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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Lesson From Armenia's Quake for Asia's Tsunami

APVigan Markaryan, 18, making coffee for his grandfather, Khachatur, 78, in their temporary home in a cargo container in Gyumri.
GYUMRI, Armenia -- The sliding doors of the battered Soviet railroad car that Artak Akopyan calls home reveal a small space almost as icy as the outdoors. The makeshift quarters are decorated by little but an old photograph of his mother, who was killed in the earthquake that devastated Armenia in December 1988.

Akopyan, then age 4, was at nursery school when the quake struck, killing 25,000 people and leaving half a million homeless. Like the tsunami that devastated southern Asia last month, the disaster focused the world's attention on the region and brought forth an outpouring of aid.

"The aid was colossal, unexpectedly massive," said Fadei Sarkisyan, who headed the government of Armenia at the time of the quake, when it was a Soviet republic.

A look back at the aid effort shows successes and failures: More than $1.2 billion of domestic and foreign aid was given for medical needs, clothing, food and new housing. But thousands, like Akopyan, remain in substandard housing -- 2,000 families according to government estimates, some 7,000 families according to journalists who have studied the problem.

The quake shook the mountains of northern Armenia just as Mikhail Gorbachev was opening the Soviet Union to the West. He cut short a summit with outgoing U.S. President Ronald Reagan -- where he had announced military cuts and pledged support for human rights -- to rush home.

The international aid effort "wouldn't have been so big without Gorbachev. It was a milestone in the history of the Cold War," said John Evans, who is now U.S. ambassador to Armenia and was involved in the earthquake relief effort. "The initial response, there was no question about it, was all-out."

Less than two weeks after the quake, Soviet authorities said they had received $100 million in aid from 77 countries. An Armenian official in the Central Committee of Armenia's Communist Party at the time of the quake said on condition of anonymity that earthquake-related aid through 1992 totaled $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion. About 40 percent came from abroad.

The United States sent heating stoves and search-dog teams. Britain sent ultrasonic listening devices and fiber-optic cameras for searching the rubble. Clothing and medical equipment came from around the world.

Sarkisyan recalled standing by rubble and hearing cries for help, but he knew the powerful cranes needed to lift the concrete slabs on top of them would take days to assemble. Two days after the quake, cranes arrived from Italy and Germany, saving, he said, thousands of people. Akopyan's mother was not among them. Along with his younger brother, she was killed when the 6.9-magnitude quake destroyed their apartment. Akopyan's father survived but became mentally unbalanced and later died. Now 20, Akopyan lives with his aunt, her two children and his wife in the cramped, corroding railroad car -- part of a jumble of cargo containers and other tiny shelters huddled in a hollow in Gyumri, Armenia's second-largest city, which was called Leninakan in the Soviet era.

The hardscrabble neighborhood illustrates the desperation that persists despite the recovery effort that has restored a semblance of normal life to Gyumri and even to Spitak, a town where the quake left only a handful of buildings standing and killed about half the population of 20,000. Gorbachev pledged to rebuild the devastated area, but the 1991 Soviet collapse scuttled that effort and plunged Armenia into an economic crisis. Into the early 1990s, the earthquake zone was still shattered and demoralized.

Karlen Ambartsumyan, who was deputy mayor of Gyumri when the quake struck and now advises the current mayor, put part of the blame on a decrease in foreign aid following the initial, emotionally driven interest.

"It should have been more prolonged -- not just to aid at the time when the whole world is talking about it and then forget, but to continue, step by step, doing what is needed at each stage," Ambartsumyan said. He said what is needed most in Gyumri, where dozens of factories are idle and unemployment is staggering, is aid in the form of job creation.

"When a UN official asked me how much flour we needed, I told him, 'Send us fishing rods, not fish,'" said Simon Ter-Simonyan, head of the government's humanitarian assistance department.

While Sarkisyan said the aid effort in the quake's wake was well coordinated, Ambartsumyan said distribution was badly flawed and that people who suffered the most missed a lot of the aid, which was handed out while they were looking for loved ones' bodies. "Everybody sent aid, but nobody was able to organize its fair distribution," Ambartsumyan said.

Sofia Airopetyan, a 73-year-old Spitak resident, though, tells a different story. She says the world never forgot the earthquake victims and that she still receives food aid. Last year she moved out of a cargo container and into one of several new apartments built under a program funded by Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian.

The new housing beneath the mountains that shadow Spitak augments homes and hospitals built by foreign countries following the quake. A U.S. Agency for International Development program has enabled more than 7,000 families to move out of temporary housing, ridding Gyumri of many of the metal shacks that survivor Gayane Markaryan called a constant reminder of the quake that killed her brother.

After 15 years in a temporary home near Akopyan's railroad car, Markaryan and her family of five are preparing to move back to their old building, finally renovated after the quake. But her 18-year-old son, Vigen, fears the lack of jobs will force him into the army.