Yesterday I was profoundly affected by a conversation I had with an amazing woman who was only 12 years old during the big earthquake in Armenia. She generously shared so much of her 13 year experience without running water or electricity, and how she survived in a community that was nothing more than rubble during that time. Though she’s alive and well and happily married now living here in the U.S., it was obviously very emotional for her to discuss this extremely challenging part of her life. I’d like to share with you today a few tidbits about her story.
For now, I'll call my friend Roxie for simplicity of the story. And I’ll certainly be inviting her as a guest on my radio show so that you can get to know and be mesmerized by her story too.
Earthquake in Armenia
Just 5 minutes before the schools would have been bursting with young students a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Spitak region in Armenia on a cold, December day in 1988. The entire city of Spitak—apartment buildings , schools, hospitals, and the few businesses that existed, crumbled to the ground like they were made of sand, as it was the epicenter. The historical accounts reveal that Spitak was 100% destroyed. Roxie lived in one of the many outskirt towns, Gyumri, of which were "only" 90% destroyed. Imagine the light-hearted dreams and aspirations of a 12 year old girl—friends, schools, perhaps a cute boy or two that was interested in this beauty—all of this being turned upside down and made completely irrelevant in a matter of minutes. One minute she cared about the ending of a book she was reading and when she could get together with friends, and the next she had to ask the question, "Will I survive? Is my family alive? Where will we get food? Where is God in all of this?" Indeed, everything that was important to a 12 year old girl was lost in a matter of minutes. (This is part of the reason why I cringe when I hear people say that their “preparedness plan” is simply to travel to their parent’s house or their siblings’ if “something were to happen. Lord, give me patience with these people, please!)
Roxie recounted the very moment the earthquake hit. She can still vividly remember how she, her sister, and mother were just outside of their home momentarily when the reeling of the earth struck. You could see the pain in her eyes as she recalled the mental picture of the buildings crumbling around her with such violent shaking that she thought her heart would be ripped right out of her. It’s no wonder she felt this way. Several news articles, including the National Geographic Magazine, report that the earthquake was so violent, it caused the entire northeast face of Spitak to ride UP and OVER the southwest facing side!
Armenia was a part of the Soviet Union at that time, under the reign of Communism. As such, the people were discouraged to practice independence. Armenia manufactured very little for her own sustenance, rather she "survived" primarily from government handouts. As such, it was an extremely impoverished nation, as indicated by the colossal collapse of all of the standard infrastructure after the earthquake hit such as bridges, roads, running water, medical care procedures, food supplies, etc.
Calamities in Armenia
25,000 people died in that first wave of shaking, only to be followed by hundreds of more deaths during the 5.9 aftershock just four minutes later. I doubt that the body can tell much of a difference between 5.9 and 6.9. Can you imagine the heart wrenching fear that one would feel having just moments before endured the first earthquake, only to be flung to and fro again just 4 minutes later? Still, in spite of the after shocks which continued to come, Roxie’s mother was concerned about the bitter cold that she and her daughters would be exposed to, so she re-entered their crumbled home to try and retrieve warm coats and clothing. She vehemently insisted that her children wait outside for her each time she ventured into the wreckage to salvage food, money, bedding and clothing. Incredibly, the aftershocks lasted for several months after the initial quake.
Thousands who survived the initial earthquake later died due to the aftershocks, starvation, exposure to cold or a lack of medical care for otherwise simple maladies or wounds and worst of all, death, imposed by the desperate and criminal acts by their fellowmen. Makeshift “spaces” were made as rocks and rubble were stacked on each other to lay claim to at least some semblance of "order" and someplace to call “home.” Isn't it interesting how the definition of those words become very relative in the face of true disasters? Eventually, materials were salvaged to create a makeshift home for Roxie and her family. Roxie recalls her bed being up against poorly constructed thin walls which had several gaps in it. These gaps were covered over with wall paper, which were no match for the freezing winds which made their way through the walls as if they were made of rice paper. She also recalled the horrible smell of mold that was ever present, because when the rains came it would wet the wall paper and subsequently the bedding. Roxie had a painful look on her face as she shared with me, in a matter of fact tone, the countless occasions she endured, trying to wring out her wet bedding that was black with mold.
Due to the below freezing temperatures, the children were sent out during the daytime to salvage for anything that would burn. The usual such items were gone in a matter of weeks, so the hunt began for tar pieces from crumbled roofs, old tires from crushed cars, and all kinds of items with no regard to the harsh chemicals that the women would be inhaling as they stoked their fires. In order to keep the fires going, they girls would have to stand over the fires, stirring it constantly, even though the items salvaged from the wreckage smelled horrible and emitted toxic fumes in the air which they breathed and the embedded themselves in food which they ate.
As the dust settled and the successful rummaging of food and water became more difficult, Armenians sought for sources from which they could purchase essentials. Unfortunately, though they had money, they had no formal places to spend it. No stores were functioning or stocked. Their rubble had been looted clean within hours after the first quake. Unfortunately, this left the survivors to pay astronomical amounts of currency for what few essentials could still be made such as unleavened bread, scrawny pieces of meat from unknown carcasses, and anything that might possibly provide nutrition. Roxie says that eggs were such a luxury. To be able to get one simple egg was considered cause for great rejoicing and thanksgiving. She described how a monthly bath was a special occasion and that not even a drop of water and soap would go to waste while all of her family would bathe with one child pouring water over the other and the her mother would scrub them clean.
Though incredibly prideful and busy with the perpetuation of the Cold War with the rest of the world, Mikhail Gorbachev begged the rest of the world for humanitarian aid. There were no government agencies to help in the search and rescue efforts. The survivors were the only ones to fill that roll. Roxie tells of the awful reality of the non-existent government aid, and how when humanitarian aid did begin arrive, a black market immediately swallowed the resources. This required survivors to expose themselves to a whole new type of horror as many had to sell all they had left, their dignity and their souls, in order to feed their family. She said that by the time the stores finally were operating again, the people had no money for which to pay for the essentials because their monetary resources had been depleted as they survived on what little their money could still purchase. Roxie recounts the sum of this horror, grateful for a mother who insisted on raising proper and polite ladies regardless of their filthy surroundings. One of the saddest moments for me in Roxie’s story is when she describes the rotten state of the humanitarian supplies which did get through—only because they weren’t worth selling on the black market—wheat, stale and moldy, along with most of the foods which made it through the greedy hands of those in high positions of government. (Never let a good disaster go to waste, eh?) The condition of such supplies seemed to take the form of a personal slap of additional injury, as if the filthy survivors weren’t worth anything better than someone else’s wheat that wasn’t fit to serve to dogs. Hearing this kind of reminded me of the episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine decided to sell the muffin tops and then donate the bottoms of the muffins to the homeless shelter.
Fortunately, this story does get better. Just a few years later, Roxie managed to put herself through school, attending full-time as she worked odd jobs wherever she could find them. Her commitment for a change.
Shortly after this quake, Roxie managed to get a job as an English teacher. She supported 5 people on her salary while she continued her further education. Eventually she worked her way into media production. In one of the most ironic situations, this woman who lived through 13 years of no running water, moldy bedding, and no electricity, then worked as a producer on the first production of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” for Armenian television. It was through this work that her journey took her to act as a translator for an American humanitarian group that was conducting lectures and educating the citizens of Armenia how to grow flourishing gardens in their woeful soil conditions.
But we’ll save the rest of that story for when she is a guest on my radio show.
Anyway, as I think back on this story, nearly nonstop over the last day, I am reminded of the importance of spiritual and mental preparedness. I don't know many people today that would endure such a scenario for 13 minutes, let alone 13 years! Only a person who had strong faith and belief in their values could have endured so long with her virtue and honor intact as this woman did. And yet you hear no bitterness in her voice at having lost a childhood or bearing the heavy burdens of her life. It is remarkable as I realize that her subsequent success had nothing to do with the tangible things she owned following this tragedy, rather it was her mental fortitude and commitment that made the difference and enabled her to not just survive, but thrive.
This is certainly one account that I will never forget, and I hope from which I will never stop learning. To be honest, as I sit here waiting for another round of test results to come back to tell me what I need to fix next in my body (though I’m committed to doing so by as natural means as possible) I’m not feeling particularly perky—certainly not sufficient to take on such a trial at the moment. Can’t you just hear me telling God right now, “Sorry, this just won’t fit my schedule today”? I’m not sure that I could have mentally survived as well as she did. I loathe camping. I hate being dirty. And, frankly a great deal of my preparedness efforts are assembled with a hope and prayer that I’ll be able to at least endure a disaster in the comfort of my home. I hope that I when I am ever tried in such a manner that I don’t step away from my commitment, complaining about the timing of the ordeal instead of jumping in and helping others like I should. To be perfectly vulnerable and forthright, it’s not that often that I am touched so deeply by another person’s story like this. Tears come to my eyes as I imagine the hundreds of thousands who must have felt so hollow and abandoned inside as they endured the initial quake and the consistent aftershocks for months thereafter. I hope that I can take the time I still have to prepare to strengthen my spiritual foundation and my mental resolve to endure even half as well as this virtuous and valiant woman did, and with the benefit of my family nearby. But I guess that’s exactly what the purpose of this time is right now—to peacefully prepare so that there may be peaceful times ahead to the extent that we are able to provide.
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