Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Single Candle Burns In Memory of 20,000

Several years ago a woman named Maria Nemirova moved into my building. Since then, visiting her every now and again, I have noticed that each December a candle of mourning stands silently burning in her apartment. I’ve always wondered what it meant, but only this year did I manage to find an opportunity to ask.

"It is in memory of the people …" she said enigmatically the first time I mentioned it. I didn’t press further, but a few days later she began to speak about it again herself.

"It has been 12 years," she suddenly blurted out, "and I can still see the terrible images of the Armenian earthquake as plain as day." It turned out that she lived through those horrendous days in the town of Spitak.

"Dec. 7, 1988, began like any normal day. Who would have guessed that it would be the last for thousands of people across northern Armenia? And that millions more would be suddenly homeless. That some of the largest cities in the country — Leninakan and Spitak — would be wiped from the face of the earth… ."

On that day, Maria was working as usual in the Tbilisi bureau of a Moscow paper. The phone rang and her editor nervously asked, "Are you all right?" In Tbilisi, the earthquake had been felt as minor tremors with no victims and little damage. He then asked, "Have you heard about Spitak? It was the epicenter …"

Maria and a driver quickly loaded up a car for the trip to Spitak. Local merchants, learning where she was going, insisted that she fill the car to overflowing with all the supplies she could take. As they drove, they fell in line with a convoy of Georgian ambulances rushing to the disaster scene. After a while, they started meeting other ambulances full of victims being evacuated to Tbilisi.

"I can’t tell you everything that I saw," she said. She told me that she had survived the Great Patriotic War and had covered other disasters during her time as a journalist. But she never experienced anything like those days in Spitak. In broken fragments, she told about how in places the earth itself had leapt up and swallowed whole buildings. She told of efforts to pull out bodies that were completely intertwined in twisted metal and broken concrete. She told of the bloody arms of rescuers, clawing through the rubble to get to trapped children whose heart-rending cries could be heard coming from the ruins. She walked across something that hours before had been the roof of a six-story building. She watched volunteer surgeons from Georgia amputate limbs on the counters of stalls in the market. She saw a man carrying the body of his infant son in a desk drawer.

Twenty thousand people died in that earthquake. In their memory, each year, a candle burns in the apartment of Maria Nemirova.

Vladislav Schnitzer is a pensioner and freelance journalist living in Moscow.