How does a country recover from natural disaster? Seventeen years ago, Armenia suffered an earthquake similar in scale to that which struck Pakistan this month. The world rallied round and aid flew in but, as Jonathan Steele reports, the legacy of the tragedy still remains
Wednesday October 19, 2005
It was Margaret Thatcher who broke the news. Waking up in his New York hotel suite, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was handed a telegram from the prime minister, telling him that a massive earthquake had struck the Soviet republic of Armenia while he was asleep. The death toll was thought to be enormous. Britain sent its sympathy and would do anything necessary to help.
The date was December 7 1988. Gorby was at the peak of his power. An international superstar admired by millions around the world, he had just delivered one of the most remarkable speeches the United Nations had ever heard, calling for an end to the cold war and announcing the unilateral withdrawal of half a million Soviet troops from eastern Europe.
That morning he was due to say goodbye to Ronald Reagan and meet his newly elected successor, George Bush Sr. Immediately after their photo-opportunity with the Statue of Liberty in the background, however, he cut short his transatlantic trip and flew home.
The Moscow-based western press corps that had travelled to the UN with Gorby rushed to Kennedy airport and went back too. A day later we were in Armenia, picking our way through the rubble of the devastated city of Leninakan and watching helpless survivors search for loved ones in the ruins.
The earthquake was as lethal as the one that hit Pakistan 11 days ago. Striking at 11.40 on a weekday morning, it too buried thousands of children as their schools tumbled around them. Dozens of tower blocks collapsed, crushing mothers and infants. Between 10% and 15% of Leninakan’s population of 220,000 died outright. Adding this toll to the thousands killed in smaller towns nearby, the casualty figure was on a similar scale to the Pakistani disaster, with perhaps 40,000 dead and as many as 150,000 left homeless. Two-thirds of the Armenian victims were under 18.
Last week I was in Leninakan again, to discover how a community recovers from a tragedy of this magnitude. What lessons could Pakistan learn from Armenia’s sputtering reconstruction process, which, 17 years later, has 3,500 families in the city still living in “temporary accommodation” – a euphemism for shacks, metal containers and disused railway wagons?
“It’s not just Pakistan which has to think this through. So does New Orleans,” says Steve Anlian, director of the Armenian branch of the Urban Institute, a Washington-based thinktank which devised the US government’s earthquake recovery programme. “Decisions taken in the first few days are crucial.”
Huge natural disasters produce a familiar cycle. A week or two of harrowing TV pictures and charity appeals, an outpouring of international and local generosity, a handful of media follow-ups six months later and a few more on the first anniversary. Then oblivion. Stricken communities struggle to their feet, largely on their own. Leninakan, which has since reverted to its pre-Soviet name of Giumri, is no different.
A generation of children unborn when the earthquake happened are growing up unaware of what their parents went through. Even among the adult survivors there are fissures between those with memories of the disaster and those with none. “My husband was a conscript in the Soviet army and away in Georgia when it struck. When I start talking about it, I can see from his eyes that he doesn’t understand,” says Ribsime Bichakhchyan, a local paediatrician. “I was 16 at the time and I still remember the screaming when our school shook and fell around us. I begin to cry when I think about it. You can never forget.”
Whether they were on the spot on the fateful day or not, everyone in Giumri lost at least one relative. Stories of bereavement are never far from the surface. “My sister was at school and my father was at work in a factory. It took nine days to find their bodies,” says Fatima Vartanyan, who attends a clinic four times a week to relieve the stress she still suffers.
Ashot Simonyan, the taxi driver who took us to the hillside where thousands of Giumri residents are buried, many in unmarked graves because their bodies were too broken to be identified, suddenly announced: “That’s my brother and his family.” We followed his finger to a headstone on which were etched the faces of a handsome dark-haired man, his wife, and a little girl.
“Officially, 20,000 people in Giumri died, but the real figure was probably closer to 30,000,” says David Sarkisyan, the local chief prosecutor, as he drove us round the town. Almost as an aside, he added: “My sister was buried on what was meant to be her wedding day. The restaurant and everything had been ordered.”
At the time of the earthquake, Sarkisyan was a young police detective. “Many people didn’t report the deaths of relatives. Compensation was 500 roubles for loss of a life and 1,500 for each surviving family member who lost their home. Can you blame them?”
Newcomers to Giumri will see a town largely rebuilt. But adult residents know the invisible sites of mass death. Pointing to the new courthouse, built from pink tufa, the local stone, Sarkisyan says two three-storey schools once shared this corner of the town’s main square. Eight hundred children died.
The earthquake was a colossal event for Armenia – and a seminal moment for the Soviet Union and Gorbachev’s reform movement, perestroika. When a nuclear reactor blew up at Chernobyl two years earlier, the old instincts initially kicked in. Although the Kremlin was later forced to admit there had been an accident, it let no foreign specialists in for months.
Not so with the Armenian earthquake. Gorbachev promptly threw the country’s borders open. International rescue teams, British firemen with sniffer dogs and planeloads of aid poured in. Instead of weeks of waiting, foreigners were given Soviet visas on arrival. On the world’s TV screens, the “faceless” Soviet people were suddenly humanised. Support for perestroika merged with sympathy for the thousands of shattered families. Gorbachev’s stock went up another notch.
In Armenia it was different. Ethnic nationalism had begun to break through the veneer of multicultural Soviet harmony, as Armenians and Azerbaijanis argued over who should run the mountain territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians held unauthorised demonstrations in the capital, Yerevan.
As we interviewed earthquake survivors a few months after the protests, many denounced Gorbachev for bringing his Zil limousine on a cargo flight so that he could tour the wreckage in style. They were staggered when he wagged his finger on TV at local communist party leaders, telling them to clamp down on nationalism at this time of grief. He then ordered the arrest of several leading intellectuals.
Gorbachev was disliked, but Armenians loved the Soviet prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who wept as he visited the ruins and promised to rebuild Giumri within two years. Construction teams from every Soviet republic set up in Giumri, Spitak, and the other broken towns, bringing their own tents and prefabs to sleep in. Fifty thousand workers were soon on the job.
Western governments invested in quick infrastructure projects to give themselves a distinctive profile. The British put up a single-storey school, named after Lord Byron, which Thatcher came to open in June 1990. Italy built a medical clinic, Austria a hospital.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, everything stopped. In Giumri they call them the “carcasses” – row upon row of empty shells of housing blocks that were never completed. The cranes were left behind as gifts, but the workers pulled out.
Newly independent Armenia had no budget to take on the job. The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh became full-scale war. Turkey and Azerbaijan blockaded the country. A severe energy crisis, endless power cuts and severe food shortages prompted mass emigration on the scale of the Irish potato famine. Around 700,000 people, or a fifth of the population, have left, mainly for Russia, since 1991.
Outside the disaster zone, Armenians see the calamity of December 1988 as just one of many shocks they have been through, in contrast to the stability they knew in Soviet times. Even in Giumri, its impact is fading beside the daily gloom of 60% unemployment. The city used to have 46 factories serving the vast Soviet central planning system. Only two are still open, and even these only some of the time.
“My husband is away in Russia for weeks at a time on construction sites,” says Anna Tonoyan, a mother of two, who lives in a flimsy cabin behind the bus station. “I’ve been in these cabins for 17 years. We have no idea when we’ll be able to move.” A teenager in 1988, she was at school when the earthquake hit. Her parents were at work. The five-storey building where they lived crashed to the ground. Because they lost no close family, they were low on the points tally for rehousing and, after a few weeks in tents like many other families, they were given “temporary shelter” in a two-room cabin. They have a wood stove for heating and an indoor tap and toilet – a luxury many cabins are without. They added a porch themselves. The council gave them a small grant to buy furniture and building materials.
The big change for Giumri came in 1998 when the multibillionaire Armenian-American, Kirk Kerkorian, then owner of Metro Goldwyn Mayer and several Las Vegas casinos, stepped in. Kerkorian picked up where the Soviets left off. In the vast suburb to the northwest of Giumri, where the “carcasses” stand, he added a colony of four-storey blocks of pink tufa to rehouse several hundred families in high-quality flats.
Two years later, USAID (the United States Agency for International Development) arrived. Adopting a strategy recommended by the World Bank, it invoked market principles as much as charity. It gave needy families vouchers called housing purchase certificates. Worth anything from $3,000 to $7,000, they guaranteed payment for any house or flat that a family in a shack hoped to buy. Sellers who wanted to leave Giumri or move to a smaller place suddenly found buyers where, before, there had only been poor families with no cash. “We wanted to get away from the exclusive focus on supply-side solutions, just building new units. We thought of ways of increasing supply without using a hammer or chisel,” says Anlian, who worked with USAID.
The programme also brought in seismic experts and put money towards repairing and reinforcing several Soviet-era blocks of flats. Kerkorian’s scheme and USAID initially clashed. Families hesitated before taking vouchers because they hoped to get a better-quality Kerkorian flat. The mini-boom caused by pumping back building workers’ wages into the local economy raised overall demand and sent flat prices up, so that the vouchers did not go far enough. USAID had to add more money and revalue them.
The Urban Institute managed to persuade Kerkorian’s people to repair property as well as build new structures. Anlian is a firm believer in a mix of recovery options, with a preference for redeveloping a disaster-ruined town rather than starting a new one on a distant site. “Most people want to stay in their home communities,” he says. Repairing houses is usually quicker, too. “If the Pakistanis are only going to look at rebuilding, it’ll take a long time.”
Gagik Manoukian, Giumri’s deputy mayor, agrees. He was a senior communist official in 1988 and remains a loyal party member. The tasks you have to do in the first post-disaster days – rescuing survivors, treating the injured, burying the dead, providing tents and food for the homeless – are obvious, he maintains, and it clearly helps if you have big cranes, as the Soviet Union did.
“It’s not good to move to a new site,” he says. “People will come back anyway to their old town centre. That’s what our experience shows.” With the compensation money they got from the Soviet budget, some earthquake survivors built houses in nearby villages. “Forty per cent are empty now. People returned to Giumri. They would rather be in shacks than be so far away.”
He sees other lessons for Pakistan. Number one: give survivors long-term help, such as reduced prices for gas and electricity – not just one-off lump sums in compensation. Number two: take the local climate into account. “The Russians built housing for us made with concrete panels and flat roofs. They did not realise we have snow and hard winters. The Kerkorian places are made of stone and warmer,” Manoukian says.
One gap Armenia was unable to fill, and Pakistan may be in no better a state to do so, is stress counselling. Around 230 doctors, surgeons, psychiatrists and psychologists from 12 countries rushed to Armenia. Therapy focused on distressed children. One study, a year after the earthquake, showed 58% were terrified by any loud noise, and 26% tried to avoid school for fear that it would again become a place of death. Psychiatry in the USSR was an undeveloped science, officially associated with Freud, Jung, and other unsound theories of human behaviour.
“There was almost no one here involved in psychotherapy,” recalls Nelson Shakhnazaryan, a veteran social psychologist. “People came from abroad and the diaspora. They organised play therapy, drawing, recounting experiences in groups. Some of our experts were taken abroad for training. But Armenians are quite materialistic, and many survivors just wanted tablets. I remember one new centre’s experience. On the first day there was a long queue. On the second there was hardly anyone. Word had gone out that the doctors just listened to people talk.”
Shakhnazaryan puts great store, in any disaster recovery, on morality – a sense of solidarity from other people’s generosity, plus, most importantly, honesty at the top. “It’s crucial for survivors to see and feel that reconstruction is being done fairly and properly. There will always be complaints of corruption, but it’s vital to avoid corruption on a major scale,” he says.
The huge outpouring of aid from the rest of Armenia and overseas was a boost to morale in the early days. The diaspora has also been a huge help. With its feudal system, Pakistan has home-grown and foreign millionaires, if not many on a Kerkorian scale. Will they come forward now?
The most basic necessity in rebuilding people’s lives is the simplest and the hardest – the hope and confidence that come from a sound economy. Giumri is still enjoying the fruits of the post-1998 construction boom, and it is not yet over. Kerkorian and USAID have plans to house another 2,500 families in the coming years, raising hopes of an end to Giumri’s “temporary” shacks.
For now, Giumri’s graveyard of destroyed factories is as vast as the cemetery on the hillside beyond, and almost as sad. Manoukian is succinct in his appraisal: “Provide work fast. That’s the best earthquake relief”.