It took an earthquake to shake me out of yesterday’s bout of self-pity. The 1988 earthquake which, 30 years ago tomorrow, destroyed the town of Spitak, and wrecked the city of Gyumri, killing more than 20,000 people in the North of Armenia.
Vahagn and his friends arrived in Gyumri to find the city in ruins. He recounts getting off the bus and joining the rescue workers already there. They worked through the night in the bitter cold, taking breaks to lie on stones heated by small fires. Vahagn quietly retells how calm he was the moment when he found his first body. He would find many more. There was no water at the time, so in order to wash his hands, he used Pepsi-cola bought from a nearby store. Vahagn also remembers stores being looted, and facing the reality that he couldn’t stop all the looters. After three days of grueling rescue work in Gyumri, Vahagn went back to Yerevan to go to Stepanavan, his childhood home. On the way there, he saw the devastation of Spitak. There wasn’t a single building remaining. During the first few weeks after the earthquake, after seeing international rescue teams from Germany and France, Vahagn realized that Armenia needed a trained rescue service. A few days after returning to school, he found an opportunity to join one called Spitak, named after the town that was destroyed.
The account above is from Storybeyondtheruins.com,an oral history site launched by my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers Michael Chen and Max Malter in conjunction with a number of students from the American University of Armenia. The group interviewed survivors of the earthquake, making sure their stories are preserved for new generations of Armenians. The site will have audio interviews, transcribed stories, and photos from 1988. It is in its early stages, and it is important work.
Vahagn, whose story is above, now works at Peace Corps Armenia. He is Safety and Security Manager– a career choice inspired by the terrible disaster on his doorstep at the age of 17. I have heard a number of other people I know tell their stories of horror and loss: Peace Corps staff, a teacher and a principal involved with the poetry contest, a man I met at a party, and another in a class I was teaching. When you hear them talk and see and hear the emotion on their faces and in their voices, you wonder how they picked up and went on. They are Armenians–that’s what they do.
When you hear the figure 20,000 dead (in a country that now has a population of just under 3 million), it doesn’t really sink in what that means. But hear a woman–just a small child at the time–talk of toddling out of the house, following her mother who’d stepped out to see what was causing the rumbling noise. Hear that little girl tell the story of her infant brother crushed to death in his cot as the house fell in just seconds after she crossed the door. Imagine living the lives of that sister and mother after that terrible day… They will never forget, no one who hears their story will ever forget. It is important that the word gets out, and all these stories are told.
Outlook on the BBC World Service had a very powerful story yesterday, told by a woman called Anahit. She was a school girl in class at the time the earthquake struck. Eventually, she was pulled out of the concrete wreckage, her life saved by the dead body of her friend Larisa who had been tossed on top of her, saving Anahit from being crushed by a slab of stone. Anahit’s friend Garik died beside her before he could be rescued. Her brother, in another class on a higher floor, died too. So did their father. I know today’s Larisas and Gariks, young people the same age as those lost children were then. The tragedy is unimaginable. You can listen to the Outlook story here.
Another Anahit told me of her niece—17 and newly married–who also died in Gyumri. Ara (in Yerevan–not Goris–it is a common name here) told me about his uncle, killed in Spitak. Ara believes that if the phone system had not failed, if the roads had been passable, they would have been able to save his uncle’s life. So many “what ifs” and “never to bes”.
If you are feeling down and blue today, hug your favorite people tighter and be thankful you have not had to go through what the dead, injured and living of Northern Armenia have endured. Keep Gyumri, Spitak and Armenia in your heart. Check back on Storybeyondtheruins.com or follow them on Facebook, and be glad every day the earth doesn’t come crashing in on you.