Devastated Russian village pins hopes on Putin's words

4th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Villagers in Verkhnyaya Vereya lost everything in the forest fires ravaging Russia, but a visit by strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin left them hoping for a swift change in their fortunes.

Putin visited the village last Friday to inspect the damage, and was confronted by a rare display of anger at the government's slow response to the disaster.

A video of the heckling was posted on the Internet, and the total destruction of Verkhnyaya Vereya, located in the Nizhny Novgorod region around 500 kilometres (300 miles) east of Moscow, has become a symbol of the disaster.

Officials say 11 people died in the village, but residents say the toll was higher.

Putin responded to the criticism by promising villagers that all their homes would be rebuilt by November, before the arrival of the cold Russian winter.

On Tuesday, the prime minister said that he would personally oversee all reconstruction work in the country, using cameras to be installed on building sites.

Gathering outside the government office in neighbouring Vilya to hear news of the reconstruction Wednesday, with smoke from the fires still hanging heavy in the air, villagers described how quickly Putin's words were being turned into action.

"They are already preparing the building works for the reconstruction", said Lyuba Shumilina, who is staying with friends until her home is rebuilt.

"It's Putin who said it, and when he says something, he does it," she said.

Mikhail, who is unemployed and being sheltered in a children's holiday camp, was confident that Putin's November deadline would be met.

"The decision was made by Putin, and I believe him," said Mikhail, who would not give his family name.

"After Putin's visit, people came here to prepare operations and clearance work will begin tomorrow," he said.

Arman Arsoyan, who works in the timber industry, shared the confident mood.

"Putin said destroyed houses would be rebuilt, and they will be," he said.

"Everything will be ready by October 25, I heard it on television. And it will be better than it was before."

According to Shumilina, improvements had been planned in the village before the fires swept through, but the fire -- and the visit by Putin -- means the timetable has been brought forward.

"The new house will have gas and a sewage system, which it didn't have before. These facilities were already planned, but after what has happened and with the reconstruction, we will get it sooner," she said.

But others remained more circumspect.

"I want to believe it," said Galina Astrakhantseva, who is staying in the housing of the metal works where her husband works. "But for the moment, I don't know anything more."

The week-long crisis showed no sign of abating Wednesday as the heatwave affecting swathes of the country lingered.

The Russian emergencies ministry said hundreds of new fires had started over the past day and more bodies were found, raising the death toll to 48.

© 2010 AFP

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