Armenia Commemorates Earthquake Anniversary

YEREVAN (ArmeniaNow) — On December 7 at 11.41 a.m. sharp, Armenians in Gumri and throughout the country stopped for a moment to observe a minute’s silence and hear the church bells ringing in commemoration of their compatriots who lost their lives in a natural calamity exactly 20 years ago.

On December 7, 1988, the northern provinces of Armenia were hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed more than 25,000 lives, many more tens of thousands crippled and hundreds of thousands homeless.

Some of the settlements at the epicenter of the quake, such as village Nalband (now Shirakamut) and town of Spitak were razed to the ground by the powerful tremor and repeated aftershocks. The towns of Leninakan (now Gumri), Kirovakan (now Vanadzor), Stepanavan, and other populated areas also sustained heavy losses.

Presiding over a special church liturgy at the Yot Verq (Seven Wounds) Church in Gumri, Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II revisited the great tragedy and recalled the heroic resistance of the Armenian people and its friends to the blow of nature that struck unexpectedly as well as people’s tenacity to cope with the multiplied hardship that ensued.

“Work of tremendous scale has been done since the earthquake… Today, the efforts of our country’s government and people are combined in order to remove all the consequences of the earthquake, illuminating with reconstructions and improving life the future of our country — the homeland of all Armenians,” said Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians.

A monument to the victims of the earthquake and the people who reached out to help Armenia was inaugurated in Gumri later on Sunday.

Despite pledges of all successive Armenian governments to completely rehabilitate the disaster area, thousands of families still continue to be affected by the immediate consequences of the tragedy.

President Serge Sargisian again vowed that rehabilitation of the disaster zone and turning into a development zone will remain a priority of his administration until 2013.

The priority also reached the corporate level on Sunday as VivaCell MTS communication company president Ralph Yirikian surprised 10 families in Gumri by presenting keys to new apartments to those who’d lived in temporary housing for 20 years.

The company donated the 11 apartments — estimated at a combined value of about 93.27 million drams (more than $310,000) — as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility program.

Sargisian and many other government members, state officials and senior guests attended the church service commemorating the victims of the tragedy as well as the following ceremony of unveiling the monument.

The president spoke of the work done so far and emphasized that all consequences of the earthquake will be overcome in the coming years.

“I will not consider the problem solved until the last family affected by the calamity receives an apartment and conditions for dignified life,” he stressed.

In his speech, Sargisian said, “It’s hard to express with words the pain and sorrow we felt. The blind disaster destroyed our cities and villages, took the lives of thousands of people, left hundreds of thousands without shelter. For many years the northern part of our country was called the ‘disaster area.’ On these days we recall the memory of our brothers and sisters who fell victims of the tragedy, we extend words of condolences and encouragement to all those who witnessed those December days of 1988, whose relatives and friends were killed by the horrible tragedy.

“It’s a double disaster, when you bear the tragedy alone. However, from the very first day of the devastating earthquake our people felt the spirit of warmth of human soul and friendship. The world joined our pain.

“Today it’s our duty to extend words of gratitude to everyone, the rescuers and constructors, the pilots and statesmen, those who brought water and bread, those who sent blankets and tents. People were visiting Armenia to support us, to say words of encouragement, to inspire hope and faith, and simply to share our pain and not leave us alone. Today we say thanks to everyone.”

The tragedy of Spitak has been remembered not only in Armenia, but also in other countries of the former Soviet Union and well beyond that had made a collective effort to respond to the tragedy of the Armenian people 20 years ago.

President Sargisian awarded Armenia’s Ananya Shirakatsi medals to several Russian citizens for their considerable contribution in the rehabilitation efforts.

He also cited “the will of the people of Armenia” to sign a decree to confer the title of Armenia’s National Hero on former USSR Prime Minister Nikolay Ryzhkov for his “weighty personal contribution to the organization of rehabilitation works after the earthquake.”

Sargisian thanked the awardees not only for their efforts on post-earthquake rehabilitation, but also for their “moral support and humane, warm attitude shown to our people during those cruel days.”

In his acceptance speech, Ryzhkov, currently a member of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber, said he was humbled by the appraisal of his services.

“I am proud to have been next to the Armenian people during those hard days and I am very moved that my work has deserved such a high appraisal,” Ryzhkov said.

Delegations from more than two dozen countries, including prominent public figures and intellectuals were in Armenia to participate in the events marking the 20th anniversary of the earthquake.