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The Armenian Quake: Still Much To Do

SEVEN months have passed since the catastrophic earthquake in Armenia. The figures were staggering: one-third of the country destroyed, 25,000 officially dead (unofficial estimates place it over 100,000), 120,000 injured, and 500,000 homeless. During a recent visit to Armenia, I found much that was both depressing and heartening. Leninakan, formerly a city of more than 275,000, was three-fourths devastated, including all hospitals and schools. Today, the city is still a mass of ruins, with hundreds of damaged buildings waiting to be dynamited. Thousands of people are housed in garage-type boxcars or army tents. Most have 10 to 15 people, often with two or three sleeping in a single bed. Many families have taken in even more unfortunate relatives.

Yet in tent schools, serious learning takes place despite the 90-plus degree heat. In a 30-tent hospital set up on a football field, overworked doctors and nurses care for more than 100 patients. With the daytime heat reaching unbearable heights, an open-air shaded area has been erected for mobile patients. Technical equipment is in short supply, but there is no shortage of support by both family members and medical personnel.

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In Spitak, the epicenter of the quake, hardly a structure was left undamaged in this city of 53,000. Very little has been cleared. Poignant reminders of the disaster are everywhere. Laundry, now dirty, still hangs on the fifth-floor balcony of a cracked building; a doll with missing eyes, arms, and legs lies in the rubble; a two-year-old child brings flowers to the graves of both parents and a nine-year-old brother in the much enlarged cemetery.

A new Spitak will be built seven kilometers away, but many cannot bear to leave the area. As there are still decaying bodies under the rubble, an immediate danger is rats. Several children have already been hospitalized with rat bites.

In addition, the cities of Kirovakan and Stepanavan, and more than 100 villages, have sustained considerable damage. With more than 75 percent of the area's industries destroyed, and difficulties in redirecting the unemployed to the many reconstruction jobs, there is widespread unemployment - and resulting depression. Psychological problems may plague most victims for years to come. (American-Armenian psychologists who speak the language have been volunteering their expertise on two-week shifts.)

Armenians are a resilient people who have learned to live with tragedy during much of their 3,000-year history. It is this spirit that comes through despite their problems. Undoubtedly the greatest support comes from the extended family. Children who lost parents were immediately taken in by distant relatives.

There are also tangible signs of hope. In Spitak, I saw the new 200-bed hospital, now almost completed by the Norwegian Red Cross. It will feature state-of-the-art technology. Britain, Germany, and Finland have also planned other hospitals. A few miles away is a village of mobile homes for 240 families built by the Italian government. And outside Leninakan, the Soviets are constructing a city for 25,000.

Private American and American-Armenian organizations have sent medicines and supplies. Young Armenians from the United States and France are devoting their summer vacations to building housing in Spitak and Stepanavan. An Armenian-American group has contracted to build housing-manufacturing plants and train local technicians. And an Armenian realtor in Boston has been instrumental in sending brick-making machines so villagers can build adobe homes.

These and other creditable joint ventures, however, are hardly enough to accommodate the more than half-million homeless in the earthquake areas. And added to this number are the 200,000 refugees who fled anti-Armenian violence in Azerbaijan.

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The Soviet government will undertake most of the reconstruction effort. It would be a massive project for even the most advanced country, but the Soviets are hampered by less-than-modern techniques and an inefficient bureaucracy that causes all work to proceed at a snail's pace. In addition, the shutdown of the nuclear plant outside Yerevan, for safety reasons, has caused problems with alternative supplies of electricity.

In this period of East-West openness, it seems incumbent upon the West to work with the Soviet government closely on detailed organization, planning, inventory, and technology, both immediately and over the long term. Armenia Foreign Minister Anatoly Mkrtchian, in an interview, said that such dealings are now conducted directly with Yerevan, instead of having to go through Moscow. This should expedite the procedure.

With the onset of the cold weather in four months, the most critical need in the earthquake areas is shelter. The hundreds of thousands of people now living in shacks and tents, the children in the tent schools, and the patients in tent hospitals cannot survive the freezing weather in Armenia, which persists for as long as five months. There must an immediate, concerted effort to get in modern heavy machinery to clear the rubble expeditiously, and to construct adequate temporary housing until the permanent structures are ready. Time is of the essence!

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