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Intersections: A city's soul is in its people

July 13, 2011|By Liana Aghajanian

About 75 miles north of Armenia's capital sits a quiet town near the closed Turkish border named Gyumri. Few travelers venture here, a city bursting with history, hospitality, humor and — as is common in the Armenian story that spans eons — tragedy.

The 1988 earthquake did a number on Gyumri, killing upwards of 50,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. The city's magnificent and distinct style of architecture also suffered, with many of its buildings still in remnants, and thousands of its people still living in temporary metal containers called domiks.

Once an important trade and cultural center with roots in the 8th century B.C., Gyumri remains a shadow of itself. Emigration has depleted the town and government assistance barely, if at all, reaches Armenia's second largest city. Corruption runs rampant, while the struggle for day to day living has taken its toll on the residents who remain.

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Many long for the days of the Soviet era, where factories, and by proxy, jobs were abundant and worrying about whether your child would eat or stay warm during the city's harsh winters was practically nonexistent.

Mkrtich is one of them. A 73-year-old shoemaker, he toils in his small shop, full to the brim with the shoes of Gyumri, and a photo of Joseph Stalin on his wall. He romantically reminisces of what life in the city used to be like, before the earthquake killed one of his sons and the Soviet Union collapsed.

“This town used to be full of life, but now it's empty. When you go outside and look at people's faces, they're half there, half gone” he says.

He's not a fan of any of the current government, or any past ones, that emerged after communism. Affluent diasporans like Kirk Kerkorian and Charles Aznavour havedonated millions to help Gyumri recover, he says, but the money instead found its way into unknown pockets.

Despite its circumstances and hardships, the soul of Gyumri shines through its people, like Mkrtich, whose dialect, peppered with western Armenian words and phrases, is a trait unique to the area.

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