Faucets, Not Hospitals : Armenia Aid Gets Back to the Basics

Times Staff Writer

When the Swiss Catholic charity Caritas offered to put up temporary housing for some of the Armenians left without shelter after the devastating earthquake here last year, Soviet officials said they would rather have a factory that manufactured water faucets.

“The Swiss were flabbergasted,” Yuri S. Mkhitarian, a senior official of the Armenian State Building Committee, recalled. “They had a vision in their minds of these poor, homeless people being sheltered in prefabricated chalets and living happily in a little Swiss village in the hills of northern Armenia. Yet here we were talking about plumbing--pipes and faucets and that sort of thing.”

But the Armenian officials’ reasoning was very straightforward: With more than 520,000 people to rehouse, Armenia needs foreign assistance--help on a scale that vastly exceeds the resources of individual donors, such as Caritas. Foreign donors, they say, must consequently shift from prestigious but small relief projects to those that speed the broader reconstruction effort here.

Other Urgent Needs


“Everybody wants to build us a hospital, but we need the wherewithal to rebuild the whole of the earthquake zone,” Mkhitarian said. “We do need dozens of new hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, but the whole Armenian population did not take sick after the earthquake. We have other needs, too, and they are equally urgent.

“What we need most of all now, in fact, is assistance in re-establishing our construction industry, which itself was largely destroyed in the earthquake, and assistance in redeveloping our economy.

About $500 million in international aid poured into Armenia from 113 countries after the Dec. 7 earthquake that killed more than 25,000 people, officials said. But most went into immediate relief work, medical care for the injured and the preliminary phase of reconstruction. The total damage in the earthquake zone has been estimated by the government at the equivalent of $16 billion.

‘Situation Remains Grave’

“The acute crisis is over,” Mkhitarian said, “but the situation here remains very grave. The drama of those terrible days in December has passed, thank God, but look at the situation we now face.

“Half a million people have lost their homes, 21 towns have been destroyed, 342 villages have suffered heavy damage and 58 were destroyed. The economy of that area is in shambles, 130 factories were destroyed, we have 170,000 people without work and the rest of the republic is straining to support them. We have tens of thousands of families divided, spread around the country, because there is no housing here.

“We need to rebuild our Armenia, and we need help from the world to do it. This is our plea to our friends who came so generously in December: Please do not forget us now.”

Foreign donors continue to propose projects, officials here said, but not on the same scale of the original emergency aid and not on the scale they believe is required now.

Half a year into the reconstruction of the earthquake area, a massive undertaking that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev pledged would be completed within two years, Armenian officials acknowledge that the effort might take five years--and perhaps even longer without international assistance.

The special commission established by the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo to coordinate relief efforts here recently criticized the slowness in reconstruction, saying there had been “no substantial progress” in rebuilding and describing as “particularly alarming” the lack of progress in the earthquake zone’s major towns.

“Coordination is a major, major problem,” Boris Karapetyan, director of earthquake studies at the Yerevan Polytechnical Institute, said of the reconstruction. “This is a massive undertaking, and foreign involvement is both a necessary and a complicating factor. We need foreign assistance--and there is no doubt about that--but our friends do not know the local conditions and propose things that cannot or should not be built in an earthquake-prone region.”

A coordinating center has been established, but its powers are still unclear, and reconstruction is proceeding slowly.

“We will rebuild, of course, and we can rely on our own resources and those of the whole Soviet Union,” said Laura Vartanyan, deputy chairman of the Armenian Children’s Fund. “But it is a question of cost--not so much the money cost, but the cost in additional human suffering if we cannot speed the reconstruction.”

Dr. Armen Goenjian, a California psychiatrist who helped organize a mental health program to assist victims in dealing with the psychological trauma of the earthquake, strongly endorsed this plea.

“What people need now is housing, immediate housing, and they won’t have that at the pace reconstruction is going,” Goenjian said in an interview here. “New housing is essential if the families, so many of which are separated now, are to be brought back together. Homes will give people the hope and security they need to recover. . . .

“The Armenian community in the United States rushed to help in December, and we should not let go now. But we also need to understand what the greatest needs are, and the housing issue is the main concern. The question will soon be where are we Armenian-Americans on this key issue.”

And there are also some complaints, spoken softly and with concern that they not reflect ingratitude, about promises made in December that, seven months later, are not fulfilled.

“When President Bush’s son (Jeb) came (last Dec. 25), he talked about a donation of perhaps $1 million for the Armenian Children’s Fund, but we had to set up a special account to receive it,” Vartanyan said. “Now the account is established, but we have not received the donations we had hoped for. We wanted to use the money to purchase equipment for invalids, to put up a children’s park in Leninakan, to buy warm clothing for winter and to help those families here who are taking care of our orphans.

“The Americans, particularly the Armenian community there, were of great help to us in our darkest hours, but we hear very little from the United States now. The crisis is not over--we have so many families without homes, so many people without jobs--and our children still need help.”

The continuing international assistance is, in fact, extensive, and the walls of Mkhitarian’s office are filling up with architects’ sketches, construction diagrams and town plans that have been approved.

In Spitak, a town of about 25,000 at the epicenter of the quake, an Italian-built village--complete with a hospital, school, clinic and children’s center--is going up at a new site several miles from the ruins of the old town, which was located over the convergence of several seismic faults.

Norway is building a 250-bed hospital there as well. Czechoslovakia is erecting a school for 750 children, and Finland and Italy together will build and equip a 300-bed rehabilitation center for those with spinal injuries from the earthquake.

In Leninakan, which was Armenia’s second-largest city with a population of more than 300,000, Austria is building a neighborhood complete with a clinic, hospital, school and 150-bed children’s hospital. West Germany is building and equipping a polyclinic; Britain is building a school; Cuba is building two schools; Italy and Poland are building polyclinics; Denmark is rebuilding a small neighborhood, and France will erect two apartment buildings.

Foreign donors are also planning to build medical facilities, schools, rehabilitation centers and workshops to manufacture artificial limbs and other prosthetic devices in other towns in northern Armenia and in Yerevan, the capital.

Projects at Various Stages

“We have 20 foreign projects through the planning stage and approved for inclusion in the reconstruction effort, and a number are already under construction,” said Mkhitarian, who coordinates the foreign assistance in the reconstruction effort. “The foreign assistance is very important. In Leninakan, for example, we need to build 18 hospitals. With help from other republics in the Soviet Union, we can rebuild 12 ourselves, but we needed and got foreign assistance for the other six.

“But foreign assistance of this type does not solve the problem. Armenia itself really needs to be reconstructed. We can do the building--Armenians are natural builders, and we will have help from the whole Soviet Union--but we have serious problems providing building materials, everything from cement and stone to doors and windows to pipes and electrical wiring.

“So, now we are asking other countries that, instead of more hospitals or schools or housing, they provide us with the equipment and technology to redevelop the construction industry in Armenia,” Mkhitarian added.

When a donor proposes a hospital now, Armenian officials counter with a request for rock-quarrying equipment, cement plants, a stone-dressing factory.

A Matter of Understanding

“They are not keen for such projects,” Mkhitarian lamented. “These friends tell us, ‘Our people know hospitals, they know orphanages and they know kindergartens, but they will never understand a project like a quarry or construction machinery. That is not why our people gave their money.’ ”

But without the redevelopment of the Armenian construction industry, most of which is quite backward and much of which was centered in the earthquake area, it will be difficult to build any of these prestige projects, Mkhitarian said.

Stone-cutting machinery, for example, is urgently needed because the only stone-processing plant in Armenia was in Leninakan and was destroyed in the earthquake. Stone is the most widely used construction material in rural Armenia.

“We have thousands of families waiting to rebuild their houses in our villages, but we don’t have enough stone for them,” another Armenian official said. “So, they are living in tents and construction cabins and simply shacks, and that is prolonging their suffering.”

Mkhitarian is beginning to have some success in persuading foreign donors to supply construction equipment.

Promise of New Cement Factory

A West German donor, for example, has supplied special equipment that will remove the steel reinforcing bars from the concrete in buildings that will be demolished as unsafe so that both the steel and even the cement can be reused in other ways. An American group that came to put up several buildings in a demonstration of construction techniques this month left promising to help establish a new cement factory here.

And the Swiss Caritas group was persuaded to provide that factory for water faucets and other plumbing equipment. “I told them, ‘Just think that every time someone in Armenia turns on the tap, he will think of the generous Swiss,’ ” Mkhitarian said.

Caritas, in fact, is also building a large, 100-bed diagnostic center in Leninakan and equipping it with the latest medical instruments as well as a network of 21 rural dispensaries.

According to figures provided last month by the Soviet Foreign Ministry in Moscow, about $160 million in international aid has come from foreign governments, $80 million from Red Cross and Red Crescent societies worldwide, $20 million from international organizations, $39 million from private aid groups and $180 million from individuals. Funds are still being raised by many charities around the world.

Foreign donors are continuing to provide specialized medical care abroad for some of the 17,000 people injured in the earthquake.

Generous Medical Aid

More than 80 children whose limbs were crushed were airlifted to different hospitals in the United States for surgery and rehabilitation. Scores of other victims have gone to countries in Eastern and Western Europe and recently to Israel for treatment. Medecins Sans Frontieres, the French doctors’ aid group, has established a long-term project with more than 30 personnel here. And Armenian-Americans have underwritten a mental health project to help the earthquake victims deal with the psychological trauma.

But Armenian officials, looking beyond both the continuing relief work and the rebuilding of the earthquake-devastated zone, are hoping for foreign assistance in developing the small Soviet republic’s economy.

Mkhitarian, who long worked in the centralized Soviet foreign trade system in Moscow, said Armenia hopes to turn the foreign ties that it developed through the relief and reconstruction effort into a network of permanent economic relationships.

“We would like to establish a special economic zone here to attract foreign investors,” Karapetyan, of the Yerevan Polytechnical Institute, added. “We can see now that future economic growth--and that means our full recovery from the earthquake--will require our opening to the outside world, our integration into the world economy. . . .

“We think we have good prospects for this. We hope, for example, that Armenians abroad, particularly engineers, scientists and businessmen, will want to do business with us. And, of course, we are looking to the United States.”