Gyumri Residents Recall Catastrophic Tremor

Destructive force of 1988 earthquake was so swift that people thought the Armenian city had been bombed.

Gyumri Residents Recall Catastrophic Tremor

Destructive force of 1988 earthquake was so swift that people thought the Armenian city had been bombed.

Saturday, 19 December, 2009
It was 1988. The streets of Gyumri were cluttered with collapsed buildings. The air was thick with burning dust.

Artyom Tonoyan, a 14-year-old boy, sprinted through the debris searching for his family, thinking only of his mother, Julieta, who had been on the city hospital’s seventh floor when the massive earthquake struck this city in western Armenia.

When he got there, the hospital’s wing was just a vast pile of concrete. He sat on the kerb, and cried.

Miraculously, Julieta survived. To this day, she doesn’t remember how she got out of the building. Young Artyom’s father and badly-bruised mother found him an hour later.

The next year, the family moved into one of the 35,000 “domiks” - Soviet cargo containers or shacks sent to Gyumri as temporary shelters. Like thousands of other residents, the family was told that they would have a real house in just two years.

What happened next has been a parable of Armenia’s post-Soviet development. Tonoyan took advantage of an opportunity to leave the country and pursued an education in the United States. He now teaches at a private university in Texas. His parents, stuck in the poverty of independent Armenia, still live in the same domik they were given 20 years ago.

When the earthquake struck Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, on December 7, 1988, more than 85 per cent of its nine-storey buildings and 80 per cent of its five-storey structures collapsed.

The destruction was so swift and catastrophic that people thought their city had been bombed. The Cold War was still going on, and Armenia and Azerbaijan had just begun a bloody dispute over Nagorny Karabakh. Cases were reported of people surrendering to rescuers with their hands up.

“We imagined that this could only be something man-made,” said Flora Sargsyan, homecare project manager at Armenian Caritas, a non-governmental organisation. “We didn’t think it was something God would do.”

Everybody in the area has their own earthquake story, and many recount the death of at least one family member. Out of a population of 200,000, Gyumri lost 17,000 people, or one out of every 12 inhabitants. Outside the city, 58 towns and villages were destroyed, with the loss of 25,000 men, women and children.

While the earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, was strong, the amount of destruction and death was disproportionate to its strength.

The earthquake that hit Mexico City three years earlier measured 8.1 in magnitude, yet killed fewer than 10,000 people. Sergey Nazaretyan, a renowned seismologist and director of the Northern Survey for Seismic Protection of the Republic of Armenia, said Armenia suffered greater damage primarily because of flaws in construction, and in disaster planning.

The Soviet Union, he said, had only one building code for the entire territory. Buildings in earthquake zones used the same code as those in coastal regions. While the Caucasus region has long been known for earthquakes, Nazaretyan said it had never been properly assessed for a one of such strength. The buildings were poorly constructed, with little or no preparation for a massive tremor.

But the most preventable mistakes revealed themselves after the tragedy. A strong recovery plan over the first five days is critical for saving lives, and while more than 11,000 people from all over Armenia came to help on the first day, the official response was chaotic, Nazaretyan said. Military teams were also dispatched, but they had been trained for post nuclear blast recovery efforts—not earthquakes.

Grant money has funded several projects in Armenia to build better houses and measure more accurately the potential damage of another earthquake. Flipping through dozens of charts and maps, Nazaretyan showed the buildings that would be destroyed should the same quake happen today.

“Gyumri is 10 times better prepared than it was in 1988,” he said, adding that only 1,000 deaths and 1,500 injuries would occur. The high-risk areas, shaded in pink, are noticeably small and few.

The bells rang loud from Gyumri’s city square on the morning of Monday, December 7, the 21st anniversary of the earthquake, as families headed to the cemeteries to honour relatives and friends who died in the catastrophe. Just outside the city, one side of a large hill is dotted with thousands of graves, almost all from the last 21 years – testament to the horrors of the earthquake and the Karabakh war.

But the graves aren’t the only visible reminders of the earthquake. Dilapidated and unusable buildings are still standing. It is not uncommon for apartments to house six to ten members of one family. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 families still live without proper housing.

Hundreds of shacks and domiks make up large districts within the city centre. Some are barely held together with scraps of metal, and the walls have rusted. Schools and hospitals were also housed in such structures until five years ago.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Karabakh war and Armenia’s economic struggles during the 1990s, reconstruction efforts moved slowly. The government hopes to finish the task by 2013, employing a private company called Glendale Hills to build new apartments.

Like much of the city, the people in Gyumri sometimes seem frozen in time. They enjoy reminiscing about the days before the earthquake, and describe the city as having been cheerful and full of life; a place of industry and culture. But while much of Gyumri has been rebuilt, they say the city’s energetic spirit has gone.

“There probably isn't a day that I do not have some sort of, even if only fleeting, flashback,” Tonoyan said, talking about the earthquake. “But you try to forget, and move on.”

His family has been promised a new apartment this month, but their faith in the government’s word has waned over the years. Like so many families in the area, they have repeatedly been told that new housing would come soon – but are still waiting.

Tonoyan’s older sister, Ruzanna, chuckled sarcastically while playing with her young grandchild’s hair.

“It could still be another 20 years,” she said.

Ashley Killough is a journalist and Fulbright fellow based in Yerevan.
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