GUMRI–YEREVAN (Reuters–Noyan Tapan–Itar-Tass)–Armenia’s halted in their tracks on Monday morning and fell silent in memory of 25,000 people killed in an earthquake exactly 10 years ago.
A moment of silence brought the country to a standstill at 11:41 a.m. as drivers pulled their cars to the roadsides and the nation remembered.
Half a million people–nearly one Armenian in seven–were made homeless by the quake just as a brutal winter settled into this mountainous corner of the then Soviet Union.
The shock–which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale–wiped out the town of Spitak–60 miles northwest of the capital Yerevan and devastated Leninakan–Armenia’s second city now known as Gumri.
President Robert Kocharian and senior officials visited Spitak and Gumri on Monday–laying flowers at memorials to the victims.
"Many things were done during these years–but we still have too much to do," Kocharian told residents of Gumri–where victims of the quake are still housed in railway cars. He pledged to rebuild the damaged area within three years.
But some local residents remained skeptical that the government would come to their aid.
"We still live in this zinc coffin," said Sasha Agadzhanyan–who occupies a railway car with a family of six in Spitak.
For many in and around Spitak–the decade-old quake is not a fading memory but a brutal present-day reality.
The government lacks the estimated $150 million it needs to rebuild housing for all who need it. The disaster has been worsened by Armenia’s post-Soviet economic woes.
Spitak Mayor Suren Avetisyan told Reuters only 20 percent of houses in the town have been rebuilt–and many will have to wait for years.
"We hope that by 2001 all the families in Spitak will get new apartmen’s," he said.
When the earthquake hit in December 1988–people from across the world sent help. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev flew home from the United States–where he was on a state visit.
Delegations representing Russia and other CIS countries arrived in Armenia over the weekend to take part in ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the Armenian Earthquake. The delegation visited the quake epicenter–Spitak–on Monday.
Among high-level visitors are Nikolai Ryzhkov–Marshal Dmitry Yazov and other former Soviet leaders as well as Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Proshin and people who coordinated the rescue operations ten years ago.
French President Jacques Chirac sent a message to the Armenian president to mark the occasion. The message was passed over by the French ambassador to Armenia–sources at the presidential press service told Itar-Tass.
During special ceremonies Sunday–Ryzhkov was awarded an Order of St. Mesrob Mashtots for his role in the coordination of rescue operations and reconstruction of the earthquake zone.
"The Armenian people will always remember those who were together with it in the tragic days–those who helped and sympathized and continued to share the Spitak tragedy," Kocharian said when awarding the order.
"Our people survived the tragedy not only thanks to its steadfastness– patience and staying-power but also thanks to your support," Kocharian told visitors from the CIS republics. "Nikolai Ryzhkov is the most popular politician in Armenia," he added. Through a presidential decree dated December 4–another 39 individuals were awarded orders and medals of the Republic of Armenia for their great contribution to the assistance and reconstruction efforts related to the earthquake zone.
Vladimir Spivakov and John Huntsman of Utah–who were also awarded St. Mesrob Mashtots Order. They–however–could not attend the ceremonies.
Among other awarded the Mkhitar Gosh medals were Oleg Lobov–Viktor Chernomyrdin–Ivan Silayev–Rem Vyakhirev and Anatoly Tyazhlov all of Russia. The Mkhitar Geratsi medal went to Walter Kapanadze of Georgia and Yevgeny Chazov of Russia. Another 13 individuals from Russia–Ukraine–Georgia–Belarus–Turkmen’stan–Kazakhstan–Tajikiastan and Molodva were awarded Anania Shirakatsi medals.
A monument to children who perished during the devastating earthquake of 1988 was unveiled in the village of Mastara of the Tavush region on Saturday.
The monument–which is called "Rebirth" was designed by the architect Hayk Asatrian and sculpted by Zaven Koshtoyan. The monument was unveiled by Mastara villagers Martin Pashayan and Khachatur Gevorgian who lost their families ten years ago.
The construction of the monument lasted ten years and was sponsored by public donations.