The day Armenia 'fell into hell'

Aid poured in when the region was laid waste by earthquake. But Sophia Coudenhove finds devastation a decade later
TEN YEARS after one of the world's most catastrophic earthquakes laid waste to her town, Narine Gasparyan, her husband and her two sons still live in a makeshift shelter with a leaking roof and sporadic heating. As many as half of the 300,000 inhabitants of Khumayri, in northern Armenia, still have no permanent homes. "Nothing has changed," says Mrs Gasparyan. "We survive, we don't live. It's impossible to live in such conditions."

In 1988, the world rushed to the aid of Khumayri after three-quarters of the town was destroyed in seconds. It was the worst-affected area in a disaster, a decade ago this Monday, which claimed more than 25,000 lives and left 500,000 people homeless.

Yesterday the people of the town held a day-long commemoration, during which they thanked those who helped them, visited the new schools and hospitals that were built after the earthquake and laid flowers at the town's three cemeteries. There were exhibitions of photographs of the destruction, and a memorial concert was planned for the evening. But much of the town remains in ruins, along with the hopes of its inhabitants.

Back in 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had promised swift reconstruction: foreign aid arrived, work began on a new town and 35,000 people were rehoused in new apartments. But then the Soviet Union fell apart, and the money ran out.

"If we hadn't heard all these promises we would have done the rebuilding ourselves, and maybe we'd have houses by now," says Mrs Gasparyan. "But we believed them, and we waited, and nothing happened." Today the victims of the disaster rely almost entirely on foreign help and on the powerful Armenian diaspora.

To Narine Amirdjanyan, yesterday's ceremonies made her memories even more indelible. At 11.41am on 7 December 1988, she was speaking to a fellow student on the third floor of her college, when suddenly, she says, "the building collapsed like a box of matches. We didn't understand. We couldn't run anywhere. While it was falling it was seconds, but it seemed like years. As if I were falling into hell."

In the first months after the earthquake, there would be water for only an hour or two a day. Even now the water supply lasts only during daylight hours; in some districts it cuts out early in the afternoon. Electricity too is available only during the day and is prohibitively expensive, when the average salary amounts to less than 5,000 drams (about pounds 6) a month. The Armenian winter has not yet fully begun, but by January temperatures drop to minus 20C.

Thousands are still "housed" in square or barrel-shaped metal containers, originally designed to last no more than two years. Well past their sell- by date, many now have porous roofs and let freezing water in from the ground. "Hygienically it's very bad, and health is a problem" says Spiros Toufexis, the local field co-ordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Containers even house what remains of some of the town's hospitals, which were nearly all destroyed in the earthquake. None have central heating or continuous water supplies and they suffer a severe shortage of disposable materials, such as syringes and disinfection swabs.

The earthquake, which destroyed 40 percent of Armenia's economic capacity, could hardly have happened at a worse time. The country's war with Azerbaijan, from 1988 to 1994, led to a trade embargo and the displacement of more than 100,000 people, while the break-up of the Soviet Union meant Armenia lost its most important trade outlets and sources of raw materials.

After 10 years of waiting, it is hard to believe Khumayri will ever become a normal town again. "I cannot imagine it will ever be as it was," says Mr Toufexis. "There's no anger. Just grief and a lack of hope."