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Armenia: Eyewitnesses Recall Earthquake Of 1988

Prague, 17 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly ten years ago, on December 7, 1988, a massive earthquake rocked northwestern Armenia, killing some 50,000 inhabitants. Like the Chornobyl disaster two and a half years earlier, the earthquake contributed to exposing the harmful effects of the Soviet Unions' penchant for secrecy and its incapability to deal with extraordinary disasters.

As in Chornobyl, a variety of after-effects of the earthquake persist. And as in many other disaster situations, a lot of humanitarian aid was misappropriated yet no one has ever been brought to justice.

The cemeteries in this part of Armenia are new and large, filled with gravestones bearing life size, photo-engraved portraits of people killed in the quake, mothers and fathers, school-aged children, sometimes three generations from one family.

The epicenter of the quake was in the mountain village of Shirokamud, referred to among its inhabitants by its old name Nalband. The village is on the main east-west road between Spitak and the country's second largest city, Gyumri, known in Soviet times as Leninakan.

Unlike Gyumri, where many buildings damaged or destroyed by the quake are still waiting for the wreckers' ball, not a single house was left standing in Shirokamud. Nearly ten years after the earthquake, the mayor of Shirokamud, Albert Papoyan, still finds it difficult to recount what happened. Sitting in a makeshift office in a metal container, Papoyan spoke recently with RFE/RL.

"The earthquake's epicenter was right here at the train station, the entire community was destroyed, totally, nothing was left standing: the sovkhoz, the enterprises, the schools, were all gone, 320 residents were killed in the quake, including 112 in the middle school.... fires broke out burning up bodies -- it's a sad story I cannot characterize in detail... that many families were left without breadwinners, without parents, and 85 residents became invalids."

Papoyan says "the whole Soviet Union, the whole world descended on the quake zone." Construction workers from Krasnodar were dispatched to Nalband to rebuild the village along with Russian, Italian, French, German, and Czech rescue workers and builders. It was decided that the original appearance and layout of the village should be restored.

"The reconstruction work continued in 1989 and '90. In 1991 the work eased and in '92 it slowed down to a crawl," Mayor Papoyan says, noting that while some 300 homes were constructed in the first four years after the quake, 250 of them were still to be completed when the last Russian construction workers from Krasnodar packed their bags and left following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Currently, some 350 families are still without a proper roof over their heads, are still waiting for homes to be constructed for them and are still living in containers, wagons or shacks. A few who had enough money built their own homes. But most residents lacked the funds. The mayor says the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, in addition to the after-effects of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and other economic problems contributed to the delay in reconstruction by siphoning off funding.

"We 'Shirokamudtsi' are very patient people and we will endure until the situation in the republic returns to normal."

The last house in the village, completed three years ago, is inhabited by a 78-year-old ethnic Mengrelian woman, Lena Morgoshia, better known to residents as Baba Lena. She says she was in Spitak when the quake struck and ran the eight kilometers back to Shirokamud.

"People were screaming, 'help, help', but I did not know what to do, whom to help. I just wanted to get home to see where my family was. I thought they were at work. But that day my two grandsons were at home watching television and both remained in the rubble. Their mother was at a neighbor's house and suffered a broken leg. She was taken to hospital in Yerevan and never heard from again", Baba Lena, noting that she lost 12 members of her family in the earthquake including her daughter, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and sons-in-law.

"Of my blood relatives, 12 died -- grandchildren, great-grandchildren, sons in law, a daughter, that was all here -- but the Abkhazians over there (in Georgia) killed 49 of my kin in Sukhimi, Zugdidi and in our village."

Baba Lena also says that all she has left is a granddaughter and a teenage grandson who lost a leg in the quake. They live in what she describes as "very bad conditions" in an unfinished concrete hut after having lived in a railway wagon for six years. Baba Lena says they are dependent on the cabbages, potatoes and wheat they can raise themselves. She says she has not received her monthly pension, amounting to the equivalent of just six dollars, for four months. But she continues to be billed the equivalent of $2.40 a month for water. Firewood costs $9 per cubic meter, so instead her grandson goes to the woods in search of kindling. In Baba Lena words, "I cannot make ends meet."

The local hospital in Shirokamud was built by the Liechtenstein Red Cross. Hospital director Anya Mikoyan says many villagers, particularly children are suffering from malnutrition. She says neither she nor the children's parents know how to resolve the lack of an adequate diet under present circumstances.

The larger town of Spitak presents an orderly appearance although the earthquake destroyed some 5,100 buildings. The quake killed 4,003 of Spitak's 18,500 inhabitants or over 21 percent of the population. Since the quake, some 1,400 buildings have been erected and Spitak is now home to 3,000 more inhabitants than before the quake, thanks to a high post-quake birthrate and the arrival of 3,500 refugees, largely from Azerbaijan. The center of the town, once consisting of some 30 five-story buildings is now a conglomeration of building sites and shops housed in metal shipping containers.

Spitak's mayor, Suren Avetisian, says the earthquake destroyed 100 percent of the town's housing, and leveled all factories. He notes construction workers from Russia, Uzbekistan, Estonia, Norway and Switzerland came to Spitak and started to rebuild.

The Uzbeks built 124 houses; Russian construction workers built 133 houses, the Estonians built 80 houses, the Norwegians built 23 homes, the Swiss together with Armenia built 260 houses while 24 houses were built with funds from the Armenian diaspora," the mayor says, adding that this all adds up to about 20 percent of the town's pre-quake housing. He says 80 percent of the town's residents still live in temporary wooden huts or metal containers. He notes the containers are in need of repairs which cannot be done without funding. The psychological burden on the survivors has also been heavy.

"People until now have not been able to live normal lives because so many suffered losses, virtually everyone lost family members and now with the tenth anniversary coming up we decided last year to plant a town park so that people could enjoy life; the Christmas before last after my election we put up a tree and for the first time people laughed, danced and drank."

The mayor also that work is underway to build a memorial complex using nearly $200,000 of municipal funds, a cultural center and a new main square as a symbol of the town's rebirth. Reconstruction has ensured that the town is no longer so concentrated and that structures are low. Spitak now is some 15 kilometers long, clusters of buildings having been built on former farmland.

Work is underway to rebuild the Surp Haruptyun (Holy resurrection) church, this time using reinforced concrete and stone blocks.

An elevator factory has been reconstructed but has not yet begun production while the town's clothing factory is once again manufacturing thanks to a World Bank credit. The town's bakery is still not functioning normally while the sugar refinery, the only one in Armenia, has not yet been reconstructed. But the town is financing the construction of a memorial complex costing $106,000 and a small museum dedicated to the earthquake victims.

Spitak's mayor says in the 16 months since taking office he has yet to find any accounting of how quake aid funds were dispersed or spent, adding that as long as he has been office no foreign aid has reached Spitak. But he also says that some $8 million in post-quake foreign aid for the town have been frozen in a Moscow bank account since 1991 as a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union. He says the time has come for the Armenian government to discuss the matter with Russia so that the money can be sent to the quake-affected zone.

"After the Soviet Union dissolved itself, the government no longer paid full attention to what was happening in Spitak until our prime minister came to Spitak on January 23 this year," the mayor says, adding that Prime Minister Robert Kocherian promised full support for Spitak and the surrounding quake zone.

Spitak's school number one has been housed since the earthquake in temporary barracks but is due to move soon into a new building that boasts central heating and marble and parquet floors. The principal, Tanya Kochkian, says the quake killed 14 teachers and 53 pupils.

"It was difficult for us then. Of course, we cried and worked but then this got better and we knew we were working for our nation and for our pupils and we pulled through."

Spitak pupils and a teacher practice a song that calls on members of the diaspora to come home.

In contrast to Spitak, some 200,000 inhabitants of Gyumri live currently in slum-like conditions with the earthquake's devastation still apparent at every step. Cleaning up here has proved a nearly insurmountable task. The city is still full of countless destroyed apartments blocks, factories, hotels and other structures that should have been demolished years ago. Most are empty but some are still inhabited. Yet the streets are crowded with large numbers of late model Mercedes-Benz, Audis and BMW's, a rarity even in the capital, Yerevan, an indication of a substantial shadow economy.

The head of the local (Shirak) district governor's international department, Hovanis Harutunian, says the housing shortage should be solved within three years.

"Currently, 17,500 families in Gyumri are living in temporary housing, and around 20,000 for the Shirak district as a whole. That means housing for 20,000 families remains to be built, which works out to 900,000 square meters of housing space. Since the quake, over 600,000 square meters of housing have been constructed. But you can not compare old pre-quake numbers and current numbers," Harutunian says, noting that the population has grown with the influx in the early post-quake years of some 30,000 ethnic-Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan and with natural population growth.

Harutunian notes living space is not the only problem as the city lost all seven hospitals and clinics and 90 percent of the city's 44 schools. Before the earthquake, the city had 90,000 jobs and 39 large enterprises. Today, he says, "all 39 enterprises are working but at only 20 to 30 percent capacity." Harutunian notes that a child who was in the first grade when the quake struck and subsequently lived in temporary housing is now about to finish school and in all likelihood is still living in the same cramped, temporary housing.

In Yerevan, Armenian foreign ministry spokesman Arsen Gasparian says post-quake reconstruction has involved "serious difficulties."

"In this transition period it also was very difficult to rebuild the economy of the whole country, at the same time we had the problem of reconstructing the earthquake zone. We had as you know in 1992 and 1993 problems with electricity and people in Armenia had one or two hours of electricity a day and all these serious problems together with the problem of the reconstruction of the earthquake zone. Now we are trying to do everything to overcome those difficulties and as you can see the situation is really improving in Armenia and we hope that the new president of Armenia with the new government will do its utmost to reconstruct the earthquake zone, because really people lost everything in Gyumri, Spitak and the whole zone of the earthquake."

Gasparian declines to confirm reports that international aid or funds were misused in Gyumri or elsewhere in the quake-affected region, saying only that new projects are needed to rebuild the zone.

Earlier this month, the Armenian government daily Hayastany Hanrapetutyun, accused presidential candidate and former Communist party first secretary Karen Demirchian, of being responsible for the deaths of thousands in the quake. The daily said that the high rise buildings in Gyumri collapsed because construction standards were kept low during Demirchian's 14-year tenure (1974-88).