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Armenians remember devastating quake as consequences linger

by Staff Writers
Gyumri, Armenia (AFP) Dec 7, 2008
Armenians on Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of a devastating earthquake that left 25,000 people dead, as many survivors still waited for new homes after years of promises.

President Serzh Sarkisian joined the head of Armenia's Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, for commemorations of the Spitak earthquake held in one of the worst-hit cities, Gyumri.

At 11:41 am (0741 GMT) Armenians across the country observed a moment of silence on the exact time the quake struck 20 years earlier.

Unveiling a sculpture in Gyumri depicting victims of the earthquake, Sarkisian thanked the international community for aid and support given to the then-Soviet republic after the disaster.

"Twenty years ago, all peoples rallied to our side, despite the Cold War, ideological differences and different political views," Sarkisian said. "From the first days, our people felt like the whole world was with us."

But a few kilometres (miles) away from the ceremonies, in a settlement of small metal shacks, survivors were still waiting for the new homes they were promised after the earthquake.

"We are hoping that the government will fulfill its promises and in the next two years we will finally receive a new apartment," said Suzana Gyoletsian, 40, whose family, along with dozens of others in the settlement, still live in one-room metal cabins provided in the weeks after the quake.

Nearly 7,000 families remain homeless after their houses and apartment buildings were destroyed in the quake, despite repeated government promises to build them new homes.

Gyoletsian and her husband raised two sons in the tiny cabin, which has neither gas for heating nor running water. Their only income is a small government pension of about 100 dollars (79 euros) per month.

Armenia's government announced plans last month to spend 252 million dollars (199 million euros) for reconstruction efforts starting next year, aimed at finally rehousing all those who lost their homes in the quake by 2013.

"I believe, and I will ensure, that in the next few years there will not be one family in the affected area without a roof over their heads, despite the global financial crisis," Sarkisian said at the ceremony Sunday.

Gyoletsian, who after the quake spent six hours in the rubble of her apartment building waiting to be rescued, is hoping that this time the government help will finally come through.

"This has been a very difficult time. We have had to overcome a lot of obstacles, but we haven't lost hope," she said.

The 7.0 magnitude quake struck Armenia on December 7, 1988 with its epicentre near the town of Spitak, in the mountainous northwest of the country.

Spitak, a town of about 4,000 people, was completely destroyed and nearby Gyumri was heavily damaged. In total, about 25,000 people were killed, more than 140,000 were injured and more than half a million lost their homes.

Experts blamed shoddy construction and the failure of emergency services for much of the death and destruction. In some cases, it took up to three days for rescuers to reach affected areas.

In the aftermath of the quake, the Soviet government vowed a massive reconstruction effort to rebuild within two years, but plans stalled when Armenia gained its independence in 1991.

Subsequent Armenian governments have struggled to find funds to rebuild as Armenia's economy collapsed after independence and it was hit by economic embargoes from neighbours Azerbaijan and Turkey over Yerevan's support for separatists in Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh.

In a statement Sunday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid tribute to the earthquake victims and thanked Armenians for remembering the aid Russian had provided.

"We bow our heads before the memory of the thousands of victims of this natural disaster. We remember with deep respect and gratitude today the courage of the rescuers who answered the call for help." he said.

"In this hour of difficulty Russia quickly extended a helping hand to Armenia, made its contribution to the rescue operation and recovery work. It is cause for gratitude that the memory of this is carefully preserved by the Armenian people."

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