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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Quick Link: The Armenian Earthquake

Yesterday the Guardian had a very sad article looking back at the great Armenian earthquake of 1988:

A generation of children unborn when the earthquake happened are growing up unaware of what their parents went through. Even among the adult survivors there are fissures between those with memories of the disaster and those with none. "My husband was a conscript in the Soviet army and away in Georgia when it struck. When I start talking about it, I can see from his eyes that he doesn't understand," says Ribsime Bichakhchyan, a local paediatrician. "I was 16 at the time and I still remember the screaming when our school shook and fell around us. I begin to cry when I think about it. You can never forget."

Whether they were on the spot on the fateful day or not, everyone in Giumri lost at least one relative. Stories of bereavement are never far from the surface. "My sister was at school and my father was at work in a factory. It took nine days to find their bodies," says Fatima Vartanyan, who attends a clinic four times a week to relieve the stress she still suffers.

Ashot Simonyan, the taxi driver who took us to the hillside where thousands of Giumri residents are buried, many in unmarked graves because their bodies were too broken to be identified, suddenly announced: "That's my brother and his family." We followed his finger to a headstone on which were etched the faces of a handsome dark-haired man, his wife, and a little girl.

"Officially, 20,000 people in Giumri died, but the real figure was probably closer to 30,000," says David Sarkisyan, the local chief prosecutor, as he drove us round the town. Almost as an aside, he added: "My sister was buried on what was meant to be her wedding day. The restaurant and everything had been ordered."

At the time of the earthquake, Sarkisyan was a young police detective. "Many people didn't report the deaths of relatives. Compensation was 500 roubles for loss of a life and 1,500 for each surviving family member who lost their home. Can you blame them?"

Newcomers to Giumri will see a town largely rebuilt. But adult residents know the invisible sites of mass death. Pointing to the new courthouse, built from pink tufa, the local stone, Sarkisyan says two three-storey schools once shared this corner of the town's main square. Eight hundred children died.

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