Commentary: When Earthquake Hits Home

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Haiti: 200,000 victims and counting. A devastating human tragedy beyond comprehension. It seems that nature has its way of hitting the most vulnerable nations. Time magazine (the January 25 issue) defined succinctly the ironic state of affairs in its Haiti earthquake coverage writing: “Tragedy has a way of visiting those who can bear it least.”

In recent history, catastrophic earthquakes hit Iran, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Peru, Armenia among other countries. Only industrialized nations like the US and Japan seem to be well-equipped enough to contain the large-scale carnage.

Day in and day out, the horrifying footage of the earthquake destruction unfolds on our screens to bring home the pain and suffering experienced by one of the poorest nations on earth. Yet many people watch the footage on their TV sets and go on with their daily lives, switching to their favorite sports or entertainment channels, munching their potato chips and gulping cold beer.

This brings to mind our own tragedies — be it earthquake or the Genocide — which many people cannot find relevant in their daily lives or able to feel empathy for.
As the mass graves are being dug, humanitarian aid is pouring in from many countries, Armenia included, as our people empathize most, having suffered the same fate in 1988.
It was reported that dozens of French rappers and pop stars are joining Charles Aznavour and Youssou N’Dour to record a song to raise funds for quake stricken Haiti. The song is titled, A Gesture for Dear Haiti.

Many countries helping Haiti victims have motivations that go beyond humanitarian concerns. Of course, all help must be welcomed and appreciated. But some countries try to score political gains. Cuba was one of the first countries to send a team of doctors, yet that was hardly covered in the US news media. On the other hand, there was disproportionate coverage of the Israeli team. And on this occasion, it was very interesting to read about the debate going on in the Israeli press. Most of the concern was focused on improving the country’s image after the carnage brought about in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Defense forces.

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The observers believe that devastation has been so overwhelming that the country must not only figure out how to recover but also try to rebuild its sense of self.
Parallels with Armenia seem unavoidable. Haiti was occupied by US forces from 1915 to 1934 and then it was misruled by Francois Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, respectively. These two repressive dictators plundered the country from 1957 to 1986.

Armenia similarly experienced a repressive regime for almost 70 years, and at the very moment of emancipation, the Soviet Union collapsed and war broke out with Azerbaijan. The death toll in Gumri after the 1988 quake was reported to be 25,000, but the figure is most assuredly higher.

We cannot deny the help received from the international community. A city with a population of 175,000 population was leveled. Despite all the grumblings, the recovery changed entirely Gumri’s face. Aznavour’s charity, the Lincy Foundation and Armenia’s government spearheaded the reconstruction efforts.

Criticizing the government has become a national sport in Armenia. The government’s reconstruction efforts are seldom appreciated, but it plays a most significant role.
However, there are still 7,000 families in Gumri living in “domics,” the make-shift homes which remain as a gaping wound for all Armenians.

Many Armenians shrug their shoulders at Haiti’s tragedy. We can only ask these indifferent people who, if not us, should contribute to Haiti. What would we think if people were indifferent to our tragedy?

The world is so interconnected today that every event has global reverberations. In the past, an earthquake in Haiti would hardly be reported in Armenia and people would learn about it years later, feeling no obligation to help. But today, we live in a global village and any important and unimportant event is brought instantly into our living rooms, thereby becoming part of our lives.

The US government is heavily involved in rescue and recovery efforts, although it is accused by some quarters that it has reoccupied Haiti, a country poor in natural resources and devoid of any strategic value. Helping Haiti could only be motivated by humanitarian goals.

The outpouring of charity by the American people has been phenomenal. Governments may or may not entertain a political agenda in helping a country in distress, but people, by and large, contribute because they empathize with the victims stricken with tragedy.

Armenians, at times, are at a loss to see the relevance. Many believe that it is someone else’s business to help the needy and the victim. And then, we are surprised to find out that other people are not aware of the story of our Genocide, nor do they care to consider it as an issue. Once we are able to place our tragedy on a universal human level, we have a better chance of having other people care and share our plight.

Today Haiti is our wound; it is the wound of all humanity.