On Dec. 7, 1988, an earthquake devastated much of northern Armenia, killing at least 25,000 people. Several hundred thousand more were made homeless and the local economy was paralyzed. Humanitarian organizations brought tents and emergency help. The Soviet government, beginning to suffer under dramatic economic troubles, provided temporary-living containers and promised new housing.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the recovery program and the financial support to Armenia suddenly stopped. Those who didn't receive a new home at the time were out of luck.
A year later the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh between newly independent countries Armenia and Azerbaijan sent new waves of refugees westward toward poor Armenia. Border and economic blockades by Azerbaijan and Turkey put an even deeper economic strain on Armenia. By then, the victims of the earthquake were long forgotten.
Twenty years later, many of the refugees are still living in abandoned industrial grounds and wastelands at the edge of the city. Almost all of the free space in the centers of northern Armenian cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor is occupied by a "domik," Russian for "little house."
"Ice cold in winter, burning hot in summer, and when it rains, you need an umbrella inside," complained 20-year-old student Arthur, who has been living in a domik for all of his life.
Lonely retirees and big families live in tiny rooms in miserable conditions. They lack running water, decent heating and toilets. Many of them become ill. Some containers have been treated with asbestos.
"Give us a chance and we will leave Armenia forever," said a father, who gave two of his children to an orphanage because he couldn't care for them anymore.
Husbands and big brothers are often missing, having migrated mostly to Russia for employment.
"It's a scandal," said a volunteer worker, who provides monthly survival packets to the poorest families. "People here die from poverty, in their home, because they can't pay a doctor. Meanwhile, not far from the domik villages, villas like palaces are being built. The government doesn't care about these people anymore."
Belgian freelance photojournalist Nick Hannes travelled over land from Brussels to Vladivostok and back from October 2006 to October 2007, filing stories and photos of his discoveries on his news blog. During his 12-month journey Hannes covered 50,000 kilometers crossing the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Mongolia, China and Russia, meeting earthquake refugees, imams, nomadic shepherds and many more. EurasiaNet is presenting a four-part series of audio-enhanced slideshows, highlighting key stops on his trip. More photos and notes from his trip can be seen at www.nickhannes.be.