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

July 23, 1989|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

YEREVAN, Soviet Union — 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.

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