A few months ago, after I had learned that Spitak would be my new home for the next two years, I did what any American would do. I ran home and googled it. At the time I can remember being horrified by the rubble filled images of sadness and despair that appeared on my computer screen. Spitak, according to google images was an earthquake zone with a tragic past and a condemned future. I have to admit; only the worst pictures formed in my mind of what the town would be in the present day. Me being… well me, had to ask every Armenian I knew to tell me what they knew of my new town. Time and time again people reassured me that Spitak was now a beautiful town that has made great progress in reconstruction. You will never even know there was an earthquake there, they said.
I can’t begin to tell you how wrong they were. The 1988 Spitak Earthquake, though 22 years ago, still lives in the very heart and soul of Spitak. Over 25,000 lives were lost, how can such a devastating loss ever be forgotten. There is not a single adult that I have met in Spitak who has not shared their earthquake story with me. I know where most people were during that time and who it is they lost. Every house I walk into has pictures hanging of those they lost, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives. No one escaped un-touched. Walking around Spitak it isn’t an unusual occurrence to see scars that the natural disaster left behind. Some people’s faces are disfigured; some are crippled and have no legs.
And then there is the physical rubble that has been left behind. You may never see it walking in the main square of Spitak, the part that has been made shinny and new, but if you walk a few blocks up you will stumble onto domiks. Domiks are little tin houses, that resemble a trailer house except they are much smaller, and the infrastructure is a disaster. My Papik and tatik happen to live in a domik. I will always remember the first time I went over to my tatik’s house. My host mom was going and I asked to come with her. She gave me a funny look, but really couldn’t say no. As we approached my tatik’s house, I was horrified. Green and rusted, the walls were pealing back. I didn’t even want to walk in. We knocked on the door and tatik answered “oh Alyssa Jan, my house is lav chi, you shouldn’t have to be here.” She was so ashamed that this is where she lived. I walked in to a tiny little kitchen area. There were three camping burners on a table, and this is what she called a stove. There wasn’t a sink, just a huge bucket of water. The roof was caving in, and mold was everywhere. The floors are scuffed and torn, and almost non- existent at this point. The wall paper peeling off the walls, and the windows rusted. It broke my heart that this is where she has lived for the past 21 years.
Everyone who has been living in a temporary shelter since the earthquake is supposed to get a new house, and some have. Recently I attended a house warming ceremony in Spitak, in a community they now call “Glendale” after the city in L.A. that gave so much funding to Spitak after the disaster. I believe something like 80 new houses were given away, and it was really a beautiful thing! However, when many of the poor had to pay bribes to receive these new “free” houses, the beauty begins to become enshrouded in clouds. Many people, who received their house, did so because they paid a bribe to an official, and many of these people already had houses. Many people who live in the domiks are still living in the domiks. Steps are being taken, and amazing progress has been made, but those who are living in unlivable conditions must not be forgotten. I write about this because I cannot simply read online this “The last of those homeless due to the earthquake were either given new apartments by the Lincy Foundation or given vouchers to purchase home by the Urban Institute by funds granted by USAID (in 2003).”
It simply is not true, and is another example of the dangers of believing the media at face value. Spitak has made amazing strides, but there is still work to be done. The Armenian government has promised that it would not stop until everyone has a home, and I hope they stay true to their promise, but I also believe that it is up to the Armenian people, in Armenia and living aboard to hold it accountable.
Today on the Anniversary of the 1988 Spitak Earthquake we had short lessons, about 15 minutes each so that we could go to the earthquake memorial and remember those that have been lost. I walked from school to the memorial with my counterpart and for the first time she opened up about her own earthquake story with me. She had told me before that she lost a sister and her dad in the earthquake, but she never told me where she was or the hardships she endured, probably because a lot of survivors here feel guilty complaining because so many had it so much worse than they did. She told me she was 12 at the time and was in school. The earthquake occurred at 11:41, so most children were at school at the time, which also contributes to why there were so many deaths. The infrastructures of soviet era schools were built very poorly and they collapsed killing most. (Makes me thankful for California ordinances that protect the inhabitants, and demand that buildings have codes and accountability so that needless lives are not lost in case of a disaster) Back to her story, my counterpart explained to me that she was trapped under the rubble with her classmates for more hours than she can remember. She thought she was going to die, her face was bleeding and her legs were broke. She lost three classmates that day, and countless other schoolmates, including her sister who went to the same school as her. For three months after the earthquake she was in the hospital, all alone. Her mother could not stay with her because the body of her husband had not been found, and she had to go search for it every day. It took two whole months to uncover it…
At the memorial, as a school we walked to the front of the crowed and left a flower arrangement. A priest said a prayer, and the mayor brought a flower wreath. We had a moment of silence at 11:41 and people quickly dispersed. My counterpart explained to me that everyone is in a hurry to go to the graveyard to see their loved ones. I stayed behind, out of respect to families, to give them their privacy to morn their loss.
Being a part of today and feeling the loss of my community, and them sharing their stories with me, meant a lot. We all have certain tragedies in life that have happened to us, but I don’t know how many of us are comfortable sharing those tragedies with others. The Armenian spirit is a beautiful thing, through all the hardships, atrocities committed, unfair circumstances, depravity, corruption, and disasters, their culture remains a dancing, lively culture. Yes, at times the sadness and distrust can be seen, but what stands out the most is the tatik that breaks into song and dance in the middle of dinner. The women who stand outside and laugh with each other, the gracious host that invite you to have tea and share with you a small part of their sadness and hardships, but also the great selflessness of heart that allows them to give you their last papoke maraba jar!