Remembering the Spitak Quake: “. . . Will Power Has No Limits”

“I lost my legs under the ruins… they were folded, lying like this by my side, I recognized they were mine from the boots. When I touched them, I realized they had been ‘disjointed’ from me, but I felt no pain. A man’s voice from the outside told me that if I could lift myself a little bit he might be able to help me out. I grabbed the iron bars of the nearest desk and somehow dragged myself to the opening they were instructing me to from the outside,” recalls Marineh Asatryan, 41, skillfully turning the wheelchair, as she brings a tray with coffee from the kitchen to the living-room.

Painful memories are sketched in the young woman’s eyes, pain buried in the dark depths, her regret over the irreversible loss forever interwoven with her voice, her body marred with the consequences of the devastating Spitak earthquake from 25 years ago.

“Life by itself is combat, live and fight, live and make live. I smile at the people around me, what I feel in my heart belongs only to me. I must give only positive emotions to them, I have to be always strong when next to them,” says Marineh, and smiles while responding to her 78-year-old mothers’ questions; her mom, Nvard, is helping to lay the coffee table.

The mother and the daughter live in Spitak, 93 km from Yerevan, which was raised to dust in seconds during the 1988 earthquake having taken 4,000 lives. In the dust and darkness, under the ruins, many-many human hearts were struggling for survival, caught at the very thin borderline between life and death. Marineh was one of them.

Her recollections of the natural calamity that hit her hometown when she was 16 are like a feature movie with fragments that impact and touch even after 25 years… five of her 18 classmates died, two are confined to wheelchairs, the rest got various bodily injuries. She lost 40 of her family members and relatives. From a photo in one of the corners of her house her little niece Christine is smiling… they lost her too.

“That day I felt so reluctant to go to school, I don’t know why, but I still went. I wanted to leave a bit earlier and go home, yet I did not. I had no idea it was the last day I was ever going to be able to walk… later they took my father and me by a helicopter to Yerevan, where they operated on my spine, the other three major operations were performed in New York,” says Marineh constantly rubbing her hands because they get cold. “Whether I get upset or not, I shiver all the time, it’s a nerve thing. I am not frustrated, don’t worry, we go through all stages in our lives, it all becomes past, which we, of course, do not forget. However, I do not like living in the past, and do not like jumping ahead of what’s to come.”

Together with 45 patients, Marineh was taken to New York in February of 1989, where she underwent two spine and one pressure ulcer (bedsore) surgeries. The second operation on her spine took six hours, the bedsore surgery – four, and the third spine surgery took 12 hours.

“With great difficulty they cleaned my backbone from bone fractions, fastened my rib to my spine with bone clamps. I had them placed from my chest to my behind, from this side two of my ribs are missing, they turned me into a human with irons inside. I even thought I could never sit again, but I made effort and eventually was able to sit, they told me I would not be able to stand but I did against all the odds and walked,” recalls Marineh with the sparkle of triumphant determination reflected in her eyes, because even if with crutches, even if a few steps, but she did it.

Doctors did save her legs, but they were no longer mobile.

Her mom refuses to talk, it is too painful, she says: “It makes me cry, please do not ask questions, don’t open up my wounds again… my daughter is a real hero.”

“I am a constant reminder, dear mom, for as long as I am at your side,” her daughter responds.

When the post-surgery recuperation period was over, she returned to her native Spitak, changed beyond recognition, all in ruins and temporary shelters everywhere. The lack of basic living conditions especially unfit for her, after the modern conveniences of the United States, made her irritable.

“I used to hit my legs so much they would start bleeding, especially when people regarded me as a dismembered person and treated with pity. It caused grief to my parents, but they never interfered, they could understand what I felt,” Marineh writes in her book published in 2011, titled “It’s a New Day: Willpower has No Limits”.

Hardship tempers her. Rather than looking for light in the darkness, she starts seeing it, rather than probing and touching, she starts grabbing and holding, rather than passing by life, she dives into its turbulent depths, moving, running, even without legs.

“I think I have managed to overcome the difficulties my fate had prepared for me, I have learned to live as if nothing had happened, I laughed, I made jokes. What else was there to do, what happened – happened, and God had wanted me to survive and keep on living. My parents need me, my family, and why not, the society needs me,” says the woman. “What matters most to me, though, is the inner confidence that life goes on. I can overcome other challenges as well and lead a full life. This was the conviction that guided me into strengthening my body, whatever fate had left me with. I used to force myself for hours to walk on bumpy, uneven streets, uphill [with crutches]. My goal was not overcoming a few meters, but forging my will.”

A decade after the earthquake, Marineh entered a wheelchair race in Crimea, where she placed second. She later joined the Pyunik union of disabled, took up mountain skiing, archery, basketball, weightlifting and has won numerous titles and awards. Simultaneously she started attending Red Cross rehabilitation center training, then state college of Spitak, Grigor Lusavorich University in Echmiadzin.

In 1996, she founded New Spitak NGO advocating integration of physically challenged people in the society.

“In 1999, my health issues forced me to undergo another surgery and gradually had to give up my public activities. For a few years now I have given up my sports career as the clamps on my spine had caused complications. They were placed to serve for a certain period of time. I was told they would last maybe six years, but I have had them for 25 now, and they will keep serving me, no way they won’t. Another surgery and trip to the States would require funds I do not have…,” she explains.

Nonetheless, she has founded another NGO, White Hawk, protecting the rights and interests of people with disabilities.

Every year on May 28 (marked as First Republic Day in Armenia) she takes part in a traditional 25-km march-marathon, riding her wheelchair along the Yerevan-Echmiadzin highway.

“I am not crazy, but that day I enjoy freedom, space, the speed of life, the infinity of the universe, the mildness of colors as if embracing us, the strong feeling of the ground beneath my feet, I want to keep ‘walking’ non-stop…,” says Marineh with excitement, stroking her legs she saw crushed beneath her 25 years ago.