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16 years after earthquake devastated Armenia, global aid continues

SPITAK, Armenia—When rescuers began pulling victims from the rubble of the sugar factory here in 1988, the corpses seemed like ghastly, crimson ghosts: The bodies were covered with an awful goo, a coagulating 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 numerous 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 here, 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 the shattered city of 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, the 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 them.

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 people 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.

Spitak Mayor Vanik Asatryan said every house and apartment building in his city collapsed—all 5,635 of them. Other towns and villages also were reduced to rubble.

"Everyone," he said, "was homeless."

Asatryan and others praised the quick response of the Soviet government—Armenia was part of the Soviet Union in 1988—although communist construction teams inexplicably began putting up row upon row of low-quality, concrete apartment blocks, exactly like the ones that had just collapsed.

International aid also 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's been pledged for tsunami relief.

"The whole world helped Spitak," Asatryan said.

Today, Spitak's new neighborhoods—built to exacting new codes—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. The plane took off without a flight plan, and U.S. officials weren't sure it would be allowed to land in Soviet territory or that the rescuers, who had no visas, would be allowed to get off.

"This was the first time we offered (aid) and the first time they accepted," said current U.S. ambassador to Armenia John Evans, who at the time helped scramble relief supplies from his post on the State Department's Soviet desk in Washington. "Remember, we'd been dueling with these guys for 70 years. It's not too much to say it was historic."

When the earthquake hit, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was in the United States meeting with outgoing President Ronald Reagan and his newly elected successor, Vice President George H.W. Bush. Gorbachev cut short his visit and hurried to Armenia, but the landmark summit already had heralded a new openness between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. relief aid was a product of, and a catalyst for, those improving relations.

American tents, heaters, food and medicine soon followed. Trauma counselors also arrived, along with some teachers of transcendental meditation.

"People were very afraid, and they couldn't sleep," recalled Ashot Hambartsumyan, an official with the Eurasia Foundation in Armenia. "People were in altered states of consciousness. Some of them even thought the Russians had deliberately caused the earthquake somehow. After four or five sessions of meditation, they began to normalize."

But organizational chaos, ruined infrastructure and outright theft hurt the efficient delivery of relief supplies. In one notorious example, the glass tanks from donated dialysis machines began showing up at outdoor markets in Moscow, where they were sold as aquariums.

Volunteers who helped at the time estimate now that 80 percent of the supplies were distributed fairly.

But the initial success encountered new challenges in the mid-1990s, as Armenia endured terrible seismic shifts on the political and military fronts.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991—along with much of Armenia's economy and government services—and the construction crews that had come from the various Soviet republics returned home. They often took their backhoes and bulldozers with them. Their concrete apartment towers remain unfinished and empty.

"Soviet promises," Asatryan said, "were not kept."

Skirmishes with Azerbaijan soon erupted into a full-blown war over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The three-year conflict drained away precious resources. A cease-fire was signed in 1994.

Aware that rebuilding efforts in the earthquake zone had stalled, USAID started a new housing program in 2001, awarding cash vouchers to some 7,000 displaced families.

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.

Armenian-American businesspeople also donate heavily. The Lincy Foundation, underwritten by the billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, has been particularly effective in building housing, roads and tunnels in the quake zone.

Aid workers grumble that the deluge of assistance created a caste of "professional victims" hooked on handouts. One former Red Cross worker said residents would become enraged when he was a day or two late delivering free medicine.

"They think all the world owes them everything," said Yulia Antonyan, a program officer at the Eurasia Foundation. "People will sit around a table saying this country gave us too little or the Uzbeks build bad buildings."

The foundation's country director, Ara Nazinyan, said it had been "a major problem to prevent this dependency on aid."

"But right after a disaster, people need fish," Nazinyan said. "You can't say to someone, `Stay hungry while I teach you how to fish.' Humanitarian assistance is necessary."

The cash-strapped Armenian government has been hard-pressed to create housing, jobs and development programs on its own.

Tens of thousands of former factory workers, for example, now rely on small subsistence plots of potatoes and cabbage. The soil is thin, the winters are brutal and freak summer hailstorms wrecked the wheat harvest for two years running.

The hollow shells of ruined factories add a ghostly gloom to the area, and only one of the Soviet-era enterprises has managed to reopen: Asatryan, Spitak's mayor, got a World Bank loan to resuscitate the sewing collective, and he has 250 employees stitching military uniforms for the Dutch, British and Americans.

Before the quake, however, the sewing factory had 5,000 employees. Two-thirds of local adults are still unemployed, and the average salary is about $2.50 a day.

"I feel completely abandoned by the government," said the widow Khachikyan, who subsists on a $13 monthly pension, half of which she spends on an asthma inhaler. She picks wormy apples from a nearby park and lives in a metal trailer left behind by the Italians.

"I've been in this domik for 15 years. They keep saying they'll give me an apartment, but they never do."

She managed a shrug and a wheezing laugh, and said, "I guess they'll give me an apartment when I die."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Armenia

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