Armenia After the Earthquake

text by Peg Maron
photos by Sarkis Boghjalian

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The 1988 earthquake in Armenia is all but forgotten here in the United States. The heroic relief efforts ended long ago; the Soviet Union, of which Armenia was a part, no longer exists; and Mikhail Gorbachev, who cut short his first American visit to return to that stricken country, is a private citizen now.

But the earthquake still looms large in the lives of the Armenian people, says Mr. Sarkis Boghjalian, senior program coordinator of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, who recently returned from a tour of that country.

Mr. Boghjalian traveled to Armenia with Dr. Sheila Rothman, director of the Externship Program in Human Rights and Health Care at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Rothman’s purpose in making the trip was to explore the possibility of including Redemptoris Mater, an Armenian hospital supported by Catholic Near East Welfare Association, in the externship program.

Reconstruction began immediately after the earthquake, when Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union, and stopped abruptly when the Union dissolved, says Mr. Boghjalian. Armenia is independent now, and suffers the same economic problems that plague the other countries of the former Soviet Union. No funds are available from the financially strapped government to rebuild. As a result, whole towns consist of buildings without roofs or windows.

New hospitals, built by Western funds when relief efforts were at their peak, are deteriorating. One of the problems, Mr. Boghjalian notes, is that these hospitals were often equipped with modern, sophisticated technology requiring highly skilled personnel. In many cases the nations that provided relief made no provisions to continue services. As a result, when funding ended, standards could not be maintained. The Association’s representative, who visited Armenia last year, notes that in just one year he could see a decline in the environment and quality of care.

Many Armenian doctors are sent to the West for additional training, Mr. Boghjalian says, but they are not allowed enough time to learn both the new language and new medical techniques.

The earthquake and inadequate Western support have cast a shadow of despair over Armenia, he points out.

Take, for example, the reaction of one doctor to the death of his son. Prior to the earthquake, this physician, motivated by the Gospel, built a thousand-bed hospital in which he served. When the earthquake struck, his son was one of 200 children killed in the local school, while drunks loitering nearby went unharmed. As a result of this inexplicable injustice, he cannot believe in God.

However despair is not limited to the area affected by the earthquake. Mr. Boghjalian notes that extreme hardship exists throughout the country; shortages of gasoline, electricity, food, water and other basic necessities are acute. As a result, there is a great deal of theft. In hospitals, for example, a highly advanced X-ray device donated by a Western European government may be incapacitated because the plug has been severed.

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