COVER

DEATH IN THE RUINS

ARMENIA SUFFERS A DEVASTATING QUAKE

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 19 1988
COVER

DEATH IN THE RUINS

ARMENIA SUFFERS A DEVASTATING QUAKE

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 19 1988

DEATH IN THE RUINS

COVER

ARMENIA SUFFERS A DEVASTATING QUAKE

The day began with a rare air of tranquility. After 10 months of bitter fighting between the largely Christian Armenians and Moslems of the neighboring republic of Azerbaijan, Soviet officials reported relative calm in Armenia last Wednesday morning. But not for long. At 11:41 a.m. on Dec. 7, when the earth began to tremble, many of the 16,000 residents of Stepanavan were preparing for lunch. By the time a second tremor hit less than five minutes later, many of them—along with residents in nearby cities and towns—lay dead or dying beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings. “I heard someone crying ‘Earthquake,’ ” recalled Ruzanna Grigoryan, a survivor from Leninakan, the second-largest city in Armenia with a prequake population of some 250,000. “In the next moment, everything crashed—the ceiling was falling.” By week’s end, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev toured the scenes of carnage, authorities officially estimated the death toll in the stricken region at between 40,000 and 45,000. As well, deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Nikiforov told reporters in Moscow, “there are about 500,000 homeless, 12,000 have asked for medical assistance and 6,000 are in hospital.” Unofficial estimates counted a heavier human cost. Either way, Soviet Armenia had suffered one of the worst natural disasters of the century.

Debris: In fact, Soviet officials said that it might be weeks before they could make an accurate estimate of the dead and injured in the nation’s southern republic bordering Turkey and Iran. As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived from New York City to oversee the rescue effort, Soviet workers, hampered by a severe shortage of heavy lifting equipment, searched desperately through debris for survivors. “We have people screaming from beneath the ruins,” Soviet government spokesman Lev Vosnesensky said 48 hours after the quake. “Every hour these screams get quieter.” In one poignant incident, soldiers working under spotlights on Thursday found the bodies of more than 50 children in Leninakan’s collapsed No. 9 School. Seven of eight schools in the area were destroyed, and Soviet officials said that they did not yet know how many children had died.

As a worldwide relief effort took shape, doctors and medical supplies began to arrive by Friday in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Manpower, supplies and tracking dogs came from Western Europe and North America. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney pledged that Canada would provide an initial $50,000 in aid and offered air transport. Members of Canada’s Armenian community, estimated to number 50,000 across the country, collected money and packed clothes and medicine for survivors—anxiously awaiting word on whether their friends and relatives were among the lucky. “I have lots of friends over there,” said Vahan Tchalikian, 35, in Toronto. “I’m sure I lost lots of them.” After watching film reports of the devastation on Canadian television, Hasmig Saraphanian, 38, of Willowdale, Ont., said, “When you see one building collapse, it’s like the whole world collapses in front of you.”

Faults: Few areas could be more vulnerable to an earthquake’s effects than the region where most of the devastation occurred—an area dotted by extinct volcanoes and geologic faults. But Soviet seismologist Igor Nersesov told reporters in Moscow that last week’s quake was the region’s worst in almost a millennium—since a quake near Leninakan in the year 1046 destroyed the ancient Armenian capital of Aini, which was never rebuilt. In the same region, a major quake in 1667 killed an estimated 80,000 people.

But the magnitude of last week’s calamity was not the work of nature alone. Primitive construction methods in Armenia made homes and offices especially vulnerable. Village homes are often built of adobe mud, with rock ceilings for insulation, while office buildings are constructed with concrete slabs that are not always properly connected. Asked Komsomolskaya Pravda, the official newspaper of Communist youth: “Where were the seismologists, the architects and the construction workers that drafted and built the houses that fell apart like matchboxes?”

Shocks: The devastation was near-complete in some areas. In Leninakan, more than two-thirds of all buildings were reported destroyed. Stepanavan and Kirovakan were heavily damaged, and Soviet television reported that Spitak had “practically been erased from the face of the earth.” But the newspaper Pravda reported that Armenia’s nuclear power plant, about 48 km west of Yerevan, withstood the shocks unscathed.

After the quake struck, soldiers set up tent cities and worked on restoring electricity and water, while helicopters airlifted medical teams and equipment into devastated regions. One Soviet officer, Gen. Vladimir Arkhipov, said that army surgeons in tents were performing “extremely crucial and delicate operations.” In Moscow, city officials said that thousands of people were lining up to donate blood for victims. The country’s trade unions said that they were financing travel and temporary lodging arrangements for people who had lost their homes, at a cost expected to average about $1 million a day.

For some of the refugees, it is the second time that they have been wrenched from their homes this year. At least 60 people have died this year in ethnic violence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and soldiers have frequently intervened to stop fighting. As a result, about 117,000 Armenians have fled Azerbaijan. Many of them had settled in camps near the Armenian city of Kirovobad, which also was severely damaged.

Violence: Even in the aftermath of the disaster, ethnic violence continued. After Soviet troops in Azerbaijan were redeployed to Armenia to aid in the earthquake rescue operation, Moslem rioters set fire to nine Armenian houses in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital. And a spokesman for Armenia’s official news agency, Armenpress, dismissed reports by the Soviet media in Moscow that Azerbaijanis were helping in the rescue effort. But the Soviets’ generally open discussion of the disaster contrasted sharply with previous domestic reactions to internal catastrophes. The casualty figures for a devastating 1948 earthquake in the Soviet republic of Turkmenia, which killed 110,000, have only recently been revealed. Even Gorbachev has not always abided by his own policy of glasnost, or increased openness: after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, he withheld public comment until 18 days after the incident.

In the aftermath of the Armenian quake, a special commission, headed by Armenian Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, decided immediately to rebuild Leninakan and Spitak. Meanwhile, as the Soviet people marked Saturday as an official day of mourning for the victims, Armenians abroad continued their nerve-racking wait for word of friends and relatives. “We watch the news and everybody is crying,” said Soline Chamlian, 26, a spokesman for the Armenian National Committee in Montreal. “The community is in shock.”

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow with MARY NEMETH

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

MARY NEMETH