Searching for a safe place to play

Anahit Harutyunyan

Children in Armenia’s second largest city still play in the ruins of buildings destroyed in the 1988 earthquake. Gyumri, a city of around 120,000 people near the Turkish border, is slowly rebuilding. But parks and playgrounds remain largely neglected, parents say. 

The situation leaves them with few good options: either they allow children to play among the broken facades and trash in the street or they encourage them to stay inside, where they play computer games online.

Specialists warn that either way, children are suffering.

“Gyumri doesn’t have enough conditions for the children who can enjoy their childhood. They play on the mud and dirt,” notes Lilit Gyunashyan, the head of Alvan Tsakhik (Red Flower), a social-educational center.

Aragats district in Gyumri is home to the city’s tallest buildings. Many residents still remember the horror of the 1988 earthquake. The ruined remains of buildings scattered around the neighborhood also serve as a constant reminder of the disaster. The construction waste and garbage makes it difficult for children to find a safe place to play.

Children in Aragats district, a Gyumri neighborhood that was hard hit by the earthquake, play among the ruins of a nine-story building. The mud, rats and debris in the yard make it difficult to find a safe place to play, locals say. 

Styopa, an 11-year-old who lives in the neighborhood, says the children often play in the ruins. He recalls how one day a child fell and cut his forehead on the rubble. 

The neighborhood itself looks like an image from the days following the earthquake. An apartment building overshadows a small shelter. A few steps away, a 30-year-old construction site, full of garbage and wires overlooks the yard. 

The children know a trick to walk through the mud and dirt, to reach a swing made from an old iron bed. 

For instance, the children have turned an old springboard into a swing.

The most active and courage is Tatul, a 6th grader, who has lived in the area for seven years. He moved here from a village, where he was able to play freely. In Gyumri, however, he recalls being forced to ride his bicycle in the apartment building foyer because the road outside was in such bad shape. 

Two months ago, Tatul’s brother was born. Now, Tatul worries that the baby will not have a safe place to play, either. 

“The village is quieter, you are free, there it isn’t muddy, it’s clean,” Tatul says.

He adds that there are no broken building stones in the yard there, so it was easy to ride a bicycle. “I would like to clean up the stones from everywhere, to fix everything. I would like to make beautiful playgrounds for my brother. It would be great if there were a normal soccer field so a child could play there”.

Tatul notes that local residents also need to do more to keep the area clean, recalling that he has seen adults throw trash in the street. 

A few steps away, Aida who is the same age as Tatul cleans nuts with her friend Ashot.

She says the children make up lots of games, despite the lack of a real yard. But, Aida agrees with Tatul that the trash is a real problem. ”This place is surrounded by rats. If they clean this garbage, we will be able to live comfortably and play here. There are many rats behind the building.”

This field is too small to play soccer. If the ball goes much further, it will get stuck in a pile of iron scrap.

Despite the lack of a proper soccer field or park, the children find ways to play.

Children in Gyumri make do with what is available, playing soccer in a make-shift field or turning abandoned furniture into a swing.

One elderly resident notes that locals have tried to clean up the trash, but the construction waste is too big and heavy for them to move. Every election, Badal who has grandchildren in the area the politicians promise to build swings for the children. But we are trying to maintain the play equipment that was constructed seven years ago. 

“Don’t you see that our children were playing in the garbage, there isn’t any normal place for them to play. School is their only activity, but after returning from school they are very dirty, because of the mud, eh, we have spoken about it a lot, but they have come and gone (authorities)” notes Gayane, a local resident.

Asya, a young resident of Gyumri, does not think there is anything wrong with her childhood -- she notes there are plenty of children to play with and she says soon the construction waste near her house will be cleared away and they will have a proper park to relax in.

The city still has the traditional amusement park where children and families have played for generations. Even though the children want to go to the amusement park, parents are afraid to let them. For one, the rides  are outdated. In addition, locals fear that state agencies are not doing enough to make sure safety standards are met. 

Laura Papoyan takes her granddaughter to the amusement park, but only allows her to sit on one ride, the carousel. Papoyan notes that some of the rides look so bad, it is clear that they are not safe. 

“These attractions were when I was a student and they are used until now. It will be good to have them repaired,” she notes, as she takes photos of her granddaughter-- the only one on the ride. 

This is the highest and scariest carousel of Gyumri. It inspires fear in part due to the height -- and in part because it often stops mid-ride and the children have to wait at the top until the park’s maintenance crew can get it operating again.

Little Lilit is the only rider for the sailboat ride today. She says she would be happier if there were other children to ride with.

Back in the heyday of the amusement park, during the Soviet Union, the most popular car models were the Moskvich and the Pobeda. Today the children pretend the bumper cars are BMWs and Mercedes Benzs.

Employees at the amusement park remember when the rides were full with happy children.

Lilit Gyunashyan, the head of Alvan Tsakhik, says that parents often ask her for advice about safe play areas for children in the city. The amusement park is not on the list. “As a parent I am afraid of carousels and don’t let my children play on them. We cannot give them good childhood,” notes Dr. Hasmik Petrosyan, the head of Contact Plus, a non-government organization.

Vardges Samsonyan, the head of the Gyumri Municipal Utilities department, is aware of the problem. “Next year we plan to renovate the streets, in partially to clean the garbage, and new playgrounds will also be installed. We are improving the yards, based on the residents’ demands. We also need residents to take care of them,” he says. But he also has his concerns. Samsonyan recalls that when he was growing up, there was no playground in the area and the family did not have a lot of toys. “But we played a lot. We built a basketball court in one of the districts recently; I have gone and there is no one playing there.”

The head of the municipality’s education department, Shoghik Aleksanyan, adds that events are being organized for children, and seven new playgrounds are built in different districts.

During election campaigns, politicians often promise to rebuild this district. But today, locals say there is little to show for their promises.

Armine Gmyur, a psychologist and psychoanalyst who works on children’s issues, lives in Gyumri and knows all the problems that exist in the city, particularly following the earthquake.  

But she notes that the problem runs deeper than just the poor infrastructure. 

“Let’s say we will do everything for children and we do have to do it: build nice playgrounds, carousels. But we can’t go into everyone’s family and say, ‘you know, you have to play with a child, be involved even when the child is still in the womb. From an early age,  both dad and mom have to play with their children.’” she says.

Other experts voice concern over how much time children spend sitting in front of the computer or hunched over a smart phone. 

Gmyur notes that educating parents is important, so they understand how important it is that children learn to play.  “Then the child will play and develop his/her creative mind, even in the ruins, to strive to create an environment of their own. For centuries, people played with nothing more than two stones.”

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