The Armenian Earthquake; 25 Years On

In Memory Of the 25,000 Who Lost Their Lives

10 years on from the Armenian earthquake. A woman prays for the souls of the dead in a Gyumri church. 6 December 1998, Gyumri, Armenia. Photo: ©Edmond Terakopian

10 years on from the Armenian earthquake. A woman prays for the souls of the dead in a Gyumri church. 6 December 1998, Gyumri, Armenia. Photo: ©Edmond Terakopian

In 1998 I made two trips to Armenia to work on a story about ten years after the earthquake that destroyed the northern city of Spitak and devastated Gyumri. It was the most moving experience I’ve had as a photojournalist; listening to people’s stores and seeing the suffering etched across their faces and causing tremors in their voices only gave me a slight understanding of the trauma caused.

According to official figures, the disaster claimed 25,000 lives, 19,000 people became disabled, and 530,000 residents were left homeless.

Sadly the trauma continues for many as  people are still having to live in sheds that were put up 25 years ago as temporary shelter. Keeping in mind that in the winter temperatures drop to minus 25 degrees centigrade, one can begin to appreciate the hardship.

Here are some words I wrote for the 10th anniversary of this dark day:

Today (December 7, 1998) marks the tenth anniversary of the Armenian

earthquake, which killed over 25,000. 10 years have passed since the

ground was shaken, and buildings were flattened by the 6.9 richter

scale measurement. 10 years have passed since the clock reached 11.41

am, and many children lost their short lives, trapped inside their

fallen schools.

When one travels through the two main cities in the earthquake region,

Gyumri and Spitak avoiding all the potholes in the streets and

pavements, one doesn’t see what is expected after 10 years of

reconstruction. In fact, there hasn’t been 10 years of reconstruction.

Several factors played a major part in the reconstruction not finishing.

Mainly the Soviet Union broke up, and as a result, the construction

companies left with their workers, as there was no more funding. Behind

them they left building sites, which have now become the graveyards of

the cranes which were erected there to bring life back to the buildings

of the towns.

Other factors, almost equally as important, were the Karabakh struggle

and the blockade of the country by Turkey. On top of these major

difficulties, Armenia gained its independence, which brought with it all

the associated problems.

There is a national holiday today, and the population remembers one of

its darkest days. Almost everyone in one way or another, was affected by

the earthquake. Everyone in the region lost members of their family.

Those further away from Gyumri and Spitak, left their families and

homes, and rushed to the aid of those hit by the earthquake. “It was a

site that I would never imagine possible”, said Samvel Nazarian.

“Everywhere you looked, there was something aweful going on. Bits of

bodies sticking out from the underneath of rubble. The sound of constant

crying. Screaming from every direction. People trying to find their

children. Children trying to find their parents. Folk not believing that

the dead family member in front of them has actually died”. “Even the

most horrible horror film had not prepared me for such sites”. On the

whole though, most people don’t want to remember those days, and

emotions.

A very large number of people lost their limbs in the earthquake. To

highlight their plight, 25 year old Nshan Basmajian, a double leg

amputee and President of the ‘All Armenian Young Disabled Foundation –

Havatamk’, walked all the way from Yerevan to Gyumri, a journey of over

130km. “I lost my legs in an accident. I was a burden on my parents as I

couldn’t do anything for myself. One day I felt god come to me and give

me the energy and will to walk again. From this day, I started walking;

first with great difficulty, but later, with practice I would increase

the distance, inspired by stories of people overcoming huge obstacles;

mountain climbers and other adventureres. I started walking great

distances, from one town to another to raise awareness for other

disabled people, and to motivate people like myself, that they can help

themselves. I am walking to Gyumri so people will pay attention to the

difficulties faced by the disabled in the region”.

On his way to Gyumri, he stopped off at Mastara village, for the opening

and blessing of a memorial dedicated to the victims of the earthquake.

The memorial is called “Veradzenound” – meaning Renaissance or re-birth.

People from Gyumri, 20km away, came to the ceremony, many kissing it and

shedding tears as they went on. two priests from the local churchs

performed a blessing ceremony.Part of this ceremony consisted of two

girls, robed in white and statuesque in their stance, releasing two

doves. The symbolism being that the souls of the dead were being set

free. Sadly, one of these doves flew upwards for a short distance and

dropped dead at the feet of its caped liberator.

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