Gyumri, The Armenia I Left

 Gegham Mughnetsyan

I was born three years after the earthquake, in the city in ruin, in the so-called “Zone of the Catastrophe.” My earliest memories are those of a grey city in the winter, and of water-less, electricity-less temporary housing units filled with the warmth of stoves that consumed everything from wood flooring to paper volumes of the Big Soviet Encyclopedia.

Running water, electricity, and housing did eventually return to most of the city, but we still lived in what seemed like a ghost town, and our parents still oriented themselves around landmarks that no longer existed. We grew up in the shadows of Gyumri’s once colossal factories whose equipment was sold as scrap metal and whose facades stood as reminders of the city’s former glory.
Every year on that gloomy December day, a high-ranking delegation would visit to lay a wreath at the memorial, as if to reassure us that we were not forgotten and that our city’s scar was being mended. I, the kid of the ruin, the son of those who watched as everything they held dear to their hearts turned into a pile of rubble in seconds, have been formed by that scar.
Because of this harsh economic situation, many families, including my own, did not have the necessary means to travel and see Armenia. I never swam in Sevan, never gazed at Ararat from the Khor Virap, never saw the beauty of Dilijan or the majesty of Shushi. Instead, I grew up wondering why: Why was Yerevan growing and becoming a European metropolis, while two hours away Gyumri was still “recovering” 10-15 years after the earthquake? As that never-ending recovery kept diminishing my parents’ hopes for us, and for a bright future, my family decided to relocate to the United States. Since then, I have not been able to return to Armenia. In a way, Gyumri has been all the Armenia I ever really got to know.
I am not in Gyumri. I am no longer a direct part of its struggle. But the sense that I, as thousands like me, have abandoned our city, is with me even today, miles and years away.
In the end, among all those grey memories, is a “sunny” one: In it, I’m walking from the city park to the main square, holding my parents’ hands, while passing by historic buildings with their heavy black walls. There they stood, as if mourning, not with loud cries but with an old man’s silence, full of wisdom, knowing that calamities come and go, knowing what Gyumri was and what Gyumri is. And that it is only a matter of time before its sons and daughters find their way back.

"The Armenian Weekly," December 7, 2013

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