Still Recovering: A visit to the 1988 “center of the epicenter”

The December 7 Earthquake forever altered the life of the village …
Hasmik Yeranosyan dreads to recall the hideous day….
The earthquake of December 7th 1988 divided the life of the village of Shirakamut (formerly Nalband) in the Lori province into two periods – as the villagers say – before and after the quake. With destruction, it brought to all the village its families. In the “center of the epicenter”, the quake took 323 lives and left in their place painful memories.

Located 110 kilometers from Yerevan, Nalband had a population in 2,430 that dropped to 2,107 by December 8th. Here, 300 families live in places that have been “temporary” shelter for 19 years.

Asya Nalbandyan lost her two daughters that day and her life changed. But she does not complain much: “I live for my two other children and my three grandchildren.”

“One of my daughters was pregnant, the other one was a schoolgirl, and both remained under the ruins… What else should we see in our life? We have already seen everything and survived cutting the coat according to the cloth,” says Asya smiling through tears.

Hermine Mazmanyan, a mother of three now, used to live with her parents and had just finished school.

“I remember it like it was today – it was as warm as today, I was sweeping the floor at home, when all of a sudden the quake began. It shook the house so severely that my father and me we embraced each other unable to move. I could see only my mother standing on the threshold of the door with stones falling on her head. And my father would shout telling me to run bring my brother home from school,” tells Hermine.

The present-day villagers of Nalband, descendents of those who fled from Lower Basen [in Western Armenia], say the whole village leveled to the ground in a couple of seconds.

“Barefooted, people were running, crying and yelling. The mothers who had survived were running to the school crying… It’s not something to remember,” says Hasmik Yeranosyan, the head of the village administration staff. She adds the greatest number of casualties among children was in Nalband; more than 20 of them lost both parents that day.

For several years after 1988, people were trying to recover both literally and figuratively. Those who had lost children gave birth to new ones trying to fill the place of the dead. Psychologists worked with the witnesses of the disaster.

Within the course of the years, the village gradually recovered; the stone-made houses came to replace the rusty wagon-houses; in 1991, a new school opened and a second was finished in 2001. An average of 15-20 of the 50 graduates of both schools enter universities each year now.

People’s lives have settled down but it differs significantly from what it was before. There was no unemployed family in the village before the quake; there was a garment factory with about 800 jobs; more than 200 people worked at the elevator plant in Spitak (about 10 km far from Nalband). In addition, Nalband was a transit point for the Yerevan-Gyumri-Tbilisi railroad that used to take some of the Nalband villagers to their work in other places.

“We had many things in our village before the earthquake, it was a leading village in the region, because it was a transit zone,” Albert Papoyan, head of Nalband says with pride. “The Nalband canal was built in those days solving the problem of irrigation. As a result, the production of agricultural products developed.”

The earthquake leveled the village infrastructure. Nalband became a center of unemployment and gave way to labor migration.

Hmayak Mazmanyan, director of School No. 1 says the majority of men of the village are in Russia working and sending money home. The rest of the population in Nalband cultivates potatoes or is engaged in apiculture that at best brings a proper income only once in several years.

“Nalband has no perspective in terms of agriculture because it has few lands. Seventy percent of the land is not cultivated because the equipment purchased in the Soviet years is worn out. Besides, we have only 140 hectares of irrigated lands that can be cultivated,” says the head of the village administration that has an annual budget in 17,600,000 drams (about $57,328), who has 19 people working under him and getting 50,000 (about $162) per month on average.

Village head Papoyan hopes Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan will at least meet his offer to create an anti-hail system that will help villagers to avoid the threat of ruined crops.

“I can’t say the village does not move ahead. The garment factory has been re-launched in very small capacities doing mainly military orders. The hydro-electric power station was set for exploitation last year, where there are about 10 people working, but the problems still overwhelm our routine life especially those of housing,” says Papoyan adding the authorities’ attention is focused on the problems of towns and ignore the villages.

The head of the village adds: “There are many things Nalband will overcome by its own means, if only those who live in temporary shelters have homes. But at this pace it will take 20-30 more years for the village to solve its problems.”