35 years since the Spitak earthquake ⟩ The Estonians' unprecedented assistance to the disaster victims was heartwarming

Ljudmilla Mesropjan
Resque worker after the earthquake in Spitak.
Resque worker after the earthquake in Spitak. Photo: RIA Novosti / SCANPIX

The Spitak earthquake occurred in the northern part of the then Armenian SSR on December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time. The magnitude of the earthquake was 6.8 and its maximum intensity was considered devastating. 25,000 – 50,000 were killed, 31,000 – 130,000 were injured. Ljudmila Mesropjan, who lives in Estonia and is from Armenia, recalls how the response to this disaster was in Estonia.

It happened 35 years ago today. Our relatives from Armenia called us and informed us of the terrible tragedy. We followed the news all day. In the evening, Ene Karu, the head of the HR department of the communication center where we worked, called and said: «We have to do something! We need to create a relief center for earthquake victims!”

35 years since the earthquake in Spitak (by Lyudmila Mesropyan)

Our relatives from Armenia called us and informed us about a terrible tragedy. We were glued to the news all day. In the evening, Ene Karu, the head of the personnel department at the communication center where we worked, called and said, "We need to do something! We need to create a relief headquarters for the earthquake victims!"

By the next morning, my husband Artavazd, who was the head of the 7th telephone station in the city of Tartu, located at Tähe 104a, was already setting up a telephone in a small apartment allocated by the city for the headquarters. This apartment was on the fifth floor on Kalevi Street. I don't remember the house number, unfortunately.

From the very first minute until the closure of the headquarters, I worked there with other people. And of course, I remember every detail.

The whole world, literally the entire world, responded to this natural disaster. The support from different corners of the globe during those days was probably unprecedented in history.

But let me tell you a bit about what specifically happened in Tartu during those days.

Many Armenian students flew out the very next day! Groups of doctors and builders were immediately formed, and they flew on the first plane just two or three days after the disaster.

They took with them everything they could gather from enterprises, organizations in the city, and ordinary residents of Tartu. I remember a call from the Tartu meat processing plant asking if Armenians eat pork. Upon learning that we are Christians, they loaded the first plane with canned meat and smoked products. With the money collected in just a couple of days, we bought children's clothes of all sizes, underwear, tights, and warm clothing from Kaubamaja, whose employees opened their warehouses for us.

I was deeply moved by people's compassion. The flow of people did not stop. They came from morning till late evening.

They brought clothes, bed linens, money, and someone even carefully put together packages with combs, threads, and needles.

Several people were constantly working in the headquarters, relieving each other.

We had thick ledger books where we recorded donations. Many people refused to give their names and left various amounts anonymously. We never stopped thanking people for their compassion. I remember one situation. An elderly woman came, who had to climb to the fifth floor, opened her old wallet, and I saw that there were two bills, 5 and 25 rubles. She handed over the five, but then her hand froze in the air, and she returned the bill to its place, offering 25 rubles instead. You know, I will remember this moment for a lifetime! Living in those times helps you understand the significance of such an amount for a pensioner. Unfortunately, even today, the situation for the elderly is not better.

Another notebook had to be started; many wanted to adopt orphans. Even representatives of the church, located on Sõbra Street, expressed a desire to take in 20 orphaned children. I told them that Armenia would not agree to this and would definitely take care of the orphans. And it happened. But this readiness of people, it was heartwarming. Everyone wanted to say a huge thank you! To hug and express gratitude, which we did, of course.

Every evening we took the collected sums to the bank and deposited them into a special account. I don't know what happened with those amounts afterward. It was no longer my concern.

My husband, without informing his superiors, barely waiting for the next brigade of doctors and builders who were preparing to transport construction equipment (trucks, cranes, buses) by rail, left with them on December 11th to Spitak. I remember that Artavazd couldn't lift his eyes, he kept saying only one thing: "I must be there, I must help."

While I was in the relief headquarters from morning till late evening, my children were left alone at home; they were 6 and 4 years old. There was no other option. I kept in touch with them on the phone to make sure they didn't do anything naughty. It felt like even the children understood the magnitude of the tragedy that happened in distant Armenia, their homeland where both were born in Yerevan.

After some time, the authorities decided to take in a certain number of victims from Gyumri (Leninakan, a city twinned with Tartu), Spitak, and Vanadzor (Kirovakan). An entire floor of a dormitory on Rahu Street was allocated. Families of the victims came to our city. By that time, the relief headquarters had been closed. All the collected items that hadn't been sent to Armenia were temporarily transported to the telephone station building where my husband and I worked. There, we unloaded a large batch of household chemicals from the FLORA Association. When all the victims were settled in the dormitory, all the clothes, bed linen, and other items were transported directly to the dormitory and handed over to the commandant. I apologize; I don't remember many names. There were families brought by men who left their wives and children in Tartu and returned to clear debris and rebuild cities. Many, who found temporary shelter, eventually returned home.

In the city's communication department, there was one electrician. He was close friends with Artavazd. While my husband was in Spitak with the Estonian construction brigade, this friend tried to support his family here in Tartu. By Christmas, he set up a Christmas tree, bought toys for the children. During the night, the tree fell, and he came to fix it, but it fell again, breaking many toys. Aga fixed everything again. And all the time, he said, "You are also an Armenian family; by helping you, I am helping the entire nation."

As it turned out, when my husband returned from Spitak, the friend didn't wait for him and passed away unexpectedly.

One scene is etched in my memory forever. Artavazd, returning without warning, opened the door of his house, and I saw how white his head had become.

He couldn't bring himself to tell what he had seen in the earthquake zone. What people who suffered and those who helped them had to go through. Those who gathered from all corners of the world!

I want to say that even today, my gratitude knows no bounds to every resident of our republic who helped during those difficult days in a distant republic, who took on human pain as their own, for their big hearts, and for the tears that I witnessed in the relief headquarters. Thank you so much! I remember this, and I always tell my grandchildren about it.