Ara Dunomalyan’s large, sad eyes took on a gleam and he suppressed a proud grin as he toddled along the corridor of Yerevan’s orthopedic center, showing off his mobility with an artificial leg and a cane.
The 4-year-old has triumphed over tragedy, learning to walk and smile again after the Dec. 7 earthquake that crushed his left leg and took the lives of his mother and brother.
The innocence of childhood has allowed him to forget the horror of the day it rained concrete in his native town of Spitak. But the Armenian and West German adults who have nursed him through trauma have longer memories and more fragile hearts.
Eyes welled up with tears among the circle of grown-up spectators when the motherless tot completed his performance for visiting foreigners by slipping a downy arm around the neck of a reporter who stooped to watch at his eye level, brushing her cheek with a kiss.
‘Children Forget Pain’
“Children forget pain more easily than adults,” the child’s grandfather, Mikhail Dunomalyan, said as Ara hobbled off behind a brigade of wheelchairs bearing legless children through an obstacle course of nurses and technicians.
The orthopedic center on a hill overlooking the smog-shrouded Armenian capital has been helped by a prosthesis workshop set up by the West German Red Cross.
Orthopedic technician Kristof Blum of Saarbruecken works in the room filled with child-sized rubber hands, plastic knee joints, artificial feet and connecting braces that slap visitors in the face with the reality and breadth of the suffering inflicted by the disaster.
Blum and half a dozen Armenian assistants put in long days in the laboratory custom-making prostheses and working through the list of amputees that lengthens daily as word of the clinic’s work spreads through the distant, backward villages hit hardest by the earthquake.
A despondent Spitak father approached a visiting Red Cross inspection team to inquire if his crippled 15-year-old daughter could be sent back with them to West Germany for treatment.
‘They Want the Best’
“This happens every day, people wanting to send their children abroad for the same treatment we’ve worked to provide here,” Blum said. “They all want what is best for their children and they believe that it lies far away. But what they fail to understand is the need for the family to be close by to help during the recovery period. Sometimes a mother or father is all these children have left.”
The clinic’s hallways and stairwells are crowded with idle and homeless relatives of the patients brought here from makeshift hospitals set up in the earthquake zone to treat the more than 31,000 injured.
Relief efforts in the months since the disaster have concentrated on the immediate tasks of medical care and food supply, and the provision of new housing for the estimated 100,000 left homeless will take at least two years.
The relatives of those hospitalized spend their days caring for the patients and their nights in tent cities and temporary shelters.
“Ara’s ready to go home now, but he has no home to go to,” said Ilya Osepyan, director of the 250-bed orthopedic clinic that has treated thousands of victims.
“We are trying to arrange temporary shelter for those who have recovered at a children’s sanatorium, but the adults have to be accommodated too,” the doctor said.
Blum has fitted more than 30 children with artificial limbs since he arrived in January, as well as 50 adults. More than 300 people are awaiting prostheses, and the clinic expects to fulfill that need within six months.
“The children’s prostheses must be replaced as they grow, so we expect to keep volunteers here for at least two years, or until a local staff can be trained to take over the work,” Blum said.
The prosthesis center is one of several projects taken on by the West German Red Cross under the loosely organized disaster recovery plan being developed by the Soviet government.
Worldwide donations that generated a record foreign contribution for disaster relief have slowed to a trickle, but International Red Cross societies and church organizations have collected hundreds of millions of dollars for long-term relief and are negotiating with Moscow and Yerevan authorities over how the money can best be spent.
The West German Red Cross has built a field hospital in the city of Stepanavan, where 80% of the buildings were destroyed, and plans to reconstruct the village of Kursali, near Spitak, with the help of volunteers from the Soviet republic of Estonia.
“The tears have dried and everyone will eventually be treated,” Osepyan told the West Germans who toured the prosthesis workshop and recovery wards. “But it will take years to bring Armenia back to a state that could be considered normal.”