Rebuilt Armenia stands as example

Kansas City Star , MO
Jan 30 2004

Rebuilt Armenia stands as example

Tsunami responders can learn lessons from ’88 earthquake

By MARK McDONALD Knight Ridder Newspapers

SPITAK, Armenia – When rescuers pulled victims from the rubble of the
sugar factory in Spitak in 1988, the corpses seemed like ghastly,
crimson ghosts.

The bodies were covered with an awful goo, a coagulated mixture of
blood and powdered sugar.

The earthquake that crushed the sugar plant also destroyed every
other factory in this mountainous patch of northern Armenia. The
6.9-magnitude quake flattened schools, churches, homes and hospitals.
More than 25,000 people died. Half a million were left homeless.

The 1988 disaster was hardly on the scale of last month’s Asian
tsunami, but the grief and horror were the same. So was the
international response – massive, immediate, global and heartfelt.

But despite the huge donations and many successes, post-earthquake
Armenia could serve as a cautionary tale for the tsunami region: Even
the most heavily financed and best-intentioned relief missions can be
derailed by the aftershocks of economic crises, corruption, politics
and war.

`The people in the tsunami, their pain is our pain,’ said Asya
Khakchikyan, 70, who lost her husband, daughter and granddaughter in
the Spitak quake. `When I see the faces of those poor people in Asia,
I see the faces of the ones I lost.’

Other disaster zones have had bitter experiences with relief efforts
that dwindled or disappeared almost as soon as they started. When the
news media move on, aid missions often do the same.

That didn’t happen in Armenia, government officials, diplomats, aid
workers and survivors agree. After 16 years, international relief
efforts continue, many of them generous and effective.

A housing program under the U.S. Agency for International Development
ended only last month in Gyumri. The Peace Corps has 85 volunteers in
Armenia, several U.N. programs remain active, and dozens of
international agencies and private foundations continue to work in
the region.

`We haven’t recovered yet, but at least say we’re no longer dying,’
said Albert Papoyan, mayor of the hardscrabble village of Shirmakoot,
the epicenter of the quake. `We’re finally starting to breathe.’

An estimated 20,000 people across the quake zone still occupy the
metal shipping containers known here as `domiks.’ The containers once
held emergency provisions that came from abroad. Now people live in

Only one of Spitak’s factories is back in business, and it employs
only a small fraction of the people it did before.

Some aid workers complain that some people still expect handouts.

Spitak lost 5,003 persons to the earthquake, nearly a fourth of its
population. The quake struck Dec. 7, just before noon, when children
were in school and most adults were working at the sugar plant, the
elevator factory, the leather tannery or the sewing collective.

International aid poured in. The grand total after 16 years is
difficult to estimate, although government officials suggest it could
be close to $2 billion, half of what has been pledged for tsunami

`The whole world helped Spitak,’ Asatryan said.

Today, Spitak’s new neighborhoods are known as the French, Italian
and Uzbek districts, commemorating the countries that financed them.

The immediate U.S. response was a planeload of search-and-rescue dogs
and rescue teams from Fairfax County, Va. American tents, heaters,
food and medicine soon followed. Trauma counselors also arrived,
along with some teachers of transcendental meditation.

Today, Armenia is one of the largest per-capita recipients of U.S.
government aid in the world, reportedly second only to Israel. A
large and influential immigrant population in the United States helps
drive those government appropriations.