Gyumri, the Armenia I Left

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.

I was born three years after the earthquake, in the city in ruin, in the so-called “Zone of the Catastrophe.”
I was born three years after the earthquake, in the city in ruin, in the so-called “Zone of the Catastrophe.”

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.

Gegham Mughnetsyan

Gegham Mughnetsyan

Gegham Mughnetsyan was born in Gyumri, Armenia, in 1991. He moved to the United States in 2006 and settled in Glendale, Calif., with his family. In May 2013, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in peace and conflict studies. His honors thesis was titled, “The United States’ Foreign Policy toward Nagorno-Karabagh.”
Gegham Mughnetsyan

Latest posts by Gegham Mughnetsyan (see all)


  1. Gegham; Go home. Go back to Gyumri. Figure out how to someday return to the place that is obviously calling you back. I was there this past summer, and life in Gyumri has a completely different rhythm than the USA. People walk from one place to another, and along the way, they stop and talk to one another. Children play on the streets. When you go into the museum, there is such pride in showing tourists the city’s history. And what a history this city has!
    On another, earlier trip, when the tour bus stopped in Gyumri, I wandered around, just looking. Well, I looked for so long that the tour bus left without me. So there I was, in a strange place, an ocean away from home, no cell, and the tour bus had left! I knocked on the nearest door. The woman who answered immediately sent her children to alert others that a tourist was stranded in Gyumri. Soon, the house was filled with chattering people, offering me tea, reassuring me, telling me someone would get to the tour bus, and they would return for me.
    But there is another face to Gyumri too. There are still people living in tin box cars brought in after the earthquake. Our people are still in unacceptable need. It is our responsibility in the Diaspora to not forget Gyumri. One of the things we can do is to vacation in Gyumri , or to at least go there when you go to Yerevan. Here’s a big tourist tip – buy a fresh loaf of bread at the bakery, a big hunk of cheese, and a bottle of tahn. Walk along the streets eating your lunch, and enjoy the welcoming smiles.
    I was astonished to read that you wrote “…full of wisdom, knowing that calamities come and go.”
    In 1920, when my father was in Gyumri, women were outside washing clothes together. Here is the song my father wrote that the women were singing.

    Unhappy days, like winter, come and go,
    There is no need to despair,
    They come in rows, and then they go.

    Thanks for bringing back memories of Gyumri, Gegham. Hope all of Gyumri’s sons and daughters somehow find their way back.

    • Just for your interest you can watch my daughter`s documentery about Gumri you be suprised how much work are doing to make Gumri a better place. Go to and watch her documenatery.

      I myself had the chance to see Gumri few years ago and hopefully this year I will go there to see what has been done so far.

  2. Gegham, I hope you come to realize what a fine writer you are, especially for one who is writing in a non-native language. My father was from Gyumri and always spoke with such bittersweet love for his homeland and the family that he was never able to see again after becoming a displaced person after WWII. He died the year before you were born, but I feel a connection to his love of family and home in your words. I hope you get to go back again to see it and the rest of Armenian, too. Keep writing!

  3. I feel for every single person who was, and still is, affected by the devastating Gyumri and Spitak earthquake disaster. I am neither from Gyumri, nor I was born in Armenia, but I know how it feels when one really cares for a place, and finds that place in ruins. At the moment, the entire Armenia is in ruins, and I carry that scar with me everyday. For as long as Armenia is like a sick child, and I find myself unable to do anything about it, I exactly know how a Gyumretcie feels.


    Ձախորդ օրերը ձմռան նման կուգան ու կերթան,
    Վհատելու չէ, վերջ կունենան, կուգան ու կերթան.
    Դառն ցավերը մարդու վերա չեն մնա երկար,
    Որպես հաճախորդ շարվեշարան կուգան ու կերթան։

    Փորձանք, հալածանք և նեղություն ազգերի գլխից
    Ինչպես ճանապարհի քարավան կուգան ու կերթան,
    Աշխարհը բուրաստան է հատուկ, մարդիկը ծաղիկ,
    Ո~րքան մանուշակ, վարդ բալասան կուգան ու կերթան։

    Ոչ ուժեղը թող պարծենա, ոչ տկարը տխրի,
    Փոփոխակի անցքեր զանազան կուգան ու կերթան,
    Արևը առանց վախենալու ցայտում է լույսը,
    Ամպերը դեպի աղոթարան կուգան ու կերթան։

    Երկիրը ուսյալ զավակին է փայփայում մոր պես,
    Անկիրթ ցեղերը թափառական կուգան ու կերթան.
    Աշխարհը հյուրանոց է, Ջիվան, մարդիկը հյուր են,
    Այսպես է կանոնը բնական, կուգան ու կերթան։


  5. This is an amazing article. I too am from Gyumri and have the same memories of “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.” It we such an amazing place to grow up. I too have not returned for 25 years. I’m afraid of what I might see. What might replace the memories and pictures I carry in my head and heart.

  6. Thank you for the great article Gegham. So simple and so to the point. Unfortunately, for some of us it will be like yesterday. The issue is not resolved yet, despite what the politicians claim. Housing is one of those numerous issues. The use of resources, priorities of the society, corruption are the conditioning and accompanying elements. The change is the only constant thing – as the song goes. But the change that we all found was elsewhere – the world is big.

  7. Karina,
    do you also have the complete poem for the following? Know who wrote it?

    Black, dark clouds piled on my forehead,
    You wore a douman, Alakyaz.
    The sun does not flower in my heart,
    My heart is douman, Alakyaz.
    Aye, fair bird of Mantash,
    My pain that was yours:
    Those bright, thousand feathers of yours,
    Blackened in the night.

  8. My mother escaped to Gyumri in 1917 and worked in the Near East Relief factory in that city. I hope to visit that area next year to retrace her most difficult journey crossing Siberia to Vladivostock. Gyumri was on the escape route and gave her respite before taking the long journey to America.

  9. Great article I just got beck from Spitak I was there for the 25th anniversary of the earthquake I lost my father in the earthquake and I was hospitalized for 7 months . So you know delegation did show up with the wreaths as a obligation and they left as quake as possible so thanks for your article it was right to the point


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.