The Spitak Quake: 25 years later . . . locked doors in the village of Nalband

With skillful hand movements the young woman is demonstrating how it is possible to replace the metallic strings of the prosthesis with bee-waxed shoe-maker’s thread.

“I have also put screws and nuts too, since 2008 I have dissembled and assembled three times. We have some parts left from the old prosthesis. Otherwise they keep breaking, every time we have to go to Yerevan to get it fixed, but they get angry there saying they don’t have the USA-made ones, only German. So we are trying to solve the issue on our own,” says Lilit Nalbandyan, 37, straightening the sleeves on her husband’s shirt.

“My wife has studied prosthetics. It’s like shoes – the more you wear the sooner they wear off. And I am using this 24/7. When it wears out, it has to be replaced, but all that was done in the United States is not available in Armenia even for just replacement. American prosthesis is very user-friendly. I have some cosmetic ones and can’t use them, they are somewhere around in the house. They are heavy, and have poor functionality,” Lilit’s husband Hrach tells and lights another cigar with the artificial hand his wife has repaired.

When talking about the past he blends the bitterness with jokes; his children listen to his story and see a living legend who was able to survive the ruins of a three-storey building for a whole day.

The young family of Nalbandyans lives in the epicenter of Spitak earthquake in Shirakamut village of Armenia’s northern Lori region.

“They were advancing slowly, with a crowbar. We raised noise to let them know they were going to hit our heads with their crowbars, they screamed back from the outside not to worry, said they were still breaking the upper layers, ‘there is still a lot before we can reach you, so just wait and don’t worry’ they said, but the reality was devastating… nine of us from my class and twelve more from our parallel class became invalids …Azniv, Azgush, Msto, me…,” Hrach, 39, tells his recollections of the earthquake.

The eyes of his two boys Mushegh and Arshak, and his daughter Tagush, reflect their father’s smile. And Arshak is his dad’s exact copy.

“Don’t you have draft wine, go bring some, let them learn the taste of Nalband grapes. Lilit is from Ashtarak, we got married and live in Nalband, she is a real master wine-maker,” Hrach proudly introduces his wife.

The family gathers around the dinner table. Typically, the first toast is to the memory of the victims of the earthquake from 25 years ago.

“If a city was where our village is, it would have been terrible. The earth had cracked apart, the railroad passing along the village had moved 10-12 meters down…” say the people sitting around the table.

Hrach recalls how everybody in Nalband was left without a shelter, including them. His mother died under the ruins of her house, one of his brothers got a leg injury.

“I do not remember the quaking part, only clamor and then suddenly all the sounds were gone, it turned still and silent… When I regained my consciousness I thought it must have been a dream, I kept fainting, then waking up, then fainting again… finally I realized it was earthquake. People from outside were shouting, asking ‘Are you the tenth-graders? Fifth-graders?’ Parents were looking for their children by their classes. As soon as they would hear a voice they would start asking questions, trying to find out who was there under the ruins,” tells Hrach, a smile still lingering in his eyes, veiling the sorrow. “They helped me out the next day at dawn.”

In the ambulance Hrach realized he had lost the feeling in his arms. He underwent a surgery in Yerevan; had also head injuries. Three times – in 1989, 1992 and 2008 he has visited the United States, namely Chicago, for prosthetics. Meanwhile, he majored in law at Yerevan State University, today he works at Shirakamut village school as a history teacher.

“Am I strong? I don’t know… To me life is combat, in my heart I am having a hard time. Someone is believed to be strong when s/he aims at solving issues. Conflict is a mechanism of solution, whereas I prefer bypassing conflicts while they are ‘asleep’ much better,” confesses Hrach.

His wife counters, however, that her husband’s willpower is exemplary to all of them.

“Hrach is strong, he is not dependent on me; he manages on his own. A few years ago I was down with a serious head condition, I was in bed and could not get up. I used to look at Hrach and feel ashamed wondering if I did not have even half as much willpower as he,” says Lilit.

The family has been occupying their new house since 2003, until then they had lived in a domik (temporary, trailer-like tin-house). Only Arshak, out of the three minors, was not born in the domik.

Hrach is concerned with the fact that many houses in the village are abandoned, and that every year there are fewer classes at the school, that only few children are born. He says in Samara, where many of his fellow villagers have moved to, 13 children have been born this year, while in Shirakamut – only nine.

“If a child grows up elsewhere, he or she would never come to live in this village. They would spend a week here with pleasure, for the sake of novelty, and then would leave. Those people are lost to our society, to our country. If you take a walk in this huge village you will see doors – locked, locked, locked, open, locked, locked, open. And the ones open won’t stay that way for long – may God keep our elders alive for many more years, but sooner or later they’ll be gone, and nobody will come to replace them,” he says and adds: “It would take a little bit of decent treatment to keep the remaining population. Some measures have to be taken to ‘tie people’s feet’ to their homeland, make them stay…”

Hrach compares the last 25 years in the village and says “before and after the quake” has become a chronological concept just like Anno Domini (A.D.) or Before Christ (B.C.).

“People in the streets talk: ‘before the quake it was this, after the quake it was that; no, no, what I am saying refers to before the quake!’ It is a term dividing our lives into two parts. Of course, they used to live better before the quake, and after it everything fell apart – homes, jobs, human lives; it took years to recover”.

Hrach’s life recovered gradually – home, family, children, job, but still there is too much hardship. The worst part to him, though, is the locked doors in the village, their number growing every year.

“We can’t blame those who leave, but we can’t all just leave, abandon our land: who would take care of it? It’s ours, we have to keep on living, fighting, overcoming, making it prosper, be strong… my children are my greatest treasure, maybe tomorrow their lives will be more challenging, but better than ours, that’s for sure,” says Hrach.