Friday, December 7, 2007

December 7, 1988

It was perhaps the most terrible day in my life and the lives of many other Armenians. I was 10 years old, growing up in my native town, Leninakan, (a city woefully named after Lenin with -akan translated as -ville, now Gyumri, its historic name) in Armenia. We lived in a nicely-furnished brand new apartment in a new 12-story building structure, on the 4th floor. It was winter. The morning was not very different from others. But on that day my schedule was a bit different because I had a scheduled examination for piano at music school. Usually my classes at school started in the afternoon, but on this day because of my exam at music school I had to leave home in the morning (to my greatest fortune). As I was walking to the car with my father (he was going to take me to school), I noticed the unusually heavy fog-- could not see two feet ahead; and the loud scowl/whining of dogs at a distance. We lived in the outskirts of the city and we had a lot of dogs running loose. On that morning they were not barking, but crying like wolves. I asked my father in alarm, ‘Dad, why are the dogs crying?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, kid.’ I sensed something really bad.

Then at about 11:41am I was standing in front of the examination room with my music teacher waiting for my turn with other students and teachers. As we were standing like that, all of a sudden, it felt like an invisible hand grabbed our building and started shaking it from right to left with unimaginable strength. We were on the 4th floor and we almost fell on one another and had to grab onto one another to keep from falling. My first thought that moment was that this was the nuclear war and it was the beginning of the end of the world. We were still under the fear of the Cold War and nuclear warfare. As some kids started crying, I was frozen from fear and could not even open my mouth. I was simply speechless and could not even move. A few moments later, someone yelled, ‘run out of the building.’ I don’t know, how I was grabbed by my teacher and pushed out, because my feet were not moving. I don’t even know how I went down the stairs, and how I found myself outside in the street. In the street it was a different world-- the buildings were in ruins and people were screaming in panic holding on to each other because the waves of the earthquake were still ongoing. I only know that I was looking at my music school with horror, wondering when it was going to go down like the other buildings. But it did not and I could not believe that I had just escaped narrow death.

I was standing and trembling from fear and the cold of the winter morning without a coat, not able to move as my older cousin came, hugged me and dragged me with her. I still could not walk from fear. She was basically almost dragging me. As we were walking down the streets, looking for my parents and our relatives, we witnessed a real tragedy. There was rare a building left standing or intact. People were wounded, or screaming, doing strange things. Women were crying. Men were crying too, which was unusual. I never saw so many men crying in my life. We could also hear people yelling from inside of the destroyed buildings. They were slowly dying from wounds, heavy stones on top of them, fire or lack of oxygen. We could also hear some loud noise coming from the crust of the earth. It seemed, the world was coming to its end.

The biggest relief came when I saw my parents and my sisters alive. Since everyone was crying, yelling and not able to find their missing family members, when I saw my family all around me, the whole world was mine. We found out that our whole building structure collapsed the very first moment of the earthquake and if anyone of us had been at home, no one would have escaped. Nobody who was at home in our building escaped death. It was some miracle that we all survived.

How many people died in that earthquake is hard to estimate. There were two other major cities struck by it. But all we know, there was rarely a building left standing in my city and there was rarely a family who did not lose a member, at least a close relative. We all survived, but lost some close relatives and many friends.

That night I remember how we all were gathered around the fire to spend the cold winter night outside in the street. We were told not to get into structures for fear that another earthquake may hit. I was clinging to my father and screaming, grabbing his hand, because I was still in great fear.

The next day of course, my parents had us evacuated to another city, so that we would not witness all of the horrors of the earthquake. The aftermath was just as bad, because our city and the others hit were trying to get the people out of destroyed buildings. Some people survived, most did not make it.

From that day on, most of everything else in the world I wanted peace for the well-being of all children. Because in that shaking building clinging to my teacher, I thought it was the beginning of the War.

I also started believing in animals and their ability to predict natural disasters. The dogs whining and crying in the morning—so extraordinary that I and others noticed—were trying to warn. Unfortunately, with all the military and scientific might of the Soviet Union-- a country that conquered the outer space-- it was unable to warn us of an earthquake of such magnitude. That is what I call lack of accountability.

But what amazed me was the degree of aid and assistance that the international community responded with. Perhaps, since Gorbachev 'opened the doors' of the Communist empire with his policies, it became easier to assist. It was more than expected. Of course, much of my city is still recovering from that earthquake-- to this day, kids there do not have building structures for schools. Nonetheless, it would not even have accomplished that what has been done without the help of the world community. At that moment, even kind words could heal hearts. That was a living example of international solidarity and miracles it can do!

Click here for a video

Click here for Charles Aznavour's song dedicated to Armenia.

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