Editor’s Note: To mark the 30th anniversary of the December, 7, 1988 Earthquake, Asbarez’s Special Correspondent Catherine Yesayan set out to Gyumri and other parts of Armenia in search of answers to assess the impact of the devastating tragedy today—three decades later. This and the four subsequent articles are her contribution and labor of love. She has compiled the stories from interviews, observations and conversations with people who were involved in earthquake relief efforts and residents who still call the earthquake-ravaged areas their home. Her reports not only tell human stories but also provide a glimpse at what still needs to be done in the Earthquake Zone.
Asbarez would like to thank Catherine Yesayan for her tireless work and her commitment to share human stories from a unique perspective.
BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
The International response to the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that struck the Shirak region in the North-West of Armenia on the 7th December of 1988 was unprecedented for an earthquake relief assistance. It may have been one of the largest humanitarian aid responses of all time.
Within a few days after the earthquake, an outpour of international aid and relief began to flow into Armenia. The international help renewed the political spirit in the world towards the Soviet Union, still facing the challenges and isolation of the Cold War.
Moscow accepted an assistance offer from the United States to help cope with the earthquake, marking the first time that a large-scale American assistance was sent to the Soviet Union in the years since the two countries were allies in World War II.
Planeloads of assistance came from around the world— including a 42-member medical team from India, 200 rescue workers and doctors from France, a donation of blood from Cuban President Fidel Castro and a rare personal message and contribution of $100,000 from Pope John Paul II. At the time, the Vatican had no diplomatic ties with the Communist government in the Kremlin.
By July of 1989, eight months after the earthquake, about $500 million in donations had been delivered to Armenia from 113 countries.
For Armenians around the world, this disaster felt personal. The Armenian Diaspora rushed to aid the victims. Mr. Neshan Peroomian of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) outlined for me various ways that Armenians felt a call to help and acted quickly in their response.
Immediately following the earthquake, the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) and Western Prelacy created the Earthquake Relief Fund for Armenia (ERFA) in the Western United states.
A committee was formed under the leadership of ARS at its headquarters. There were several subcommittees, and Neshan Peroomian was the chairman of the construction committee. Later the ARS of the Eastern USA and the ARS of France joined in the endeavors.
In total,160 homes, two kindergartens, two schools, and one building as a therapy center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were built by the ERFA.
Specifically, the construction was carried out in several areas that were the hardest hit by the earthquake. In Sariar village, 25 single family houses were built; in Noyemberian, 22 single family houses. Gyumri received one building for a PTSD therapy center. And in Karashen village, 42 single family houses, one school, and one Kindergarten.
ARS Eastern USA contributed the following: In Akhourian, Arshavir Shirakian, 41 single family houses, construction of Nigol Aghbalian the kindergarten, and remodeling of the Nigol Aghbalian school.
ARS France built 30 single family houses in Amasya.
ARS also put together a team of mental health experts, which was comprised of six psychiatrists and psychologists to come to Armenia and assess the extent of the mental health needs in the affected regions. The assessment was later followed by visiting therapists who offered psychotherapy and social rehabilitation.
While I was staying in Yerevan, researching the Gyumri earthquake and its aftermath, I met Rouben Galichian, who with the help of a few close friends, created “Aid-Armenia,” a non-profit to raise funds for the victims of the earthquake, and he told me about the humanitarian efforts that the Armenian community of England put forth.
The immediate concern of the organization was to send urgently needed medical supplies, clothing, food and shelter materials to the earthquake zone. This was achieved through the generous donations of the Armenian community, the British public, the leading charities in England and the Government of United Kingdom, which allocated five million pounds for immediate assistance.
The airport authorities had designated a large hangar at Heathrow airport for collecting, sorting and dispatching all kinds of goods to Armenia. A large number of volunteers from all walks of life, worked tirelessly around the clock to assemble and forward the supplies.
During the first three weeks, Aid Armenia organized the shipment of 1200 tonnes of medicines, medical equipment, food and clothing by air as well as by sea/land transportation. The value of collected goods was over two million English pounds.
Part of the money raised by Aid Armenia was earmarked to build a new pediatric hospital in Vanadzor to replace the one destroyed during the earthquake.
The construction of the hospital was completed in 1992 and it was officially opened on April 25 of the same year. Many dignitaries including the Ambassador of Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury and members of Aid Armenia attended.
The cost to rebuild the hospital and the pediatric ward was four million pounds. Since 1992 Aid America has provided more funds to upgrade equipment at the hospital.
In the meantime, in England, a band named “Rock Aid Armenia” for the same charitable purpose recorded “Smoke on the Water,” a song to raise funds for victims of the earthquake.
Additionally, there were two concerts of classical music organized in London, one was performed by the famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the other, included performances by world-famous opera singers and soloists.
Not too far from London, across the English Channel in Paris, there was another huge fundraising setup by iconic singer Charles Aznavour. Aznavour, known as the “Frank Sinatra of France,” was born in France to parents who fled the Armenian Genocide. He became a legend in Europe and continued performing and recording right up until his death on October 1 at the age of 94.
On November 28 of this year, a special event was organized by the Armenian Embassy in Moscow in collaboration with Aurora Humanitarian Initiative and Aznavour Foundation to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the earthquake. Nicolas Aznavour, Charles Aznavour’s son, was the special guest at the event.
At the function, “Chronicles of Charity,” he remembered how his father mobilized the world upon hearing the sad news of the tragedy.
“My father was among the first to react to the 1988 disaster and to take immediate action. That very night, he composed the song Pour toi Armenie (For You Armenia) together with Georges Garvarents, mobilizing artists from France, United States, and later the entire international community.”
Since the song was launched on February 11, 1989, it was a great success. The single went straight to #1 on the French SNEP Singles Chart (Top 50) and remained there for ten weeks. The song featured for a long time on the Guinness Book of Records, because it was the first single to enter the French Singles Chart at #1. It was also the first appearance of Charles Aznavour on the Top 50. The revenue from the sale of the song went to Armenia.
The Shirak Center is a non-governmental organization (NGO), which was founded by Vahan Toumassyan in 2006. During the last 12 years, the center has partnered with other international organizations to bring much needed help and material goods to the needy families at the affected regions of the earthquake. One of its functions is to furnish firewood, clothing and school supplies to the needy families.
Mr. Toumassyan gave me the following data about international aid contributions.
The earthquake destroyed 20,612 homes when it hit in 1988. Before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, they constructed 1,628 dwellings. The International World Bank built 1,374 homes between 1995-97. The American Red Cross built 360 homes, 215 homes were built through different sources and private entities and 5,144 families received monetary help to offset their loss.
Toumassyan said that since the formation of their NGO, they had the opportunity each year, to move about 20 to 25 families to new homes. During the last three years, they have partnered with Paros Foundation and during that time they have moved 30 to 40 families to newly-built apartments.
The Paros Foundation was launched in 2006 in Berkley California. During that time, it has raised more than five million dollars to support Armenia in different functions.
To receive homes built by the Paros Foundation, the families go through a rigorous screening process by the staff of Shirak Foundation. The cost of each home on average is $20,000 for a two-bedroom apartment and includes upgrades to make sure they are well-appointed. At a minimum, families must demonstrate that they have the means to cover expenses associated with home ownership.
Mr. Harut Sassounian, the Vice Chairman of the Lincy Foundation, established by Kirk Kerkorian is another source of information about relief efforts. He said that the Foundation built 3,700 apartment units in Gyumri and the surrounding region affected by the earthquake
Another organization, Armenia Fund USA, was established in 1994 in Los Angeles. Its mission was to improve Armenia’s economy and to assist in the well-being of the citizens. To raise funds, they launched a Thanksgiving Day telethon, now in its 21styear. In 2002, part of the money collected during the telethon went to the construction of four schools in the earthquake zone.
As someone who has extensively studied the 1988 Earthquake, visited the region and interviewed the survivors, I can say one thing: the earthquake was horrible. There is a bright side however; it brought together Armenians from all over the world to become engaged and to develop many organizations, to create projects to improve the wellbeing of the people in our homeland. Sometimes good comes out of a tragedy…
Kirk Kerkorian, when alive, fervently rejected any notion of immortalizing his name or image on a street corner or edifice. He was an extremely private individual. He rarely granted interviews and avoided giving speeches like the plague. This statue would have made him cringe.