Thousands killed in a massive earthquake. Scores left homeless. Two weeks ago, it was Pakistan, 17 years ago, Armenia. Jonathan Steele returns.
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 British 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.
The date was December 7, 1988. Gorbachev was at the peak of his power. 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 500,000 Soviet troops from Eastern Europe.
That morning he was due to say goodbye to Ronald Reagan and meet his newly elected successor, George Bush snr. But immediately after their photo-opportunity with the Statue of Liberty in the background, he cut short his visit and flew home to Moscow.
The Moscow-based Western press corps 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 14 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 per cent 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 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 that, 17 years on, has 3500 families in the city still living in shacks, metal containers and disused railway wagons?
“Decisions taken in the first few days are crucial,” said Steve Anlian, director of the Armenian branch of the Urban Institute, a Washington advisory body.
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 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,” said Ribsime Bichakhchyan, a local pediatrician. “When I start talking about it, I can see from his eyes that he doesn’t understand. 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. “My sister was at school and my father was at work in a factory. It took nine days to find their bodies,” said Fatima Vartanyan, who attends a clinic four times a week to try to relieve the stress she still suffers.
Ashot Simonyan, the taxi driver who took us to the hillside where thousands 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,” said David Sarkisyan, the local chief prosecutor.
Almost as an aside, he added: “My sister was buried on what was meant to be her wedding day.”
Newcomers to Giumri will see a town largely rebuilt. But adult residents know the invisible sites of mass death. Pointing to the new courthouse, Sarkisyan said 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 Kremlin initially barred foreign specialists from lending a hand.
Not so with the Armenian earthquake. Gorbachev threw open the country’s borders. International rescue teams, British firemen with sniffer dogs and planeloads of aid poured in.
On the world’s TV screens, the “faceless” Soviet people were suddenly humanised.
Western governments invested in quick infrastructure projects to give themselves a distinctive profile. The British put up a single-storey school, 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.
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, a fifth of the population, have left 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 per cent 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,” said 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.”
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, building a colony of four-storey blocks to rehouse several hundred families.
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.
The program also brought in seismic experts and put money towards reinforcing several blocks of Soviet-era flats.
Anlian is a firm believer in a mixture 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 said. 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, agreed. “It’s not good to move to a new site,” he said. “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. 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,” Manoukian said.
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 per cent were terrified by any loud noise, and 26 per cent tried to avoid school for fear that it would again become a place of death.