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Armenia Portraits of Survival and Hope

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Massive Destruction The 1988 Earthquake


On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m., a devastating earthquake struck northwestern Armenia. Registering 6.9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake lasted forty seconds and was followed four minutes later by a 5.8 magnitude aftershock and swarms of smaller quakes, some as strong as 5.0. Four cities and fifty-eight villages were affected in an area with a diameter of eighty kilometers. At least 25,000 people were killed (this is the Soviet figure), and estimates run as high as 100,000. Many thousands were injured, and at least 500,000 were left homeless. Direct economic loss was estimated at $14.2 billion, and 40 percent of Armenia's industrial capacity was destroyed, affecting the economic livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. It was the worst earthquake to hit the region since 1046, although other major earthquakes had been recorded in 1899 and 1940 within one hundred kilometers of the epicenter of the 1988 quake.

earthquake debris outside of spitakSpitak was the city hardest hit. More than 5,000 buildings were destroyed, including 30 five-story commercial structures in the center of the town. Many of these buildings flattened like pancakes, killing nearly every person inside. In this town of approximately 25,000 people, about 20 percent of the population was killed. In School Number 1, 14 teachers and 53 pupils were killed. In the village of Shirakamut, nothing remained standing, and 112 children and teachers were killed in the middle school. The survival of those who were not killed on impact but were trapped in the rubble was threatened by temperatures that dipped to 20°F at night. Several days passed before international rescue teams with dogs and temperature-sensitive devices arrived. Unfortunately, nearly all of the hospitals were destroyed, and 80 percent of local medical professionals lost their lives in the quake. When rescue equipment finally arrived, the communications infrastructure was virtually nonexistent, fuel was scarce, and the sheer size of the disaster made coordination difficult. A week after the quake, 19,000 people, among them 5,400 survivors, had been extracted from the debris.

The first rescuers to arrive were residents from nearby Yerevan, and shortly thereafter teams arrived from several Soviet republics. For the first time since 1923, the Soviet Union invited the help of international relief organizations, and the relief effort was later referred to as the "fall of the humanitarian wall" in the former Soviet Union. The outpouring of foreign assistance was remarkable. Almost immediately, France sent 22 doctors and 21 dogs, and Switzerland sent 37 well-equipped rescue and medical personnel. Red Cross groups from around the world sent tents, stretchers, medicine, kitchen utensils, and other supplies. By early January, the United Nations estimated that help had come from 111 countries; 7 international organizations; 53 national chapters of the Red Cross; 3,600 foreign specialists; 1,500 rescuers and firefighters from 15 countries; 230 physicians, surgeons, psychiatrists, and psychologists from 12 countries; and 22 rescue teams from 21 countries. Individuals, organizations, and national governments had pledged $113 million in aid, excluding in-kind aid such as search-and-rescue teams, and there had been 1,400 relief flights, 335 of them from abroad. By January 2, the number of people extracted from the ruins had grown to 40,000. Estimates a month after the quake described Spitak as nearly totally destroyed; the cultural center of Armenia, Gyumri (then Leninakan), as 80 percent destroyed or damaged; and the industrial town of Vanadsor (then Kirovakan) as 50 percent destroyed or damaged. In Spitak and Gyumri, 105 of the 131 schools were unusable.

Journalists and rescue team workers told heart-rending stories. A team from the United States discovered a sixty-year-old woman who was pinned at the knees by heavy concrete and rubble. Sandwiched against her were a dead infant and a young girl. In order to extract the grandmother, rescuers first had to amputate the leg of her deceased granddaughter. This was not an unusual occurrence; cranes and heavy equipment did not arrive in large numbers until December 17, ten days after the quake, and consequently extreme measures had to be taken to free people from the debris.

An Ameri-Cares worker described the soccer field in Spitak. Coffins filled the stadium seats, waiting for someone to claim the victims. He said that a yellow car arrived bearing four men who silently got out, went to the grandstand that was lined with thousands of coffins, lifted lid after lid, and finally knelt in front of a small coffin, bowed their heads, and then carried the box to their car. Other observers said that coffins were stacked up on street corners, eventually to be carried away by family members who tied them to the roofs of their cars. A shortage of caskets meant that some people were buried without one. When whole families had been killed, sometimes no one was left to bury them.

Rescuers often felt helpless. Multistory buildings listed at 10 to 20 degrees, and they were simply too dangerous to enter, especially with the aftershocks that kept coming. Some buildings had completely collapsed, and there was no way to enter them. Many were prefabricated buildings, and the engineering was woefully substandard for earthquake territory. Floors were inadequately connected to vertical beams, so when the earth shook, one floor collapsed on top of another, killing everyone in between.


girl in front of her school in spitak



Five years after the earthquake, we took our research team to Spitak, and later to Gyumri, to interview survivors about their experiences. We had been to Spitak previously, two years after the earthquake, and remembered driving several kilometers, passing a cemetery filled with burial stones bearing photographic likenesses of children and loved ones who had died. These stone markers brought home the reality of the tens of thousands of people who had been struck down in the prime of life. We particularly remembered etched images of children carrying school bags, and one of a little girl holding a handful of flowers. Every one of these stone monuments represented a void in the life of someone still living, and so we wondered what we would encounter in 1993. Had the wounds healed? Were people getting on with their lives? It did not take long for these questions to be answered.

Twelve of us had crowded into the minivan to make the two-hour drive to Spitak from Yerevan. As we dropped off members of our research team at various locations to interview survivors of the earthquake, we looked for a restaurant where the team could have dinner. The options were limited. Much of the downtown area was still in ruins. The first place we approached had no bread, although the owners graciously offered us a glass of bottled soda. We succeeded, however, on our second attempt. The house specialty was khengali, a meat pastry baked in broth, and the owner had a wood stove where he could cook if there was no electrical power. While negotiating the price of our meals, we asked if we could hire some local musicians for the evening. Our research team had been working hard for several months, and we thought that this might be a moment to celebrate. We felt embarrassed, however, when Tavit, the owner, told us that in Spitak there had been no live entertainment since the earthquake. Although five years had passed, people were obviously still mourning.

That evening, as the research team gravestone in spitakgathered for dinner, the electricity was indeed off. We sat by candlelight at a long table filled with locally grown herbs, bread, cheese, Armenian brandy, and, as the meal unfolded, the promised khengali. In spite of the somber interviews of the daylight hours, the mood was celebratory. Our son Shont was along on this trip, and it was his twentieth birthday, so he was the recipient of many toasts. In the midst of dinner, suddenly the lights flickered on. Everyone cheered! And, to our surprise, Tavit started playing an Armenian tape on a small stereo. Spontaneously our research team, all graduate students in their middle to late twenties, began to dance. Even Shont was dragged to his feet by one of the women. And then all eyes turned to Tavit. In the corner of the room he was dancing, his tall, lanky frame lithely revealing something we had not known: before the earthquake Tavit had been a dance instructor. As we left the restaurant sometime after midnight, one of the waiters whispered to us that this was the first time he had seen Tavit dance in five years, since his wife had died in the earthquake, leaving him with two small children to raise.


Reconstruction and Rehabilitation

In addition to delivering aid immediately after the earthquake, many countries and organizations made commitments to assist with reconstruction. In Spitak, for example, the Norwegians constructed a hospital. The Russians built 133 homes; the Uzbeks, 124; the Estonians, 80; the Norwegians, 23; and the Swiss and Armenians together, 260. In addition, several countries helped provide long-term rehabilitation for people with limb amputations, paralysis, and spinal cord injuries, including care of survivors who were brought to the United States. Psychological support was provided for people suffering from post-trauma stress, and many outsiders, including diaspora Armenians trained in this area, helped children, in particular, to deal with their anxieties.

A high percentage of children suffered from sleep disturbances, separation anxiety, nightmares, regressive behavior, withdrawal, and general expressions of distrust, pessimism, and hopelessness. Children not only lost parents, relatives, and playmates, but they also witnessed horrific scenes of people trapped under rubble. They were frightened by aftershocks, which sometimes were accompanied by strange underground rumbling sounds. Many children, as well as adults, were afraid to enter multistory structures after the quake. Moreover, normal patterns of everyday life had collapsed. Schools were destroyed, so children were left with little to do. And some observers said that post-trauma stress was exacerbated by the tendency of Armenian culture to emphasize silent heroic suffering and the denial of pain and weakness. Survivors were reluctant to tell children the truth about losses incurred by the extended family.

girl playing in earthquake ruins in spitakUnfortunately, most reconstruction ground to a halt after 1990. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian workers went home. Furthermore, the blockade of Armenia by Turkey and Azerbaijan made it nearly impossible to bring building materials into the country. When we visited Gyumri in 1993, a town of about 200,000 people, we saw half-completed construction projects everywhere. Rusted cranes pointed skyward. The clock in the town square was still stopped at exactly 11:41. It was a depressing sight, because obviously there had been substantial goodwill in the aftermath of the earthquake. Yet it seemed that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and the corresponding blockade had nullified these intentions. For example, ten years after the earthquake, 17,500 people in Gyumri were still living in temporary housing. Industry was working at only 20 to 30 percent of its former capacity. Furthermore, Gyumri was forced to absorb 30,000 Armenian refugees who had fled the pogroms in Baku and Sumgait. In Nalband, 250 of the 300 homes being constructed were not completed by the Russians. Spitak was more fortunate. Of the 5,100 buildings that were destroyed, 1,400 had been reconstructed. But this still left many people living in primitive housing.

We visited some of the shipping containers and domigs (pipelike houses) that people were living in after the quake. Never intended as permanent homes, they were small and cramped, lacked decent insulation, and were subject to leaks. However, individuals were afraid to reconstruct homes out of stone, because without proper steel reinforcement, even one-story houses could not stand up to another quake. We saw the ruins of hundreds of such homes—mere rock piles, often with a few roof timbers sticking up at random angles. Ironically, some of the structures still standing were the oldest buildings, constructed prior to the Soviet era. Corruption played some role in the failure of the modern buildings, as contractors cheated on the amount of cement that went into the concrete as well as on the extent of steel reinforcement. The more fundamental problem, however, was inadequate engineering, with brittle or nearly nonexistent fasteners linking floors to upright beams.


The Day of the Earthquake

The events of December 7, 1988, were riveted in the minds of everyone we interviewed. People described what they were doing immediately prior to the quake: making tea, working in a factory, teaching children in school.

Some people first thought they were being shelled by Azerbaijan. A woman from Gyumri said, "Ninety percent of the teachers in the school felt that this was bombing, shelling by the Turks, because the relations between Azeris and Armenians weren't good at all during those days." This perception was compounded by the fact that some of the wives of soldiers serving in the army did not come to school that day, she said, "thinking that there would be a conflict between Azeris and Armenians." Another person said, "All the military with their families left the area. Those who remained stayed in tents rather than in buildings. So it seems like they knew that it was coming." Describing the sound of the earthquake, an individual from Gyumri said, "It was such a powerful noise, we thought it was a bomb explosion, and we felt sure the enemy, the Turks, were on us." However, as soon as they felt the earth rolling and, if they were inside, felt structures continue to shake, most people realized that it was an earthquake.

The typical response was to bolt for a door and try to get outside. In the process, some people fell down because the shaking was so violent. One person thought he was feeling unstable and sick from having drunk too much the night before; others experienced a wave of nausea.

A teacher said that she quickly ushered her students through a doorway, but when she got to the stairs, the stairwell had collapsed, killing some of the children below. She and her students were able to escape through a broken window. A teacher in Gyumri, which was not hit as hard as Spitak, said, "The children ran for me, instead of running out. So I directed them outside, and we all ran out." Then, she said, "They just took off, ran away." Parents, of course, rushed to the schools to try to find their children, but some of the children had run home to find their parents, so there were anxious moments before they were reunited. Some children arrived home to see their houses in ruins, encountering family members who were trapped or dead. Several children from a school in Gyumri who had stayed home sick that day were killed, whereas there were no casualties at the school itself.

An older woman said that she had been visiting a boarding school in Gyumri on the day of the earthquake. They had just finished meeting with the principal when the shaking started. "We realized it was an earthquake. Right away all of us tried to get all the children out of that building. Thank God the building did not fall down. So we were able to save some three hundred children." They were calming the children outside when the second tremor hit, and a nine-story building across the street came tumbling down. "What a sight!" she said. "I can describe it as though it were hell. People just collapsing under the ruins, and people screaming. Families getting caught under those ruins. It was terrible. . . . You could see death everywhere. People were running and screaming, looking for their loved ones." After the children were sent home, a woman came to the school authorities and said that one of these children went home only to discover that all of his family had died.

boys in homemade car outside outside of <i>domigs</i> near gyumriSome people tried to take cover within buildings rather than rush out, but the violent shaking sometimes made this impossible. For example, a woman who was upstairs in her house when the quake hit said that she went underneath a table, but seeing that the walls were falling, she felt that she would be better off if she made a run for it. As soon as she got outside she looked across the street, where a large building had housed a printing press, and saw the building was leveled. She then went to a nearby town where her daughter and daughter-in-law lived. Both of their houses were in ruins. "It took three days before they got my daughter out—her body that is—and seven days before they got my daughter-in-law out." She had a lingering memory of her daughter's arm sticking out of the rubble. "I recognized her arm. I knew that she was gone, and my son was with me, and he said, 'Mom, let's go home. Let's go home.'"

When asked about her house, she said that she and her relatives were able to salvage some furniture, which was more than many people could do. They were able to get out some food, too. Then, she said, "I went to my daughter-in-law's and salvaged clothing, as much as we could. We did it real fast, because it wasn't safe." At night they stayed outside because of the threat of further quakes. "So we lit a fire, stayed outside in the street. We had the beds, and we had quilts, and we covered ourselves." When asked what her grandchildren remember about the earthquake, she said that one grandson had vivid recollections.

My daughter's son, he was in kindergarten and when the earthquake took place they were told to run out, and they did, to the outside. They got out of the building, but thank God the building didn't fall down. They were safe outside in the yard, and my grandson remembers very well. He waited and waited. Mom had taken him to kindergarten, and mom had to come and pick him up. But there was no mom. Finally a neighbor came and picked him up and took him to my sister's house, and that's where he realized that mom was gone. That mom wasn't going to come. He realized that mom was dead, and he cried and he wanted his mom.
At this point the grandmother broke down. Tears came to her eyes. When our interviewer asked her whether she could find any comfort now, she replied, "Maybe from my kids. I don't know." She also said that she turned to God after the earthquake, saying, "I don't know how. It just so happens that I believe in God now." Not trying to make a rational argument, but just reporting her observations, she said, "Before the quake there weren't that many believers, but after the quake many came to believe in God."

Although aftershocks continued, people immediately set about the task of recovering loved ones, getting them to the hospital or medical care, burying the dead, and salvaging whatever they could from the ruins. A mother said that their son was trapped on the fifth floor of a nine-story apartment building, and she could hear him shouting for help. Her husband and their thirteen-year-old son dug with their bare hands until they got to the child and rescued him, but, unfortunately, the husband fell two stories to his death while escaping the damaged building. Another woman described how her husband was buried under books and collapsed walls in a hallway. Rescuers decided that it would be best to tunnel underground to reach him, and so friends rallied together, dug a tunnel, and got him out. Another survivor recalled individuals frantically working into the night. "I remember people were saving a four-year-old boy with the headlights of a truck at night, and my son and I saw it, and he came out alive from under the ruins." Describing the rescue efforts, one person said, "It was primitive. All done by hands and by home tools. [There was] nothing big, no huge machinery to save the injured."

When heavy machinery did arrive, the tractors and cranes made so much noise that they were often shut down so that people could listen for signs of life and calls for help. Unfortunately, many injured individuals did not survive the rescue attempt.

My oldest daughter was in her own house with her two-and-one-half-year-old child. They were both killed. My sons were able to go and unearth them. It was awful to see them dead. My daughter's eyes were kind of. . . . they had an expression of shock. Her chest was smashed, but the rest of her body was okay. My grandchild was killed. It was awful to unearth them and see them in that condition. It was heartbreaking. We had to see them in that condition, and we had to bury them.
Sometimes people took the initiative to save themselves rather than wait for help. A particularly poignant example is of a woman who used shattered glass within reach to cut off her own arm in order to free herself. In contrast, a woman left hanging upside down by her legs ended up losing her life, because people hesitated to cut off her legs in order to liberate her, even though she begged them to. The reluctance to amputate limbs with crude implements may have led to other deaths as well. As one person said, "I remember a man was caught under the rubble, and part of his body was out and part was under, and they tried so hard to get him, even thinking of cutting limbs to save him, but this didn't work and he died."

Injured and trapped people were sometimes ignored, simply because everyone was caught up in their own attempts to survive or rescue family members. One woman confessed, "I remember just running by dead people, not paying any attention, jumping over them just so I could go and find my sons." Rescuers from nearby Yerevan sometimes could not be very helpful because, not having realized the magnitude of the disaster, they failed to bring equipment to extricate people from rubble and were not prepared to stay through the cold nights. Furthermore, many interviewees reported that people were in a dazed state, suffering from shock, and could not work efficiently in the early hours of the rescue operation. In fact, quite a few people said that rescue attempts seemed chaotic and disorganized. One person complained that there was sometimes a language barrier. "English people came and people from Poland and Ukraine. They worked very hard. The sad thing was that there was no one to translate what they were saying. So they had to work with their dogs. Their dogs would be the ones to identify if there were people alive under the ruins."

Medical personnel had no option but to triage the injured. A woman who had broken bones in her arms but was in stable condition said, "You see, they were taking care of the worst victims. They were paying more attention to the worst hurt, taking them first, and so on down the line." Only a little time could be given to each patient; consequently, this woman ended up with casts that resulted in crooked arms that still hurt. In retrospect, however, she forgave the doctors because of the stress they were under. "In the hospital, when I was there, constantly victims were being brought. With legs missing, arms broken. It was just awful. Victim after victim. There were lots of doctors, both Armenian and Russian, helping the victims." As soon as possible, the injured were taken to Yerevan and then to Moscow; some were taken to specialty hospitals in Europe and the United States.

abandoned construction site in gyumriAt the same time, as is true in any calamity, opportunists exploited the situation. More than one person mentioned looting that occurred and the theft of people's valuables, including jewelry, from the rubble of their homes. The most flagrant example of preying on misfortune was offered by a citizen of Gyumri. With the aid of a Russian soldier, a man had unearthed his wife from the ruins. The Russian soldier saw another man come and fall on her, crying, "My dear wife," and so on, while simultaneously trying to loosen her jewelry. "The Russian realized that this guy was stealing, and he realized that it wasn't the right husband and killed him on the spot. . . . This guy looting a dead woman and pretending she is his wife. It was awful." This same person reported equally disturbing events: "Other cases happened where people buried women who had jewelry before their loved ones arrived to identify them. When the loved ones came, they couldn't find them; they had already been buried. But the people who had buried them did that so they could steal their jewelry and it wouldn't be found out."

Such reactions were deviant, however. More prevalent in our interviews was the emphasis on people's grief, felt at the time of the earthquake and afterward. A mother reportedly died on the spot, perhaps from heart failure, when rescuers excavating a location found one of her children alive and the other one dead. Reactions to the trauma were often delayed, however, as indicated by one woman's reflections on her father's death.

He was not injured, but emotionally, spiritually, he was so affected by the earthquake that it took its toll on him, and he died because he was an eyewitness to the deaths of many students where he worked. The school was destroyed, and many children lost their lives. This was too much for my father, even though none of us, brothers or sisters or my mother, were killed. But he saw too much tragedy, too much death where he worked, and it just killed him very shortly after the earthquake.
And then there were people who did not die but wished they had. A woman from Gyumri said, "One time I met this blind lady, and she was crying, actually wailing. I felt so sorry for her. I asked her, 'What's wrong?' and she said that her husband and her son and her daughter-in-law were all killed in the earthquake, and she was left all alone. She was wailing, and she was singing as she was crying. It was strange." This person said, "I talked to her several times. I asked again and again, 'How can I help you?' And she said, 'All I need, all I want, is death. I don't want to live. God left me here to grieve.' It was pathetic." This same person said she talked to another woman immediately after the earthquake. "She said she had lost all her family, and she was the sole survivor. She had lost her children, grandchildren. It was awful. And her wealth, as well. She said, now she had nothing, just her body, just herself."

And, of course, there were the losses experienced by children. A grandmother described an orphan girl who ran up to her one day and said, "You know what? I saw my mom! I saw my mom!" This woman said she felt so sorry for this little girl because she then said, "I saw my mom. She was driving by, but she did not look at me." Such fantasies were the direct result of uncompensated emotional loss.


One Person's Account

Abstracting elements from interviewees' stories is useful, but it fails to describe the day-by-bay struggle to live and find meaning that marked the experience of survivors. The following account of a woman from Gyumri portrays the pattern of life before the earthquake in contrast to what it was like afterward.

You see, Armenouhy was home with me, and I was ironing. Then we had to go shopping, so she came with me. We went shopping, and I got a few things, and I said, "Armenouhy, why don't you go home, and I'll get the rest, and then I'll come back?" She kept saying no. Finally I convinced her, and she went home. While I was doing the rest of the shopping, I realized that I had the key and had forgotten to give it to her. I thought, "Oh no! What's going to happen?" Anyway, while I was still in the store, the earthquake hit. The shaking was so powerful, the ground under our feet was moving back and forth, and all of us were just confused. I did not know what was happening. I thought it was my head. I was getting dizzy.

Then I ran out of the store, and the first thing I could think of was my son Hovannes in school. So I wildly ran to find out where he was. His school was not so far. So I ran to the school, and I saw the teacher, and the teacher said, "You know, Hovannes is okay. I sent him home."

So I started going toward our home, and sure enough, I found my son. We hugged. I was so happy to see him alive. He said, "Mom, sister Vartouhy's house is all destroyed. It is in ruins." We ran there, and sure enough, the five-story house was all in ruins. My daughter was crushed under the rubble. She was pregnant, expecting her first child. I knew she was gone in a matter of minutes. My brother came and helped move the ruins, the rocks, and we found our daughter dead. Then I ran to our home, and that was gone. All five floors were ruined. Now my concern was Armenouhy. I looked for Armenouhy. I did not find her.

Armenouhy was under the rubble of their house. For the next five days, while people tried to remove the stones, this mother said that she just sat there and cried, saying, "She is alive. She is alive. Please get her out of the ruins." In the meantime, a Swedish rescue team came with their dogs and a heat-sensing device and determined that her daughter was, indeed, still alive.

"Yes," they said. "There is life in here." They had machines, and they were able to cut it open. Sure enough, I saw the curly hair of my daughter, and she was alive. I was so happy, but they would not let us touch her. They were able to get one arm out. The other arm they could not. They gave her intravenous feeding. They gave her water. I watched that. There was one broken leg. It took them three to four hours to free her from the ruins. When they brought her out from the ruins, they closed her eyes, and they would not let us touch her. They said, "She has to go to the hospital."
<i>domigs</i> serving as temporary housing near gyumriArmenouhy was taken to Yerevan, and after two months in a hospital, she was sent to the United States for treatment. The other daughter was buried immediately and without a casket, because wood was scarce due to the number of people who had died. "It was awful to see her buried without a casket. To this day I cry, because I know that she did not get a good burial. Time and again I have asked that we take her body and give her a decent burial by her in-laws. It is awful, just awful, to lose your child in the earthquake." Later in the interview she summed up the effects of the earthquake on their family situation: "We lost our salary, we lost our home, we lost our lives, and now we are left with one handicapped child."

Her husband was hospitalized because of his "nerves," and Armenouhy lives a difficult life. Her mother said, "Yes, they had to amputate one leg, and she cannot hear well. She is a very nervous girl. She used to be very athletic and very active, but now she is very frustrated and often very nervous." In part, her nervousness is obviously a product of the social situation in which she now lives. Her mother recalled the change that occurred after she returned from the United States.

I remember in Yerevan, when she was in the hospital, she would just stare at us and not talk. Her gaze was very severe and unusual, and she was one of the most severely injured cases. So they took her on the plane. She was practically paralyzed, and she stayed five months in the United States. She really revived. When she came back, she was on her feet. We were so surprised to see her on her feet. So well dressed. She brought flowers for me, and she really had a good time there. Any time that she is bored or does not know what to do, she gets all her pictures out that she took in the United States. She will say, "This is my friend and this is my friend." These are the people she enjoyed. She made friends over there. She was well taken care of, well treated medically, and it was a very good experience for her there.
When our interviewer tried to console this mother by suggesting that perhaps Armenouhy might eventually get married, and her life would turn around, the response was pragmatic: "She can't get married, because how can she take care of her baby if she is missing a leg and an arm and cannot hear?" With a spirit of both determination and resignation, she then said, "I take care of her now, and I will take care of her until I die." But she also wondered, understandably, who would take care of her daughter after she died, saying, "I wish she would die the same time I die."


Aid from Abroad

The immediate emotional shock from losing loved ones is traumatic, but whereas after most personal calamities there is a job to return to and a stable network of institutions and friends, an earthquake of this magnitude disrupts all aspects of daily life. In addition to losing children, spouses, relatives, and friends, many people lost the contents of their homes. They did not even have utensils to eat with, let alone clothing or personal effects. We heard some comments on the general appearance of people in the aftermath of the earthquake: men were unshaven, and most people walked around in dirty and often tattered clothing. Furthermore, jobs evaporated, all forms of entertainment were instantly liquidated, and churches were destroyed. In short, living patterns were shattered, and with them the meaning and personal satisfaction they imparted. After a crisis of this magnitude, physical intervention is important for immediate survival, but reconstruction of social structures—community, employment, education—is equally important.

As already noted, aid came from all over the world. Those we interviewed were grateful for this assistance, but they also offered qualifications. For one thing, many people questioned whether the gifts actually reached victims, or whether various intermediaries, including the government, siphoned off aid for their personal benefit. This statement is typical: "It is unfortunate, but it is true. A lot of clothing came from overseas, and those who didn't need it snatched it away. It was sad. Yes, it did not get to its destination in many cases. Man is greedy, and it was obvious even then." People also mentioned that aid may have been delivered to other victims, but they themselves did not receive it. For example, a teacher said, "I heard that a lot of pens and pencils were sent. Loads of them. But I'm a teacher, and I had a lot of students, and we never got any. I feel very strongly that our officials took what was sent. They used it for their own profit."

On the other hand, a lot of aid obviously did reach victims of the earthquake. Several people mentioned that they refused it because they felt the needs of other people were more severe.

I applied to the church, myself. That's the only place I applied for help. But when I returned [to get the aid], I felt so bad. I thought, "No, I don't need their help. Let them help other people in worse conditions. I am going to work hard and support my children." I would rather do it with my own hard work, rather than ask for alms.
There was also a sentiment among survivors of the earthquake that, while they needed immediate assistance, direct aid was a short-term solution. One man said, quite specifically, "I don't want handouts. We need aid in the form of work, where we can work and provide for our families." He said that it makes one lazy to simply sit and wait for assistance from outsiders. Another person echoed this same conviction: "I am not for that kind of help, where they come and just respond to a need. I'd rather see them come and do something. Get involved, get the people involved in some kind of work, some kind of skill, some kind of production." He went on to say, "What we need, the best help that we would profit from is technical help. I wish these foreign countries would bring technical help. Then that would profit everybody."

church in gyumriA significant amount of assistance came from relatives who were living outside of the earthquake zone. Scores of people drove to the hard-struck cities and villages within hours of hearing the news. They came to check on relatives and to provide whatever assistance they could, which was sometimes minimal, since they often did not have appropriate tools with them. A man from Yerevan said, "Yes, I did go to help with the rescue efforts. All we had were our hands, and we had to dig and rescue the victims. I remember awful scenes. At times we would reach victims, and other times we couldn't. There would be cries, but by the time we'd get to them, they would already be dead." In fact, many of the rescuers that we interviewed seemed as traumatized by what they had observed as the people who were directly affected by the quake. They returned home almost shell-shocked. The devastation that had occurred, the deaths they observed in their rescue attempts, and the calamity that had struck families was beyond belief.

A woman said that the traffic was so bad along the route to the earthquake area that she waited a few days before going. But the scenes she encountered once there left her shaken. "People were glad just to find body parts of their loved ones. In other words, if they found an arm or leg or part of the body, they were glad, saying, 'At least I have found part of my beloved one.' Can you imagine just how terrible that was?" She said that these scenes affected her. "I had such awful, strong headaches. My blood pressure shot straight up, and I couldn't return right away. It affected me something terrible. I remember that for a whole month I wasn't myself. I was just sick, grieving with these people." She kept struggling with two scenes in particular: "There was this fifty-year-old lady crying. She was crying, saying, 'At least let me find one part of my child so I can bury him.'" She also remembered seeing "this kid taking water and bread to the cemetery, thinking that his loved one would eat it and drink it. The cemetery was just full. You couldn't even drop a needle in it."

One woman's brother had gone to help quake victims, and when he returned he could not even speak about what he had seen. "He came back totally in shock. We asked him to tell us what had happened or what he had seen, but he couldn't talk. He couldn't sleep. He was just so upset about the whole thing." Another woman said that what she saw in Gyumri would stay with her the rest of her life. "It looked as if the whole town had been mixed with a huge spoon." Riding in a car with a survivor, she said that the two of them were hugging each other and shaking. "There were coffins everywhere. Many, many coffins. Near the destroyed houses the rescue workers were continuing—they were searching for people." She remembered especially one man who was down on his knees in front of the ruins of his house, crying loudly for his loved ones under the rubble. Another man, an engineer, went to Gyumri from Yerevan to see about his relatives. He unearthed twenty-four members of his family—grandchildren, cousins, and so on—and when he returned home he became ill and was virtually speechless, unable to express what he had experienced.

A woman said that her husband, too, was unable to talk when he returned from Gyumri. It was only later that the stories started to spill out. For example, her husband and others tried to free a man whose foot was caught under a rock in the ruins of a building. A military doctor insisted that they simply cut off the foot. However, her husband argued that they could save him another way, and, in fact, they did. This same woman said that another friend hanged himself after returning from Gyumri. He had tried to rescue children from a school that had collapsed and simply could not bear the grief of that experience.

Another man from Yerevan described feeling paralyzed on the day he arrived in Spitak. "We couldn't do anything on our first day there, because we were in shock. The city was literally covered with corpses. I cannot describe the horror we felt. There are no words to describe it." He said that his worst experience was searching for the bodies of children in a kindergarten. He also recalled a young boy who ran to him and wanted him to help unearth the body of his mother, who was dead. Indeed, all of the rescuers that we interviewed had memories they could not shake off.

One of the most touching recollections was that of a young father who had gone to Spitak from Yerevan to help with the rescue effort. He said that he got somewhat lost walking back to sleep for the night, in part because familiar landmarks were no longer there.

It was quite dark, and in the dark I saw a little candlelight. I approached to see what was going on. I saw this boy beside a stick with a picture of a dead person. It must have been his father. He was just sitting by it with a candle, with his head in his hands. Boy, did that sight ever grieve me. I cannot forget that poor boy. Just sitting at a vigil with the dead in the candlelight, holding his head in his hands. What a sight. What a tragedy.
This same man said that he removed debris from collapsed buildings, but when they discovered corpses, he simply was not able to touch them. Others had to do it. He also told of uncovering a man who was not injured, and immediately this man started working with the team to unearth more people. He evidently had family members or fellow workers who were still under the rubble.


The Political Context

The earthquake should not be understood as an isolated event. It occurred during Armenia's struggle for independence and Nagorno-Karabakh's quest for liberation. Before the earthquake, Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan had settled in Spitak, Gyumri, and Vanadsor, and in adjacent areas. After the earthquake, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockade—along with dramatic changes transpiring in the Soviet Union—brought reconstruction to a halt by 1991, leaving thousands of people to live in temporary shelters that were completely inadequate for Armenia's cold winters and hot summers. Even more difficult were the subsequent winters without adequate fuel or food. If one had tried to invent a more disastrous confluence of events, it would have been difficult. One of the worst natural disasters of contemporary history was followed by the blockade of a landlocked country—a country, moreover, that was experimenting with new democratic institutions as it struggled to convert from Soviet communism to free market capitalism.

consequences of the earthquake and economic collapse in spitakFurthermore, we cannot ignore the role politics played in the aftermath of this earthquake. Soviet isolation had kept engineers from following contemporary standards of earthquake construction. A similar quake in Los Angeles would cause few, if any, deaths, because older buildings have been retrofitted and new ones designed to withstand large earthquakes. Furthermore, Armenia had no emergency plan. The Karabakh Committee, which was leading the independence movement, assumed leadership of disaster relief before Gorbachev arrived in Yerevan on December 10. Gorbachev proceeded to have members of the Karabakh Committee locked up for the next six months in a Moscow jail, eventually releasing them without a trial. It is also tragic that the Soviet army scarcely lent a hand in the rescue operations, sometimes neglecting even to shine the lights of their vehicles on excavation work at night. We heard reports of the Soviet military turning back the cars of people coming to help, even smashing in their headlights with the butts of their rifles.

One must remember the political events of 1988. Mass demonstrations had filled the streets of Yerevan since February. In fact, on November 7, a month before the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of Armenians had filled Lenin Square in Yerevan to boo at the Communist Party officials who were celebrating the 1917 Revolution; the people launched a counterdemonstration for Armenian independence and union with Nagorno-Karabakh. A state of emergency was declared on November 24, imposing a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. From a political standpoint, perhaps it is not surprising that the Soviet military was rather passive in its response to the earthquake.

However, it is a sad commentary on human nature that politics gets in the way of humanitarian responses. Obviously, the biblical story of the Good Samaritan seems to be more often taken to heart by individuals than by national leaders. Nevertheless, the outpouring of support from around the world—although notably not from Armenia's closest neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan—was incredible, motivated, in part, by awareness of the failure of the worldwide community to prevent the slaughter of over a million Armenians in 1915.


Ten Years Later

On the occasion of the ten-year commemoration of the earthquake, Spitak was bustling with activity. A new city hall had been constructed. A monument to those who had lost their lives in the earthquake had just been completed. Private businesses were building offices that provided a welcome contrast to monotonous Soviet-style architecture. Forty-five percent of the children were in new schools. Most important, the new construction was engineered to withstand an earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale, and contractors had carefully followed the specifications. President Robert Kocharian was paying renewed attention to the earthquake, and an ambitious plan had been established for reconstruction of the region. Spitak was something of a showcase, however, and inhabitants of Vanadsor and other areas grumbled about not receiving their fair share of reconstruction funds.

Nevertheless, Spitak still had a long way to go in 1998. Although 1,250 new apartments had been built since the earthquake, only 20 percent of the population was in permanent housing. Many people still lived in shipping containers. However, we saw obvious symbols of international commitment to the area: a Czech-built school, an Italian neighborhood, an Austrian hospital, and a Swiss suburb on the outskirts of town. One news article even indicated that there would be dancing, drinking, and celebration in the town square, which had not occurred since the disaster a decade earlier. In addition to government commitment to rebuilding, philanthropists, such as Kirk Kerkorian, were making substantial funds available for specific projects, as were churches and sister cities outside of Armenia.

Emotional scars left by the earthquake were also healing. Even though employment was still a problem, the social fabric of society was being rewoven. Children were back in school, people were getting married—including men and women who had lost spouses during the quake—and they were once again entertaining neighbors and extended family. There was even a new stone church under construction, replacing the temporary one of sheet metal that had been built to provide a sacred space after the earthquake. People clearly planned to stay here for a while. This was home. They were building for the future.