BY HARRY L. KOUNDAKJIAN
It was around 7 a.m. on December 7th, 1988. Our telephone woke me up.
Our assignment editor at the Associated Press in New York was calling me.
He ordered me, “Get your travel bag, all your camera gear and rush to the office to get some cash. You are booked to fly out at 10 am.”
“Where am I going?” I inquired.
“Armenia,” he replied.
“I have no papers ready to leave the States as I just swore my allegiance to the United States,” I told him. “Forget it,” he grumbled and hung up.
At the AP headquarters office on 50 Rockefeller Plaza I read all about it. The earthquake had hit the northern region of Armenia, still part of the Soviet Union. Reports said the earthquake measured 6.8 on the surface and had a maximum intensity of X (Devastating) on the Medvedev scale.
The report claimed the region that the earthquake occurred was vulnerable to occasional large and destructive earthquakes. It added that the area was part of a larger active seismic belt that stretches from the Alps to the Himalayas.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev formally asked the United States for humanitarian help. Over 130 countries sent humanitarian aid in the form of rescue equipment and medical equipment. I know I missed all the best pictures I could have taken but just before Easter, Armenian organizations had several meetings in New York to arrange for financial assistance as well as medical help.
I covered these meetings with political and religious leaders and was assigned by the AP to visit the ruined country with His Holiness Catholicos Karekin of the Great House of Cilicia, assisted by the late Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian of the Eastern Prelacy and other clergy.
It was a very tiring flight but we made it safely. In Yerevan, meetings followed meetings and everyone visited as many places as they could, helping as many people as they could.
When His Holiness Karekin climbed over the crushed and broken cathedral in Spitak, I implored him to not risk injury in such a way and cautioned him that if he fell, he would be seriously hurt. His reply was simple: “I used to climb over mountains in Kessab where I was born and we are like gazelles, we do not fall.”
Non-governmental organizations had a large part in the international effort. One such effort was by a group of recording artists who united to produce several music-related contributions for the victims of the quake. A single produced by a duo of French composers with Armenian ties as well as a studio album were released by the British music industry featuring songs that were donated by mainstream rock bands and with the proceeds going to the rebuilding efforts in Armenia.
A group of French recording artists and actors came together with the French writer and composer Charles Aznavour to record the 1989 song “Pour toi Armenie”—For you Armenia. With Armenian composer Garvarentz, they formed a foundation called Aznavour for Armenia and composed the song as a call for help for the Armenians. Rock Aid Armenia, also known in earlier stages as Live Aid Armenia, was another humanitarian effort by the British music industry to raise money for the victims of the earthquake.
By July 1989, about $500 million in donations had been delivered to the victims in Armenia from 113 countries.