Dark Anniversary: Armenians Remember 1988

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'To innocent lives, merciful hearts': A monument to the victims of the 1988 earthquake and the good people who reached out to help Armenia
'To innocent lives, merciful hearts': A monument to the victims of the 1988 earthquake and the good people who reached out to help Armenia

By Suren Musayelyan

SPITAK (ArmeniaNow) — A powerful tremor that struck northern Armenia at 11:41 a.m. on December 7 changed the course of the nation’s history 21 years ago.

The earthquake, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, killed at least 25,000 people who succumbed to death under the ruins of the Soviet-built residential apartment blocks, hospitals, schools, kindergartens and other buildings in several locations in northern Armenia.

It also instantaneously crippled tens of thousands. Its social, cultural, psychological aftershocks crippled an entire nation and continue to be felt by a generation who’ve turned adult on 20 years of December 7 mourning. It was the greatest natural disaster in modern Armenian history, and it took only seconds for a nation as old as Noah to see a new reality through a landscape of rubble.

Some of the settlements at the epicenter of the quake, such as the village of Nalband (now Shirakamut) and the town of Spitak were razed to the ground by the powerful tremor and repeated aftershocks. The towns of Leninakan (now Gumri), Kirovakan (now Vanadzor), Stepanavan, and other nearby populated areas were severely damaged.

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The tragedy happened amid troubled times for the crumbling Soviet Union and mounting tensions between its two republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. By December 1988 there had been a mass exodus of ethnic Armenian population from Baku and other major Azerbaijani cities and towns into Armenia, putting an additional strain on the immediate rescue and relief effort and later also on the effort to provide the survivors with badly needed accommodation during cold winter months and beyond.

Still amid a Cold War standoff with the United States and its allies in Europe, the Soviet government for the first time since World War II formally requested assistance from the West that did not fail to deliver within days.

However, the situation of the destroyed towns with ruined infrastructure would remain critical for many years to come, including through a bloody 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabagh and the early years of Armenian independence marked by a severe energy crisis and a large-scale emigration from the country.

The first shoots of recovery appeared near in sight when upon assuming leadership in 1998 Armenia’s second President Robert Kocharian declared the rehabilitation of the Disaster Area a priority of his government and a matter of honor for the nation.

Despite the growing government effort on rehabilitation projects, many in the affected areas still remained in makeshift residences through the decade of Kocharian’s presidency.

Kocharian’s successor, Serge Sargisian, has also declared earthquake zone rehabilitation to be one of the priorities of his government.

Last year, when the 20th anniversary of the earthquake was observed in Armenia, the government declared an ambitious plan to stamp out “temporary” residences and provide all earthquake survivor families proper housing by 2013. The government later reaffirmed its resolve to stay on schedule by maintaining the level of spending on construction projects despite the widening fallout of the global economic recession.