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Life in the ashes: where now for survivors of the Rostov blaze?

Eight months on from a colossal fire in the centre of this southern Russian city, people affected by the fire are still looking for homes. RU

Over 600 people were left homeless after the fire in Govnyarka, Rostov. Photo: Yury_Ch / VK.com.In August last year, Rostov-on-Don suffered the biggest fire in its history. Over several hours on 21 August, fires turned an entire neighbourhood behind Rostov’s central Theatre Square into ash.

“It was like hell in miniature,” Roman Nevedrov, a journalist with the local Delovoi kvartal magazine told me at the time. “I used to work at an insurance company in the area, so I know it well, and everything I remember there has just gone. The lower part of the district has been completely burned to the ground.” More than 100 homes were burned down in the district (known locally as Govnyarka), and over 200 families were left without their homes.

More than six months have passed, but only 50 families have received housing. And on 31 March, families still living in hotels on the city council’s expense had to leave, despite not having had their housing lined up.

I spoke to several families to find out how they’re living now.

Fire in Govnyarka

The district devastated by the fire is in the very heart of Rostov, leading down from its central Theatre Square to the industrial area and port along the River Don below. It got its nickname of Govnyarka when it housed a utility centre servicing dust carts and sewage trucks there (the name comes from the Russian slang for shit).

The district comprised over 100 one- and two-storey houses and innumerable extensions in various stages of dilapidation. Until recently, the district’s population was a very diverse one, ranging from the educated classes to alcoholics and homeless. Govnyarka lacked the usual city infrastructure, with no proper roads, gas supply or sewage system. Other residents saw it as a rough place and tended to avoid going there.

It took seven helicopters and two aeroplanes to finally put out the 21 August fire. Photo: Henry_Boatman / Instagram.According to witnesses, on 21 August, the fire started at several different locations around midday — and the city fire service arrived too late (one or two hours after it started). One person died in the fire, and 600 people were evacuated. More than 1,000 firefighters fought the flames for 24 hours as part of the city’s emergency situation.

Everyone who suffered in the fire says that it was arson. Prior to the tragedy, representatives of a property development firm approached local residents, offering to buy their houses at low prices. These offers were accompanied by threats. According to locals, these people refused to name the firm they worked for and hinted that there could be a fire.

“That slum should’ve been cleared long ago anyway” and comments in a similar vein filled social networks during the fire. Here are three examples from vKontakte. Photo: VK.com. Some rights reserved.After the fire, an investigation was opened into “intentional destruction or damage of property”. At the start of January 2018, RIA Novosti reported from an inside source that city police hadn’t found any evidence of arson, although the investigation continues.

First months

Rostov’s city authorities recognised 692 people (218 families) as having suffered from the fire. The majority of people moved in with their families or friends afterwards, some rented. Roughly 100 people lived in city schools for a week after the fire, before moving into the Star and Western hotels, the Don State Technical University’s sanatorium and council apartments on Rostov’s northern edge, on the city’s request.

Most opted for the hotels, and people moved in at the end of August. The city authorities stated they could live there for six months — this is what Russia’s Federal Law No. 439 on emergency situations states. And in December 2017, the head of the Don Legislative Assembly promised that people would be able to stay in the hotels until they bought new apartments.

Irina Minayeva. (c) Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved.The authorities helped to restore identity and other related documents, as well as offering compensation at 160,000 roubles (paid for out of the federal budget). Locals and residents of other cities donated clothes and other necessary items.

“Everything was burned down right when we had such grandiose plans for our home,” Irina Minayeva tells me. “We’d built a porch, we were going to cover our house in brick, and install gas. We left for work and then it turned out there was nowhere to go home to.”

“How have we been living in the hotel? There’s nothing of our own here. It’s good they fed us. [...] It was inconvenient that we had to travel by bus three times a day who knows where. Some of us work, and they don’t always make it on time.”

Valentina Cherkasova. (c) Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved.Twenty people lived at the university’s sanatorium, where students go for treatment. Conditions might not have been great here, but most people weren’t worried about that — they wanted to know how much the city was going to contribute towards their new apartments.

“We had a bed, some nice people gave me clothes. The food was okay. We weren’t allowed to cook ourselves. Everything was shared — fridge, microwave, iron,” Valentina Cherkasova tells me. “After a while we found out that we were going to get 46,800 roubles [£539] per square metre. What can you buy on this money? Even if we found something, some tiny place, then we wouldn’t have the money to make it liveable. We’d move in and have to sleep on the floor.”

A survivor speaks in the comments under an article on Meduza.io. “I’m standing among the ruins, my house has burnt. And while we were living like animals in the very centre of town with no proper support from you, you guys were wondering what fancy new coffee shop to open near the theatre.” Photo: VK.com. Some rights reserved.According to Rostov city norms, one person is supposed to be allocated 33 square metres, a two person family - 42 sq. m., and above that, each person gets an additional 18 sq.m. In this scheme, a person living alone is supposed to receive roughly 500,000 roubles (£5,700). This in a city where, according to a local real estate agents, the average price of a one-room flat is 2.3m roubles (£26,000)  — and in the centre, four million roubles (£46,000). There are flats for 1.5m roubles (£17,000) on the edge of town, albeit without much in the way of modcons. The regional and federal budgets allocated 390m roubles (£450,000) for families afflicted by the fire in total.

Conflict with officials

This situation doesn’t suit the families. Many people wanted to rebuild their homes themselves, using the compensation payments towards new apartments, but the city authorities refused. They claimed that the homes cannot be rebuilt, and that there’s no plans to build residential buildings in Govnyarka.

People wrote letters of complaint and petitions, begging public officials to allow them to return to their neighbourhood rather than have to move to another district. On several occasions during autumn and winter, city and regional officials met with afflicted people. In December 2017, for instance, people wept and shouted as they demanded either real compensation for new homes at market prices or money to rebuilt their old homes.

Vasily Golubev, Rostov regional governor. Source: Kremlin.ru.“By law, state organs do not have the power to compensate anything,” said Vasily Golubev, Rostov regional governor, at one of these meetings. “We can only offer social aid, if you do not have homes. The state doesn’t bear responsibility for fires, that’s the responsibility of the owners, whether you like it or not.”

The state couldn’t start making compensation payments for new apartments until the regional government passed new legislation. Thus, in September, officials put forward a new law, as well as a statement by the regional administration, to address the Govnyarka families’ needs. It was passed three months later, in December 2017.

Families put a lot of hope in Ksenia Sobchak, a candidate in the March 2018 Russian presidential elections. Before the law was passed, Sobchak visited the city to open her first regional campaign office at the end of November. She promised to get her legal team involved in helping Govnyarka families, but nothing happened — it seems her promises were part of her election campaign.

Fighting the system

The process of receiving new homes has begun, but rather slowly, given that more than six months have now passed since the fire. According to city officials, the authorities have received 182 applications for housing certificates, which are, in effect, subsidies for new apartments. So far, they’ve examined 159 applications, and 50 families have received new apartments, and 90 are looking for homes.

Tatyana Lanbekova. (c) Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved. None of the families living in the hotels have received housing. In mid-March, the city stopped transporting them to the local canteen — as the hotel explained, officials had stopped paying for that service. And on 26 March, residents received notice that they were being evicted from the Star hotel due to non-payment. Most of them had received housing certificates, but were yet to find apartments to sign contracts with developers.

“I only received my certificate two weeks ago, although I applied a while ago,” says Tatyana Lanbekova. “How can you find housing in two weeks? Even if I had found it, signed the contract with the developer, got all the necessary documents, the officials will only transfer the money within 30 days! I’ve got nowhere to go. I have a family, but my sister and her family live in a one-room apartment, there’s no room. They said I could sleep in a bunk-bed with my grandson. At my age! Sure, a day or two, but longer?” Lanbekova complains that it’s expensive for her to rent: her pension is 11,000 roubles (£127) a month.

People living in the hotel have written to city, including Rostov’s city manager Vitaly Kushnarev, and regional officials, asking for their stay at the hotel to be extended until 1 June. After all, upon receiving a housing certificate, the law allows three month for finding a home.

Viktor Pampura. (c) Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved. “I tried for half a year to prove that I’m not a camel,” Viktor Pampura tells me. “My parents and my brother lived in a detached house, and I lived next door. I got the house very cheap, but I was registered at my parents. For six months I went round the courts with my documents, trying to show that I’m the owner. They wanted to give us a subsidy for four people: so the four of us would be forced to live in a single apartment. [...] We’ll be living like homeless people. We’ll bring our suitcases to the city administration, stand next to the entrance.” The amount that officials are prepared to pay doesn’t suit the Pampura family: Viktor doesn’t want a mortgage, he has two kids; but there’s no choice, and you can only buy an apartment on the edge of town with the money at stake.

In the end, people were evicted from both hotels and the sanatorium. There’s nowhere for them to live: some are forced to move in with friends or relatives, some found cheap places to rent. The Pampura family, for instance, have moved into a one-room apartment next to Govnyarka. True, it lacks utilities: they cook on a electric hob, take water from a well one street over and have to sleep on fold-out beds donated to them. But it’s cheap, and they’re saving money to renovate their new home.

Plans for the future

In cases where homes have been destroyed, the city plans to buy Govnyarka residents’ land at market value in the future. But this could, according to Vitaly Kushnarev, take more than a year.

As RBC reported, Govnyarka residents are afraid that the price they receive for their land is going to be reduced, and are now organising themselves into a legal entity — a civic unit of self-governance (known by its Russian acronym TOS). They said this is how they’ll defend their interests.

View from Rostov's Star hotel. (c) Evgeny Kosivtsov. All rights reserved. “The theatre district has become a tasty morsel for the local authorities, who can take our land without heavy losses and then build new elite homes there,” says Mikhail Shuvlenov, TOS chairman. “We need to defend our interests, this is why we’re creating a TOS — they’ll break us individually. It’ll be harder for the local authorities to fight us if we come together.”

Another detail from RBC’s investigation is that the funds for helping Govnyarka families with food and shelter in the city hotels is coming from a fund for developing the social and cultural character of the city. It was this fund that collected money to help Govnyarka residents. They collected more than 14m roubles, and 3m was spent on people’s immediate needs. In December 2017, there was still 10.5m roubles on the account — but this contradicts statements on the Ministry of Justice’s website, where it says that the fund has spent the remaining 10m roubles (though it is unclear on what). When asked, the fund’s director couldn’t say how much money remained and what it had been spent on.  

It’s unclear what the future holds for Govnyarka. Rostov’s administration is looking at several projects: it could be a new shopping centre, a hotel, a pedestrian walkway connecting Theatre Square and the river, a new highway, school, kindergarten or cathedral — but no new homes. But even if they decide what’s going to be there, it won’t be there before the Football World Cup comes to Rostov in mid-June. Theatre Square will be turned into a fan zone with big screens, parking and a food court. Right next to the ashes of Govnyarka.

 


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