Snow in Sochi: The cold strangeness of life at the 967 scene

Editor’s note: Reporter Aris Ghazinyan traveled with relatives of victims of Armavia Flight 967 to Sochi. After filing news reports on details of the aftermath, he returned and now shares his personal impressions from that assignment.

In the hellish bustle of the Sochi hotel Moskva, a young man named Vahan reminded me that: “April is always followed by May”. In most circles it would be banal calendar truth. In the context of this conversation, it was jolting reflection from a young man who had just returned from a morgue looking for, but not finding, his mother.

Historically, April has been seen as a month of calamity for Armenians, stemming from events that started our Genocide. The sentiment of the month is captured in Armenian folk song: “Spring has come, but snow has fallen.”

May, though, has been viewed as bringing some of our greatest moments of national pride: Victory in the battle of Avarayr in the 5th century; victories at war in May, 1918; the liberation of Shushi in Karabakh in 1992 . . .

May has been a month of revival. But not this May. Not the month of Flight 967 . . .

While at the Sochi morgues this time last week, a pathologist/anatomist worked over remains, sewing on limbs, trying to give a familiar shape to victims of unfathomable horror, loved ones of the disembodied and unfound formed a disturbing queue, waiting.

Manvel Poghosyan, 63, had never been in Sochi. In his youth he had no time, and in the last decade he simply couldn’t afford it. He didn’t travel by sea, although he had dreamed at least once to get on a ship with his wife. But he couldn’t afford it. On May 3 – like other relatives taking an undesired charter flight – he flew to Sochi free of charge, was accommodated in a hotel for free, and two days later, again for free, he boarded a ship and went to sea for several hours. He was going to his wife’s grave. Never for Manvel Poghosyan, has “free” cost so much . . .

On May 5 the Black Sea became deeper and saltier from tears, shed from the decks of the “Globus” and “Dagomys” four miles from the shore as mourners were taken to the crash site.

On that day the Caucasus Mountains appeared in their awesome splendor. Snow-covered tops shone with aquamarine brilliance, and the high, cloudless sky was reflected in the crystal blue of the sapphire sea. “No, this sea is not blue, it is the blackest sea in the world. It is, surely, the Black Sea,” 20-year-old Ella Hambartsumyan said in tears, repeating a comment made earlier as relatives’ flew into Adler.

The vacant stare of 25-year-old Karen, who had lost his brother, was directed at one imaginary point on the deck. Pinned to the deck chair, he sat motionless his head hung; he resembled Roden’s famous “Thinker”, the same massive body and thought contemplation. He would be rattled from his thoughts by the scream of seagulls over the sea – a small flock of birds flew immediately over the sea surface towards Adler: “Where are they flying to in a group, seagulls fly only separately, maybe the body of my brother is there,” he said all of a sudden. Then, he sat down to the same place and again hung his head.

Like nature’s birds of the sea in these unnatural days, loved ones of the dead clung together, joined by Armenian blood and, now, by a national disaster.

The luckiest of these on this ship of grief will go home with bodies. For many, though, only parts have been recovered. What do you do with a portion of a loved one? And how does your mourning stop if no trace is found?

In his moment of uncertainty, Vahan ponders the folk truth, amended:

It is May, but snow has fallen . . .

Thoughts turn to a beloved poet. “Armenian sorrow is an endless sea,” wrote Hovhaness Tumanyan.

When we crossed the sea approaching Sochi, these for whom Tumanyan might have penned those words reached to look out the tiny windows of the plane. They pressed searching eyes toward that blackest of seas, their hopes smaller than the portal holding the reflection of these faces pleading like an atheist on a cross.

Only debris floated below and soon those waters would wash up theories, too: What went wrong? Who is to blame?

The debris of 967 drifts toward a shore on which castles – not of sand, but of commerce – are being built in Sochi. Russia expects to spend up to $4 billion here, if it can win its bid for Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Another billion would be provided by the International Olympic Committee. Spain, Austria, South Korea and Kazakhstan are among Russia’s rival bidders.

But these days, some are speculating that questionable performance at Adler airport, if confirmed, could crumble hopes for the world spotlight to shine here for any reason other than this disaster.

What has taken so long to get effective salvage equipment to the site? Reports of mechanical failure on sea vessels in transit to the site is viewed by skeptics as a means of buying time for officials fearful of what recording devices might hold deep in that dark sea.

There are three “black boxes” expected to eventually be pulled up with answers for debating governments and anxious relatives.

Waiting, Armenian Garnik Hovhannisyan, one of some 800,000 Armenians who live in this region, stands on the shore with the same face as his compatriots.

“Today, the black box is my heart,” he says.