Tuesday night around 8:30pm after dinner, a couple group members including myself were in the mood for some hot tea. I went downstairs to the kitchen where Digin Lilig (our host mom) was preparing delicious homemade jam to store for the winter months coming up. I asked her, “Digin Lilig garoghank tey oonenal,” (translation: Digin Lilik may we have some tea). With a huge smile she responded, “Raffi Jan, anshoushd, kani meh robe bidi ellah, nsdenk khosenk,” (translation: Raffi Jan, of course, it will take a couple minutes, let’s sit and talk).
So I sat down, and the conversation began.She began to tell me about how so many Armenians from this country are packing up and moving to either Europe or United States. She sounded confused as to why everyone was leaving Armenia because of the problems they are facing. She claimed that economic problems are everywhere today; even America. She stated that moving would only create more problems for them. They would have to adjust to completely different culture, language, and lifestyle.
After discussing life and economical problems that exist throughout the world, she jumped into a new topic, regarding life in Armenia during the Soviet Union and after the Soviet Union collapsed. She explained how during the Soviet Union era, her life and her family’s life was easier and care-free in some ways. Yes they did have problems dealing with the government and had limited freedom, but economically, they were happy and well-off. She and her husband both had well paying jobs. They worked five days a week and had money to take care of their family. Everyday they would come home from work, make dinner for their kids, and then decide where to go out that night. They wouldn’t spend money on water, electricity or gas. Everything was given to the household by the government. Everyone who worked was given the right to take one month off from work and still get paid $1,000 for that month.
In her words, her first 25 years were amazing. She was married with 2 beautiful kids, money, a home, and no worries, until that one morning on December 7, 1988, when everyone’s life in Gyumri drastically changed. On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit Gyumri out of nowhere, unexpected entirely. She said, “I remember it like it was yesterday. Are you sure you want me to talk about it? It’s a very emotional experience.” And of course, I wanted to hear every detail about it, if she was comfortable enough to talk about it. And so, she continued,”It was around 11:30 a.m, I was at school teaching my class, when a loud roaring noise began and shaking. I wasn’t completely sure what it was but knew something wasn’t right. I ran towards the window, followed by my students, punched the window, broke it, climbed through it and went out into the courtyard. I didn’t care that my hand was cut and bleeding because of the window, because I knew it was better than being inside a building at that time. We were in the courtyard, I was on my knees with my hands on the floor as well, after the shaking stopped, I realized that my hands and knees weren’t even on the ground anymore. The shaking stopped, so I thought the earthquake was done, I realized I didn’t have my jacket, I ran back in through the same window, I got my jacket and the aftershock shaking began. I didn’t want to stay in the building, so I ran again going to the same window, but this time while climbing through the window along with the shacking, I lost my balance, fell out of the window and cut my leg along the broken pieces of the window. The shaking continued, buildings started to collapse, part of the school collapsed with teachers and students still inside, it was devastating. My husband was at work, they felt a small shake but nothing happened to the building and no one was hurt. My three year old son and my year and a half old daughter were home with their grandmother. They felt the shake and were scared and crying, but thankfully nothing happened to them, to my mother in-law, or to the house.”
I was already in complete shock after just this part of the story. I had a hunger to know more though. That wasn’t enough. She was ready to cover everything for me. She continued, “Raffi jan, you wouldn’t believe the devastation that had hit this city, total destruction. Buildings were either partly destroyed, or half the building had collapsed, or even the entire building had been leveled to the floor, dust from the broken bricks and concrete everywhere, parts of the building in the middle of the street, or at least what was a street before the earthquake. People were yelling, screaming, crying, confused on what to do next. Dogs were running through the streets barking, police cars, ambulances and fire trucks filled the streets. I remember running home. along my path I could only see dead bodies, injured people, destroyed buildings – just complete and total destruction of a city. I was in complete shock of what we had just experienced, my emotions were confused, but once I got home and saw my husband, kids and mother in law were fine, I was a little relieved at the moment. Thousands of people died; everyone was affected by this tragedy. Even my family lost few members, the most devastating of which was the loss of my 14 year old nephew, whose body was never even found. We never saw him again.” That’s just what one family had to deal with. Imagine what every other family went through. They could have experienced much worse than this.
After hearing about the day of the earthquake and it’s treacherous memories, I wanted to know about the aid that they received and about the aftermath of the quake. “The aid the country received was unbelievable. So many countries helped, including the United States, France, Italy, Japan and many others. They sent Armenia money, rescue equipment, search teams, medical supplies, and food in unbelievable amounts, but not everything made it to the people. This is why the Soviet Union wasn’t the greatest form of government, because once the government received all this aid, they kept a large amount and gave very little to the public, which desperately needed assistance. People received almost nothing from the government and they needed to survive and rebuild their lives off of very little. For about four or five months, the city was still in complete chaos; aid was very limited, people were still struggling, and bodies were still on the streets and were being thrown away with the rest of the city trash. People were getting rich by stealing jewelry, food, money, clothing etc. from stores that were destroyed and abandoned by their owners. Life changed after that; the Soviet Union collapsed, and the people were struck with poverty. People in Gyumri hit a new low and we couldn’t do anything about it. The government wasn’t helping; we were on our own. It’s been 22 years since the quake and were still rebuilding the city, the buildings, but most importantly our lives.”
A simple request for tea turned into a 45 minute discussion about Gyumri, the earthquake, and Digin Lilik’s life before and after the earthquake. I’m happy that I had this opportunity to sit and talk with a deghatsi about their life and their struggles. She added to this Youth Corps experience in one of the greatest ways, and I’m extremely grateful for meeting her and becoming close with her through this experience.