by Gayane Mkrtchyan
Editor's Note: The first thing an outsider learns about Gyumri is that its people enjoy telling jokes, tall tales, are famous for teasing, and known in Armenia for their "big mouths." They are known for their art, for their culture, for their humor and hospitality. Since an awful winter day 20 years ago, that jovial spirit has been challenged.
On December 7, 1988, the world beyond the reach of strictly guarded and sanitized propaganda of Soviet "pravda" heard the awful truth of a province (Shirak) struck with around 25,000 dead.
To visit Gyumri today is to know that its darkest day did not become its obituary. The day did, though, become Gyumri's (known then as Leninakan) defining moment.
It is remarkable that while evidence of catastrophe remains these 20 years later, it is equally remarkable that the city's residents now seem to carry their history of calamity not only as a burden but as a badge honoring endurance.
Nearly every family has an earthquake story, told most often in the images of lost members eternally locked in black and white photos that are the ubiquitous Gyumri living-room wall memorials.
Twenty years later, the stories of those famous for their good humor and open hearts remain chilling. And inspiring ...
The family of Susanna Melkonian, 45, is one of the rare and happy families of Gyumri that did not suffer loss of life in 1988. Suffering only came later.
"The psychological blow was so strong that some time after the earthquake I realized that I was physically melting. I couldn't get off my mind what I'd seen and gone through in the ruined city or I wasn't mentally strong enough to bear it. I began to have deterioration of my limbs, my muscles were becoming weak. In one word, I had atrophy," Susanna says.
Her suffering aside, she looks for an optimistic note to the conversation and speaks about the rebuilt and reborn Gyumri.
"The quality of life has improved in the city. The Gyumri folks have changed a lot since the earthquake— after the loss and distress, and then the aid. People expected others from outside to do something for them all the time. Now they don't have this mentality anymore," she says.
In 2001 Susanna founded Havat ("Belief"), a nongovernmental organization for disabled women. It has 125 members.
"There were a lot of disabled women in the city who were alienated and isolated from society. Everyone lived indoors with their own affliction and could not go out because of physical defects. We tried to gradually change that," Susanna says.
Working as a club of sorts, the NGO began to deal mainly with social and health issues. They have a tea club where they gather for debates and to commiserate and compare experiences as physically disabled. They collaborate with Gyumri's employment center to help their members find jobs.
A conversation soon lapses into memories of the earthquake, especially as the 20th anniversary approaches. Susanna remembers that before the earthquake she worked at a local shipping company as an accountant. She pauses for a moment and seems to make an effort to recall, but it clearly makes her feel pain again.
"The quake started before the lunch break. Everyone ran into the yard. But it was impossible to walk outside, the ground was moving like a wave, rising and falling. That open space looked like a sea. Then, like a madman, I started to run to the kindergarten where my son was. The nearby building was turned into a huge mound of earth. There were dead bodies all around the place. All I thought was to find my son alive."
Susanna then grows quiet as a young man enters the room—the son she feared had died. She then tells the rest of the story ...
"I found my son alive. He was left unscathed. I don't remember how I got to the kindergarten. It seemed to me that I was growing mad while I was going there, because I thought all the time as to what I would see— was my most precious loved one alive or not.
"I agree that time heals wounds, but that tragedy is raised in my memory every day."
"Iam always asked: 'Are you happy to have been born on that day?' I cannot answer. No one can say that she is not happy for her birth. It wasn't my fault that the day saw so many deaths and victims. I am happy that I did not die but was born on that day," says 19-year-old Khanuma Mirzoyan.
Khanuma was born on December 7, 1988. She was one of the 17 babies who were born in Gyumri that day. These were the first of the generation who have now grown up in the "disaster zone" or the "recovery zone"—in a city forced by nature to rebuild and recreate itself.
"No one congratulated me on having my firstborn. Simply no one could say those words of congratulations. I am grateful to God that I went into labor late; otherwise if I were in the hospital, neither I nor Khanuma would have survived," Khanuma's mother, 40-year-old Narine Mirzoyan says.
December 7 seems to be outlined in her look, while Khanuma's eyes look for a place to hide their tears.
"That day was shrouded," Narine recalls. "When the earth began to move, like everyone else I also ran to the yard. There was some unnatural rattle, a despicable wail. I thought only I was hearing it, because I already felt birth pangs.
"No one listened to me (when she went into labor). They were saying it wasn't a good time for labor and wondered where they could take me because the city had been ripped to the ground."
Then Narine remembers that she was taken to her father's home where she gave birth to her baby girl.
"There were ruins of buildings, dead bodies, people running along the way. Helicopters were hovering over the city. It was said that authorities had emitted gas to prevent people from going mad because of all that. Now I believe that it was true. Because I myself did not feel much pain when I went into labor," the mother says.
The dead body of Narine's sister was in one room of her father's home and Narine stayed with her newly born daughter in another. The relatives were mourning the death of her sister and she did not know what to feel as she looked at little Khanuma.
"We have never celebrated Khanuma's birthday on December 7. It is forbidden that I set a celebration table on December 7. The whole of Gyumri is in mourning on this day and we also visit the cemetery. We celebrate her birthday the next day," Narine says.
Narine gave birth to a son, Gor, about a year after Khanuma's birth. And, several years later, she gave birth to a second daughter, Mariam.
Khanuma says that when she was a child, her father told her about Gyumri before the earthquake and showed her the parts of the city where there used to be buildings. He told his daughter that Gyumri was once a wonderful and beautiful city.
"Today, we live in a new Gyumri," Khanuma says. "We didn't see the earthquake, but we were immediate bearers of its consequences. We, who could have spent our childhood in more colorful conditions, didn't have that opportunity, but still we love our city. And now I want one thing—to see a more prosperous and completely rebuilt Gyumri."
"Second birth" under ruins
Amiddle-aged woman waits for the taxi driver to get out of the car, open the door and give her her wheelchair. From the car seat she picks herself up and sits in the wheelchair, pays the driver and heads for her home.
Like many her age in Gyumri, life for 54-year-old Anahit Igitian is divided into two parts—before the earthquake and after the earthquake. Twenty years after the tragedy, she still remembers it in every detail.
"Even though deep down I have bitterness, I must confess that I am happy. My daughters have grown up, formed their lives. I have grandchildren. And my son, with whom we have passed through near-death experiences, has graduated from the Gyumri Institute of Public Economy and serves in the army," she says.
Anahit, together with her one-year-old son, spent three days under the ruins of their collapsed home.
"I remember every day: whose voice I heard first, what they said, what I felt. I remember Alexander moving in my lap, the breath of rats, the cry of my neighbor's children," she says.
"We lived in the second floor of a nine-story building. Before I could get my child in my arms and run away, the building collapsed. It seemed to me that a war had broken out, in connection with the Karabakh problem. When the whole noise stopped, I realized we were in the basement.
"My legs remained folded, my baby in my arms. There was no room to move. Then I heard the voices of my neighbor's kids. They were screaming for help, sobbing. I asked them about their mother, the little one said that his mother was silent but continued to clutch him tight."
The hardest was the third day.
"I was crying like mad and was throwing whatever I could find at the rats that were attacking us," Anahit recalls. "Had I lost consciousness or fallen asleep, they would have eaten me and my son. My husband was talking all the time from the outside, was giving me hope that we would be taken out soon. Every action that they did was decisive. With every stone cleared, the rest could fall on our heads."
Opening a hole on the morning of December 10 and making a long tunnel, rescuers first removed the neighbor's children.
"First, I let them take my Alexander; it took them several more hours to take me out," says Anahit. "Big concrete walls had fallen on my legs. I couldn't feel one leg at all. Doctors said that it was gangrene and the only way to save my life was amputation of my two lower limbs."
Anahit confesses that it was painful and difficult to lose both legs for a young woman with four underage children. But she says God gave her patience and strength.
"I understood that what happened to me would be with me till the end of my life. You know, 20 years have passed. I haven't forgotten anything and never gave in to my situation. Simply, I have adjusted to it."
Since 1989, Anahit has lived in a district of Gyumri created for the disabled. It was built by the Austrian government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. About 500 live in its 108 units.
Anahit's happiness today is her family, her kind and caring relations and finally her city itself, which is reemerging from under the ruins.
"We will never see the old Gyumri, but life is gradually changing. The standard of living has risen. If there are more jobs, the people will be able to live a better life," she says.
Anahit works at the Mission Armenia charitable organization as a computer operator. She says that despite her loss of legs, she feels like a complete person.
She kisses the photograph of Alexander on the table and says through tears: "God saved us on that day. I gave birth to my son for a second time."
"More than possible" has been done
There is the commotion of urgent work in Samvel Tonoyan's construction company office. He gives instructions, answers telephone calls, studies drafts and projects. He says that he is doing everything he can for building and rebuilding Gyumri.
"This city has energy of its own. Even though it was destroyed and ruined, it still calls you. I am convinced that if the '88 quake happened in some other European city, people would have left it long ago and would not live there now," Tonoyan says. "But see what strong will Gyumri people have? Today they are building up the city. Even many who continue to live in metal makeshift houses still do not leave the city."
Tonoyan heads Akhurian's Kobshin Ltd., one of dozens of construction companies still finding plenty of work in Gyumri either from new construction or re-construction of the old.
His company has been contracted by the government, and is also the firm behind the construction of Charles Aznavour Square in Gyumri, carried out under Kirk Kerkorian's Lincy Fund. Gyumri's indoor swimming pool is also one of his projects.
He is convinced that in several years the streets of the city will not have even a slight reminder of the earthquake.
According to Tonoyan, as much as was possible has been done in Gyumri.
"More has been built during these past 20 years than in the 70 years of Soviet rule. Makeshift houses that remained from the 1926 earthquake were still standing in Gyumri in the 1970s. And now, in this transitional country, where there was war on one side and blockade on the other and calamity, still it was restored and is being built up," he says.
Typically, Tonoyan has personal tragedy connected to December 7. And he finds it very hard to talk about.
"When I remember it now, I don't believe that that person was me, the one who lived through that calamity. The first thing I did was to run straight home, then to the kindergarten. My children, thank God, survived," he says.
But his wife, their mother, did not. She, like so many others, was buried in ruins.
"For 10 days, we tried hard to find my wife's body. There was no equipment for searching. We took her out somehow with the help of Czech rescuers. We buried her at 3 o'clock in the morning."
He was left to raise sons aged three and five.
Tonoyan got married again two years later; however his second wife also died. Now his sons are grown and also work in construction.
At once he changes the topic of the past, and speaks about the new municipal building being built in the center of Gyumri. His company is carrying out this project, expected to be finished by 2010.
According to him, the building will be the pearl of the city. The ornaments on the façade of the building repeat the ornaments of traditional medieval churches. It is a monumental structure, he says, adding that it has the highest possibility of resistance against seismic shake.
"During the Soviet times, they estimated seismic resistance in a way that would keep the cost of work low, and built many apartments. However now, God forbid, if an earthquake of the same magnitude strikes, we will not have such destruction and so many victims," Tonoyan says. His firm is among those using rubber-based shock absorbers designed to move with the earth and distribute the impact of quake so that foundations are not shattered by the pressure of too much direct force.
The builder says that Gyumri residents living in newly constructed buildings can sleep at night without worries.