Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Home at the End of the World

As this week marked the anniversary of the 1998 earthquake, there have been quite a few news items surrounding the event itself, how it signaled change in the Soviet Union (despite initially declining, the USSR accepted foreign assistance for the first time since World War II) and the lingering impact.  

Since I am living in the city with most of the latter, I paid particular attention to these stories.  Many of them deal with “temporary housing” in “domiks” – usually with political finger-pointing or highlighting that movement to get people permanent housing always precedes election cycles (although the publishing of such stories during election cycles is another issue).  Regardless of the main topic, though, one of the recurring themes, and one which I have written about several times already, is the number of people still living in domiks.   

They are all over the city, and there are quite a few that I pass on a regular basis.  As families have grown over the years, some have been added to and they take on a different shape but you can usually see the original container. As they are made of metal, they are very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter.
They generally have no running water.  The woman in the picture below is getting her household water from a break in the pipe she is standing above.

In the course of my time here, I have been in several – one that a few of us looked at when we were looking for apartments last year, a few when I accompanied my co-workers on trips to give food and clothing to needy families.  If the family has had some form of income, they can be homey and almost comfortable (ignoring the temperature issue) while others make you wonder how people live in them. This article has a slideshow with the kind of pictures that need to be seen but which I never would have felt comfortable taking myself and interviews with some inhabitants. 

Slow as it may be, there are apartment buildings under construction and I sometimes hear of families finally getting permanent housing and see domiks being dismantled.  But the interview linked below provides another fascinating aspect of this story – and why some are resistant to move out of what have been their homes for decades. 

The concept of “learned helplessness” that he speaks about goes far beyond this particular aspect of Armenian life, and is important to understand how many people think.

Many of my projects involve working with people born after the earthquake and that presents another aspect - while their parents remember the earlier time, there is an entire generation for whom the presence of domiks (or living in one) is all that they have ever known.  Given that, acceptance of the situation seems almost inevitable.

I also walked for the first time this week through an area that seems not to have been touched since the earthquake.  The "Textil" neighborhood was so named because it was the center for the clothing and textile factories that were the economic heart of Gyumri.  They collapsed during the earthquake and the market for the products disappeared when the country separated from the Soviet Union so there has been no reason to reconstruct them.  I suppose this is the closest I will get to seeing what Gyumri was like right after the earthquake - there was snow on the ground then also.  Hard to imagine. [There are more pictures in the Gyumri photo album linked at right].

Again, there is an entire generation for whom this is not unusual. There are indications that people hang out there, drink other things.  When you have this to walk through as a shortcut (the entire area is open) I suppose a domik can seem not so bad - think of the alternative.