15 Years Later: the Horrors of Armenian Earthquake Revisited

El Vaquero Staff Writer

In Armenia, Dec. 7, 1988 began as an ordinary day, but soon ended, never to begin again for many of those who died in the earthquake. In a matter of only a few seconds, with no warning, a vast earthquake hit the country and with no chance to say goodbye to their loved ones, roughly 25,000 people died, half a million were left homeless, and many more were hurt.

An earthquake, registering 6.9 on the Richter Scale, devastated the cities of Gyumri, Vanadzor and Spitak along with a host of villages, said Rafi Issagulian, chair of the education committee of Armenian Students Association on Dec. 4 at Kreider Hall as an audience full of GCC students and faculty gathered to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the earthquake.

The audience watched six segments of news coverage showing the aftermath of the earthquake. Although devastated faces of people and remnants of what used to be their homes dominated the footages, the tremendous amount of hope and courage was apparent through their efforts of rebuilding their homes. “It’s mainly the stillness, the numbness that made me ask why these people are staying,” said guest speaker, two-time Emmy Award winning journalist Janet Janjigian, who went to Armenia in February of 1989, and then a year later to tell the stories of the survivors.

Armenia, before its independence in 1991, used to be part of the Soviet Union. When Janjigian, who was born and raised in Fresno, decided to visit there after the earthquake, she had to go under the disguise of a relief worker because she said that the Soviets would not let her go as a journalist. Equipped with a hand-held camera, she documented survivor’s daily struggles with continuing their lives. “The only thing I knew how to do was to get the message out,” said Janjigian, who is now the senior vice president of Corporate Communications at MGM.

While in Armenia, Janjigian visited Spitak, a city, which before the earthquake used to have 20,000 residents, but after it, only 1 out of 5 people survived, she said. Janjigian interviewed a few of them. One survivor said they wake up talking about the earthquake; they go to sleep talking about it and in their sleep, they have nightmares of it.

Janjigian also visited care centers where she met with children, who were afraid to go to sleep, and who were angry and depressed for losing their parents. Most children were also afraid of cats and dogs, which used to be their house pets, but now were running around in hungry wild packs, attacking civilians.

Janjigian documented the ways the survivors tried to overcome their fears. Children would build toy houses made of little pieces of wood and then they would shake the table, bringing apart what they had built, and then build it up again. Some would draw what they felt.

One child had drawn what looked like two black mountains with red in between, but when asked what it was, he said, “It’s my mother’s grave, my father’s grave and their blood in between.”

After the earthquake, many people from all over the world came together in an effort to help. One of the many volunteers, Dr. Karlin Koloyn, started a camp near Lake Sevan. It was there in camp Blue Sevan where among a few children amputees Janjigian met Armineh Lombarian.
“When I grow up I would like to be a doctor, so I can help children like me,” said Lombarian, and sure enough, ten years later, she did become a doctor. She is now working with Dr. Koloyn, said Janjigian, who has kept in touch with her after all these years.

The commemoration event, organized by ASA, provoked many memories among audience members, who had been in Armenia at the time of the earthquake. “We were hiding under the tables in kindergarten,” said Anna Hovakimyan, 19, a law major. Among the audience she was one of 10 GCC students to rise when ASA President Nairi Chopurian asked the survivors of the earthquake to stand and say where they were when the earthquake hit. Hovakimyan was in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

“I feel privileged that people to this day commemorate this event, and it was also good to see that a person who’s a second-generation Armenian American cared enough to go back and not forget the people living in Armenia,” said Hovannes Kupelyan, 18, a business law major. “She was one of the better journalists [covering the earthquake] because she got right down with it in the trenches and battlefields,” said audience member, 67-year-old Herbert Booker.

Janjigian said that she finds the news coverage series to be the most rewarding and most fulfilling thing she has done in her career as a journalist. She would like to go back sometime in the near future and see how everyone she met then is doing now.

“It was very touching and emotional for me to see it thought the people’s eyes, who had experienced such a tragic event,” said Sally Derohanessian, 19, a biology major.

Issagoulian said, “The wounds will heal, but the scars will stay with the survivors of the earthquake, and with all of us, forever…”