"Moscow News" weekly, December 10, 1989, N50
Predictions in Yerevan of an imminent earthquake caused lessons to be suspended at many schools, kindergartens to be closed and hospitals evacuated. People who lived through last year's December 7 tragedy saw it as a mystical coincidence that it could all be repeated nearly exactly a year later.
Radio and TV broadcasts did not mention the possible
strength of the predicted quake; Each one thought about it to
himself and tried to guess whether his walls would survive. Ada
Tadevosyan, director of the Stress Centre now helping survivors
of last year's catastrophe, and Parkev Akopyan, her deputy and
Yerevan's chief psychiatrist, told me that the announcement
brought more harm than good. Apparently it was necessary, but no
one consulted psychologists on how to phrase the prediction so
as to spare people's nerves.
That evening we visited the home of Sarkis Muradyan, an artist and a deputy to Armenia's Supreme Soviet. It was crowded: all his relatives were there. Packages of warm clothing for children were lying in the entrance hall - in case they suddenly had to race out into the street. The talk was about last year's earthquake. About how few people in the Republic believed the official number of victims: 25,000. Muradyan repeated the figure which he cited at the Supreme Soviet of Armenia: nothing is known about the fate of at least 60,000 others.
"Are they missing?"
"I think that most of them are dead," said Muradyan. "After all, tens of thousands of people cannot be 'lost' in peace time."
"What is this statistics based on?"
"On materials of the State Committee for Statistics of the Republic, analyzed by the staff of the Search Centre of the Central Committee of Armenia's Komsomol. The Centre was set up the day after the earthquake and has done tremendous work." Grigory Vaganyan, head of the Search Centre, acquainted me with the results of the analysis. The difference in Armenia's actual population after the earthquake and the estimated number beforehand is 221,000. According to official statistics, some 130,000 were evacuated from the Republic and 25,000 died. Which means that we know nothing about 66,000 others! The Search Centre says that the official organs don't have complete data on the victims. The lists that were given to the Centre are inaccurate: only 60,000 of those evacuated and 16,000 of those who were registered. So the real demographic situation remains unknown, and this should be taken into account, when planning how to the people of Armenia who suffered.
The Republic's Procurator's Office assured us that questions about missing persons would be immediately investigated by law-enforcing organs. But staff members of the Search Centre and of the Investigation Service (created by the Armenian Red Cross Society) said that lists given to
Procurator's Office and to the Ministry of Internal Affairs had never been investigated. The Republican hospitals refuse to provide data on those patients who died.
A year later, not all the ruins in Spitak have been cleared away. In place of the former 5-storey blocks of flats there are scattered cottages, huts and garages converted into housing. Pavlik Asatryan, Secretary of the Spitak District Party Committee, has his study in a metal house, like a pencil-case. He lives in the same kind of a box.
"Nearly everyone in the city now has a roof over their head," Asatryan says. "But construction plans aren't being fulfilled. The Uzbek builders expected to put up 60, 000 sq. metres, but only 15,000 will be ready by the end of the year. The Estonians will have built 1,000 instead of 10,000. But the builders from Penza, Buryatia, 0renburg, Bashkiria and North Ossetia are building more than planned.
"It's a pity, but it's a fact - the aid from abroad turned out to be more substantial. We're grateful to builders from Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands, France, Norway and Czechoslovakia who built polyclinics, a hospital, schools and housing in Spitak and some villages. This academic year, by the way, children are not studying in tents. True, only 65 city families and some 200 village families are living in stone houses. The main obstacle has been the railway siege of Armenia, organized by the Azerbaijan's Popular Front. During the two-and-a-half months when the railways were blocked, the 'volume of work' on the average per builder was limited to 6 kg of cement per month. Because of this over 2,500 builders from the RSFSR went back 'home and so did the Norwegians, Germans and Italians. The harm inflicted on the Spitak Region alone by the siege equals some 20 million roubles."
To see how people with a roof over their head actually live, we dropped in on the Shakhbazyan family. Theirs is a small house patched together out of pieces of plywood and plastic. An iron stove is burning in the only room, sparsely furnished with the few things that made it through the earthquake. There is nothing left o( their former apartment but the address: 3 Kirova Street, Apartment 7, in the centre of Spitak.
"We live on our hope and our work," says Eduard Shakhbazyan. "We'll build the houses, no one can force us to stop working. But we v a!>t to stay here. We don't want the new Spitak that they want to build a few kilometres from here. I want to know why weren't the people who live here consulted? Why weren't those who live in Leninakan consulted? Why didn't they discuss the projects with the people as promised? Nikolai Ryzhkov said - when the architects and designers were arguing - that they should listen to local experts who know better. But then everything happened the same old way: they pointed to a place on the map, named an unreal time period - two years to rebuild - and that became the order."
After the earthquake, I was often reminded of Chernobyl. Not only because many of the people who worked in Spitak and Leninakan were on the Government Commission in April, 1986. Then too, they just pointed to a place on the map to indicate the new city for Chernobyl's engineers. And Slavutich, which cost huge sums, was built on a "radioactive spot". It's too late to take it back.
Just as after Chernobyl, the damage and number of victims in Armenia were underestimated. Last December they assured journalists in Yerevan that the rebuilding of the destroyed Armenian cities and villages would not mean less construction in other regions. But damage done to the country's budget by Chernobyl was acknowledged only years later. Why deceive ourselves again?
Saying good-bye to the Shakhbazyans, we asked them how the aid from abroad had been distributed and where the food they had treated us to came from. They looked a little embarrassed. Then Eduard, somewhat guiltily, said that all the food had been bought from black profiteers. And one can only guess how they get hold of it.
"There are always people prepared to grow fat on trouble," he said, "be it war or earthquake or something else. Whoever managed to preserve property is getting money, housing and best things. Everybody here knows about this, but you'll hardly find proof - who'll admit that he gave or took bribes?
"But enough about the bad. We're strong people and we know how to stand together. Have you seen the church in the cemetery which is being built by the people? Spitak's people are putting all their efforts to the sacred cause - the preserving of memory of the dead."
A hospital, built and equipped by the Norwegians, is open on the outskirts of Spitak. Officially, it is called the Central Regional Hospital. Chief physician Albert Sarkisyan says that psychologists are predicting a rise in suicides, alcoholism and broken families as a result of the earthquake. Also more premature babies due to the mothers' poor housing and bad diet.
We spoke to a man in Yerevan about the quality of construction. He said that various "special houses" are very different from the "rank-and-file houses". But just as it is impossible to judge the state of Soviet medicine by the recently abolished Kremlin polyclinics, it is impossible to judge housing by the houses built for bosses. Take the polyclinic of the 4th Department of the Republican Ministry of Public Health. It was to be transferred to the future Centre of Mother and Child of Armenia, now being funded by journalists from Spain, Italy and France on MN's initiative. The Italian experts who came to inspect the building categorically rejected it as not up to par.
A year ago, when earthquake survivors straggled into the stadium in Spitak hoping to find their relatives, we wrote that the ruined houses should not be blasted immediately since people could be still alive left inside. We wrote that too many different ministries were creating confusion. And that the two-year time period for rebuilding was hardly realistic.
In short we wrote that an original "psychology of liquidating" had worked once more when leaders strive to deliver reports as quickly as possible to the effect that all the necessary measures have been taken.
People are found, ruins are cleared away and fires are extinguished. A psychology which has already caused many of us much suffering.
MN special correspondent
Yerevan - the emergency zone