policeman came here. The room was trashed. I was sitting on my bed and smiling. He couldn’t understand, why I was happy. ‘I survived, nothing happened to me, I am alive’ I said,” Gayane recalls.
Gayane often stares out the window that has a view of the textile factory ruins, dreaming about those days that are gone and hoping for her a comfortable future.
Having a Good Neighbor is Better Than Having a Relative
Klara was a deputy, has received several medals for “Valorous Labour.” But the only proof of them is in a photo. Her medals were stolen from this building. Klara looks at herself in the photo: “Look how young I am here. Those were the years, we worked and were happy. I am unrecognizable now, this is not my face anymore.”
Klara is responsible for their daily meals, she is the queen of the “kitchen.” She can make a tasty soup out of a few products, The two women have learned the art of spending money, living only on a pension. “The stock of wood we need costs 1000 AMD, we are happy, because we are not cold. I don’t want to complain, we can do everything, the only thing we dream about is a home,” Klara says.
For her, the most important thing is that she is not lonely. “To have a good neighbor is better than having a relative. We have been through so much together and we survived,” Klara explains. “God helps us. I feel that we do not have anyone to support us, we have each other and our God. I believe he will help us finally get our own home.”
A part of the building collapsed a few days after we were there.
Klara and Gayane.
Klara and Gayane.
Photographs by Mariam Loretsyan.
The House of Dowry
This is a building in the very center of Gyumri, next to Yot Verk Church (The Church of Seven Wounds). Everyone knows it as Ozhiti Tun, meaning the house of dowry
The house was built in the 1890s and belonged to the affluent Drampyan family. The father of the family gave the house to his daughter as a dowry (a tradition by the bride’s family to give property or money to her husband on their marriage).
It is in fact a historical building. During Soviet rule, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation also known as Dashnaktsutyun handed over the government to the Communists here, in this building in 1923.
Several scenes from the move, “Song of the Old Days” were shot here.
It used to be a cultural center before the earthquake, with special classrooms for clay and ceramics, sculpture, ballet and dances. The building still stands due to the family that started to live here after the earthquake.
The woman currently living in this house used to take dance classes as a child here. Part of the library has in fact been turned into a home for this family. It was considered to be an important art school in the city, artists such as Hakob Hakobyan and Sergey Merkurov used to work here. After the earthquake, many paintings were taken away to be used as fuel, oil-based paint burns the best. Other paintings were saved by the family and handed over to the local gallery on Kirov Street.
There have been several attempts to steal the stones, or the doors of the building, but the guardian ghosts continue protect it. The statue of David serving as a model for painting classes was stolen the first.
The second floor of the building is totally demolished, and it is really dangerous to go out of the house or come in if the weather is bad.
The family`s well furnished house in the center of the city was totally demolished during the earthquake; they believe it was a miracle they stayed alive. This family still waits for their turn to get their home.
What is Home?
But what is home? A building, furniture, smells, memories, another person?
Time has stopped for these people, they have two different lives, before and after the earthquake.
The past is something that builds us, makes us stronger, creates our story, prepares us for the next step. But what is the next step for these people? The past is the greatest traitor, because it always leaves.
That’s why I’m in love with this moment. And yet…what is this moment? What is right now, where is it? A second that immediately turns into the past, or future? I guess it’s in between. But a second can last long enough to create a story and to become a memory. And the ghosts of the city live in this second, stuck somewhere in-between before and after.
Sometimes home is just a home with walls and windows, with a stove where you make your own coffee, a chance to “at least to die in his own home.”