A Quarter-Century Has Not Changed Much in the Quake Zone


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Many nations celebrate the glorious events of their history, Armenians tend to commemorate the more dismal pages of their past  — the fall of the city of Ani to Seljuks, the Genocide, the earthquake and other chains of tragedy that form Armenian history. Ironically, one of the most exhilarating celebrations is the annual commemoration  of the Vartanants War of 451 AD against the Persians; a story of a defeat, but one which Armenians consider it to be the triumph of spirit over a formidable, Godless enemy.

Thus, the stage is set to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Gumri earthquake, which took place in 1988, on December 7, at 11:41 a.m.

The 20th century has not been very charitable to the Armenians. Armenia was barely recovering from the devastation of the first Genocide of the century when in 1925 an earthquake hit Gumri. The city was then called Alexandrapol and had become a center of refugee camps. Alexandrapol was called the city of orphans, as hundreds of thousands of surviving children of the Genocide were gathered there under the care of international relief agencies. Despite the harsh conditions of early Soviet rule, it was a period of hope and reconstruction. The orphans who had survived the Genocide were hit once more by nature’s fury, exactly like the survivors of Baku and Sumgait pogroms who had sought refuge from Azerbaijan in Armenia, only to be hit by the 1988 earthquake.

Children who were born in 1988 are adults today, ready to form their own families, yet many of them are still condemned to live in wretched conditions of domiks (temporary shelters), after a quarter century. The epicenter of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake was near the village of Nalband. The nearby town of Spitak was completely razed. All in all, 342 villages were damaged, with 58 them completely destroyed. At the time it was reported that 25,000 people had perished, but many witnesses challenge that figure and place the real number as high as 50,000.

By 1989, 113 countries had provided relief to the tune of $500 million, while Azeris vandalized some relief trains.

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The tragedy happened during a period of political détente, in the last years of the Soviet Union, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting Washington. He cut his visit short and returned to the USSR.

While visiting the earthquake-ravaged north of Armenia, some ugly encounters were reported. The Karabagh independence movement had just started and people rallied around the Soviet leader to ask for justice for Karabagh. The Soviet leader scolded them, saying that in such a devastating situation, people were after politics.

Gorbachev pledged $8 billion for reconstruction, a pledge never fulfilled because of the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

It is ironic that all three tragedies would hit Armenia at the same time: the earthquake, the war in Karabagh and the collapse of the empire.

The Metsamor nuclear power plant, which is located 47 miles from the epicenter of the quake, miraculously survived intact. It stopped functioning, just as it was designed to do in case of a quake. However, international atomic energy experts questioned the wisdom of building the nuclear plant so near the earthquake zone. The idea is frightening — just think back to what recently happened in Fukushima, Japan, after the devastating tsunami last year.

Many international and humanitarian groups came to the rescue of the Gumri people but since so many national disasters have occurred worldwide, the Armenians have been left to help themselves. The Lincy Foundation, the AGBU, the Aznavour Foundation, Fund For Armenian Relief, the Armenian Relief Society and other groups have been helping the population of northern Armenia recover from the devastation, but after 25 years some numbness has settled in. While many Gumri families agonize still in domiks, there is obscene opulence nearby. A recent Versailles-style hotel built in the city next to ruins, by an oligarch is shocking, just as the unfulfilled promises to the stricken families.

The second president of the republic, Robert Kocharian, had pledged during his 1998 campaign to reconstruct the disaster zone entirely by the year 2001. But today, there are still 4500 people still living in domiks, while it is rumored that Mr. Kocharian left the presidency with $10 billion in his son’s coffers.

Armenia is located in an earthquake zone, with a fault line running through it. It has been punished by nature many times. Besides the 1925 earthquake the records demonstrate that earthquakes have taken place in Dvin, in 893, during the Seljuk siege of Ani in the 11th century, Cilicia in 1268 and Zangezur in 1931.

An apocryphal story is told by the prominent architect and historian Michael Mazmanian. According to this story, Leonardo Da Vinci had taken refuge in Cilicia in late 15th century, to escape political persecution in his homeland and while he was in Cilicia, an earthquake shook the region and the artist was huddled in an Armenian church with other people where he made some sketches of the church architecture, preserved in his “Armenian Papers.” Mr. Mazmanian believed that Da Vinci’s Armenian drawings later had an influence on Renaissance architecture. If the story is true, at least one benefit would be generated by the earthquake tragedy. (In a strange aside that shows the workings of the Soviet authorities, Mazmanian had designed the KGB building in Yerevan. On the day of its dedication, after a lavish party, the KGB chief asked that the architect stay back. After that, he spent the next 17 years in Siberia, his Soviet-style reward!)

Today Gumri still is a gaping wound in Armenia. Its population of 220,000 before the earthquake has been reduced to 125,000, not necessarily as a result of the earthquake, but also because of emigration. The birthrate of 5,000 per 100,000 of population before the earthquake has dropped to 2,000. Crime is rampant and no one is able to control the feud between the oligarchs in the city.

But the citizens of Gumri have been endowed with an unusual sense of humor. Gumri, Leninakan or Alexandrapol, as it has been known throughout history, has been traditionally a hub of Armenian culture. The city has produced theater companies and put on operas; many poets have hailed from the city. The earthquake has created some gallows humor.

After so many tragedies and potential tragedies, one may wonder why people still would live in that Godforsaken part of the world: the answer is summarized in the statement of a survivor called Hrach: “We cannot blame people who have abandoned our land. Who would take care of it? It’s ours, we have to keep on living, fighting, overcoming, making it prosper, be strong, my children are my greatest treasure, maybe tomorrow their lives will be more challenging, but better than ours, that’s for sure.”

The wisdom of common people always prevails.

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