WORLD

A STRUGGLE FOR NEW LIFE

FOLLOWING A DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE, SOVIET ARMENIANS TRY TO REVIVE THEIR REPUBLIC

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 24 1989
WORLD

A STRUGGLE FOR NEW LIFE

FOLLOWING A DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE, SOVIET ARMENIANS TRY TO REVIVE THEIR REPUBLIC

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 24 1989

A STRUGGLE FOR NEW LIFE

WORLD

FOLLOWING A DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE, SOVIET ARMENIANS TRY TO REVIVE THEIR REPUBLIC

In the tent that Norig Lachikian shares with six other people, the night, when he sleeps fitfully, is the worst time. Friday nights, despite Lachikian’s recurring nightmares, are better because of the ritual of the day ahead. A 34-year-old resident of Leninakan in the Soviet republic of Armenia, Lachikian rises early every Saturday and, as dawn breaks, slips from the tent and waits for a friend to pick him up in a car. Together they travel to the Leninakan cemetery, where Lachikian spends the day at a plot containing the remains of his wife, his two sons and his parents—all of whom died in less than a minute on Dec. 7 in the earthquake that killed at least 25,000 Armenians. Without even a photograph remaining, Lachikian’s solace lies in graveside prayer and memories. As his eyes brimmed with tears one recent Saturday, he said, “I pray to God they have met with Him.”

Prayer is one of the few comforts available to

the largely Christian Armenians, who _

have traditionally ignored Soviet efforts to discourage the practice of religion. “My faith in God is what keeps me going,” said Gayane Ghakian, a 28-year-old resident of the devastated town of Spitak. Ghakian lost her husband in the quake and spent three hours trapped under rubble before being rescued. But four months after the tragedy overturned their landscape and their lives, the tiny republic teeters on the edge of renewed crisis. Despite a joint Soviet and international rescue effort that Armenian President Grant Voskanyan described as “extraordinary” in its dimensions, Armenia’s 3.5 million residents face a series of potentially ruinous problems. They range from acute housing shortages to the threat of widespread disease. In addition, Armenia’s religious and political differences with the neighboring republic of Azerbaijan continue to simmer.

After more than a year of periodic fighting between the Armenians and the Moslem Azeris, at least 80 people have died, and hundreds have been injured. And residents of Yerevan, Ar-

menia’s capital, chafe under the restrictions of a nightly curfew and the highly visible presence of thousands of Soviet troops brought in to maintain order.

Despite the daily tensions, most Armenians say that the situation across the republic has

improved immeasurably since the chaos of the days immediately after the quake. Then, confusion and misguided goodwill threatened to paralyse rescue efforts by the Soviets and other countries and organizations from around the world. Michael Behr, a British Red Cross worker who arrived two days after the disaster, remembers seeing “bloody fools among the volunteers who went around offering bicycles and [soccer] balls to kids with no arms or legs.” Added Behr: “There were trucks pulling up in the middle of funeral services, with people shouting and waving gifts at the mourners.” The earthquake’s survivors have displayed a stunning perseverance. Declared Marat Edilian, deputy director of the republic’s state planning committee: “Our people, like the proverbial phoenix, are rising from the ashes.” But that is a monumental task for an estimated 500,000 people left homeless—often without any personal belongings. In the tiny village of Lusakpirsch, Mamegon Donayan, a 62-yearold pensioner, has moved his 11 children, nephews and nieces into a one-room shack he built next to the rubble of his former home. They sleep in shifts on five cots. Donayan, a small, bent figure, said with a philosophical shrug, “We must do what it takes.” In Spitak, which Soviet television described as “practically erased from the face of the earth,” as many as 10 people often share living space in 30-by65-foot one-room tents. While cleanup efforts continue, the decaying remains of buildings sometimes collapse, and adults must routinely chase away small children searching the debris for toys and books. In Spitak, Leninakan and

scores of smaller villages near the earthquake’s centre, sewage and plumbing systems were largely destroyed, turning the areas into prime breeding grounds for rats and contagious diseases, such as typhoid fever.

In fact, the full extent of the catastrophe is only now becoming clear. The quake destroyed 40 per cent of buildings in the republic and caused about $19 billion worth of damage. In Leninakan, once Armenia’s second-biggest city with a population of 250,000, more than

10.000 people died and 140,000 were left homeless. At least 85 million square feet of new housing is needed, officials say, and the special reinforcement protection required to withstand future quakes will double the previous cost of housing units. Due to fears of damage from future tremors, Armenia’s nuclear power plant—which had supplied 40 per cent of the republic’s energy needs—has been permanently closed, and alternate energy sources will have to be found. And in a republic famous for its farming, the quake killed

100.000 farm animals. Said President Voskanyan: “Everywhere you look there is tragedy.”

Soon, the already chronic housing shortage may worsen. Most of the at least 80,000 Armenians who were evacuated to other republics are eager to return home. As well, government officials say that accommodation must be found for tens of thousands of workers who will arrive during the summer to assemble prefabricated temporary housing before next winter. Although senior Moscow officials—

including Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov—say that most of the republic will be rebuilt in two years, local and foreign observers maintain that it will be at least five years before housing needs are properly met. Conceded the republic’s health minister, Dr. Emil Gabrielian: “We face a truly imposing challenge.”

For many Armenians, seeking help from Moscow is an unusual—and sometimes unwelcome—step. Since the republic became a part of the Soviet Union in 1920, many Armenians have traditionally adopted an approach toward Moscow that one Western diplomat described as “benign indifference.” Armenia has little in common with much of the rest of the Soviet Union. Its language and alphabet are completely different from Russian, and the people have the strongest Christian traditions of any Soviet republic. Moreover, there are close links with large expatriate Armenian communities abroad, including Canada (with an estimated

70,000 Armenian-Canadians, most of whom live in or near Montreal and Toronto). Apkar Mirakian, a leader of Toronto’s Armenian community who recently visited the republic as part of a Canadian government delegation, declared, “There is an invisible bond that ties every Armenian.”

After initial criticism, most Armenians praise Moscow’s co-ordination of rescue efforts following the quake. And relations between Soviet officials and the estimated 400 foreign rescue workers based in Yerevan have

been smooth. But that improvement has not been matched by an equivalent easing of the bitter conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For more than a year, the two republics have been locked in a heated dispute over Armenian demands that Azerbaijan return the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which became an autonomous region within Azerbaijan in 1923. Officials in Armenia accuse the Azeris of conducting a vendetta against ethnic Armenians. In the months before the quake, at least 120,000 ethnic Armenian refu-

gees, fleeing Azerbaijan after attacks directed against them, had stretched Armenia’s housing facilities to their limits. The refugees are still in Armenia and are unlikely to leave.

Now, after demonstrations on the NagornoKarabakh issue late last year that drew up to 500,000 people to Yerevan’s famed Opera Square, the city is filled with Soviet troops who rigorously enforce a nightly 1 a.m. curfew. Some Armenians direct indignation at their local government, while others blame Soviet authorities in Moscow. “The people are angry

and grief-stricken,” said Karen Simonian, a well-known intellectual in Yerevan, “and that is an explosive combination.”

That grief becomes palpable when Armenians discuss the plight of the republic’s children. When the quake hit at 11:41 a.m. local time in December, thousands of children were in schools in the affected area. A still-unknown number died when the buildings collapsed on top of them, and many survivors suffered debilitating injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives. To make matters worse, the prosthetic devices used to replace amputated limbs are costly and difficult to obtain. Said Gabrielian, the health minister: “Our people tell us to do all we can for the children—and worry about the rest of them after that.” As well, the Armenian government has begun a publicity campaign urging younger families to “begin anew” by bearing a minimum of three children each.

With the horror of the quake still part of their everyday lives, many Armenians sustain themselves with plans for the future. Misak Mkrtchyan, the first secretary of Leninakan’s Communist party, lost his son in the quake, and his wife is in critical condition in a Yerevan hospital. Now, he often works seven days a week assisting in rescue and rebuilding efforts. But Mkrtchyan summoned an exhausted smile recently as he related what he called “the happiest news here since the disaster”: a total of 170 babies have been born in Leninakan. He added, “They remind us that life goes on and gets better.” Out of the ashes, that new generation represents Armenians’ best hope for survival—and revival.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Leninakan