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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Earthquake of 1988 Still Leaves a Bad Scar

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SARAMEJ, Armenia -- Armen Malkhassyan was 12 years old when it happened. "I was at school at the time," he told me in between poking the embers at the bottom of his stove. His 3-year-old son started to shiver and his mother wrapped a thin shawl around his shoulders.

"I remember that I had a Russian lesson and I was bored and looking forward to going outside to play," Armen said. "Suddenly there was the most terrible tremor. The ground started to shake violently and all the books fell off the shelves.

"We ran outside. Buildings had collapsed and everyone was screaming," he said. "It lasted less than five minutes, but it felt like the end of the world."

For many, it was. When the earthquake struck in northwest Armenia in December 1988, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes. As many as 50,000 were killed and several cities and dozens of the surrounding villages were destroyed.

"Many of the victims were children," Armen said. "It was only five minutes until lunchtime. If it had happened during the break, the children would have been outside instead of trapped in buildings that fell down on top of them."

Armen's village is 6 kilometers from the epicenter of the earthquake in Spitak. Looking across the valley to Spitak today you can see row upon row of brand new houses.

"Those ones were built by the Americans," Armen said, pointing to a neat line of maisonettes straight out of a small town in the American Midwest.

"Those on the right were built by Germans," he said, "and the ones over there with wonky roofs were done by the Uzbeks."

With millions of dollars of aid flowing in from the Armenian Diaspora, Spitak was completely rebuilt. But then the money dried up, and the villages nearby were gradually forgotten.

Two hundred of the 256 houses in Saramej lay in ruins after the earthquake. In the weeks that followed, the villagers, including Armen and his family, hauled giant metal containers into the neighboring fields to live in while they tried to reconstruct their homes. Most of them still live in the rusty vagonchiki, as they're known, today.

From time to time, Armen and his brother Arutyun go to Russia, where they work on construction sites. The money they bring home is supposed to go into rebuilding their family home.

But the house still stands in ruins. "Every year we say we will make a start on it, and every year the money just seems to run out," Arutyun said. He has a scar that runs the length of his forehead from when he fell during the earthquake. "Perhaps this year we might finally move back home."

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.