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December 7, 1988, 11:41 - Richter magnitude 6.9
December 7, 1988, 11:45 – Richter magnitude 5.8

At the end of a year of continued civil unrest, there was human tragedy and destruction in the Soviet Republic of Armenia when a massive earthquake devastated the cities of Leninakan (now known as Gyumri, the republic’s second largest city) and Spitak. As many as 25,000 (official Soviet figure) to 100,000 (Western estimates) people were believed to have died in the disaster, which left survivors huddled outside the wreckage of their homes and hundreds of coffins piled in Spitak Stadium.

A massive rescue operation was mounted with many survivors scrabbling at the remains with their bare hands in the hope of finding missing relatives and friends. The 1988 Armenia earthquake forced the Soviet government to request international assistance for the first time in its history. The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev paid a personal visit to the scene of the earthquake. Aid was troubled by the later collapse of the Soviet Union, which surrealistically enough was caused partly by this humanitarian crisis, the resulting unrest and the resulting political controversies.

As noted above, the disaster came at the end of a troubled year. In February the Southern Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan were racked by the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in the peacetime history of the Soviet Union. This happened after the Azeri rejected a call for the predominantly Armenian region Nagorno-Karabakh to be returned to Armenian control. In September 1988 tanks appeared on the streets of Yerevan as a state of emergency was declared. That these events in the ethnically shaken region intertwined with the natural disaster was made clear by an elderly woman:

"Of my blood relatives, 12 died - grandchildren, great-grandchildren, sons in law, a daughter, that was all here (during the earthquake) - but the Abkhazians over there (in Georgia) killed 49 of my kin in Sukhimi, Zugdidi and in our village."

The two tremors occurred 32 kilometres from Leninakan, and within 9 kilometres of Spitak. The epicentre of the quake was in the mountain village of Shirokamud, referred to among its inhabitants by its old name Nalband. The village was on the main east-west road between Spitak and Leninakan. The village mayor reported:

"The earthquake's epicentre was right here at the train station. The entire community was destroyed, totally, nothing was left standing: the sovkhoz, the enterprises, the schools, were all gone, 320 residents were killed in the quake, including 112 in the middle school. Fires broke out burning up bodies; it's a sad story I cannot characterize in detail, that many families were left without breadwinners, without parents, and 85 residents became invalids."

The earthquake destroyed some 5,100 buildings in the larger town of Spitak, which included 100% of the houses. The quake killed 4,003 of Spitak's 18,500 inhabitants, or over 21 percent of the population. In the total region an estimated number of 100,000 households (530,000 people) turned homeless in one day’s time.

Last year, more than 12 years later (!), approximately 26,000 households were still living in temporary and inadequate shelters, as was calculated by the United States Agency for International Development.

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