Boycott, cold bring deprivation to Armenians


January 31, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Staff Writer

YEREVAN, Armenia -- The most destructive forces unleashe by the demise of the Soviet Union are bearing down on small, once wealthy Armenia, leaving it on the brink of obliteration.

Most people are living without heat or running water. They have electricity two hours a day. All major industries are closed, and unemployment is estimated at 65 percent. Packs of starving dogs roam the streets; last week, a pack attacked and killed a woman.

The Christian country that waited centuries for independence is slowly receding from the modern world, due to a blockade imposed by neighboring Muslim Azerbaijan.

"There are projections that 30,000 people could starve in 1993," says Stuart Willcuts, deputy head of the International Red Cross delegation here, "and 500,000 are at risk."

On Friday night, the United Nations Security Council issued an urgent appeal for fuel and humanitarian assistance for Armenia and the Nakhichevan region of neighboring Azerbaijan. It read:

"The members of the council urge all countries in a position to help to facilitate the provision of fuel and humanitarian assistance and call on governments in the region, with a view to preventing a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation, to allow humanitarian supplies, and in particular fuel, to flow freely."

The plea came after the only gas pipeline still running into Armenia -- through Georgia -- was blown up a week ago in an attack that Armenia blamed on Azeris living in Georgia.

With this last, weak link to fuel for survival broken, Armenians must call on their last reserves to stay alive. A temporary repair reportedly was made Friday night, but it can deliver only a small percentage of the earlier supply. Repairs to the pipeline are expected to take up to a month, assuming there is no further sabotage.

The fight with Azerbaijan began in 1988 over the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which the Soviets had given to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan imposed a blockade in 1990 against Armenia, then tightened it into a stranglehold. Civil unrest in Georgia prevents help from that neighbor. Turkey shares another border, but the Turks historically have had no sympathy for Armenians.

A primal struggle to stay alive

Two years after it began, the blockade is taking an awful toll. Outward signs of civilization are fast disappearing. Life has become little more than a primal struggle to stay alive.

People desperate for warmth and cooking fuel are chopping down practically anything that burns, stripping the city's parks and avenues of trees. The dark nights are filled with the scraping of saws. Morning light illuminates trails of sawdust along disfigured streets.

There is no public transportation. Everybody moves on foot.

Schools shut down Dec. 3 and won't open before March, at the earliest. Children sit at home in darkened rooms with nothing to do.

Newspapers have stopped publishing. Only a few telephones work. Most hospitals have closed, and it's impossible to call an ambulance. Bread factories have been allocated scarce electricity, but a family of four may buy one loaf of bread a day -- precious little when bread is the main course, supplemented by potatoes and preserves put up over the summer.

Water pressure is low. Anyone who lives above the first few floors of a building has to carry it by hand.

People are freezing. The temperature drops below 15 degrees at night. An elderly woman was found frozen to death on the steps of the Opera House early last Monday, according to Mr. Willcuts of the Red Cross. Five newborns reportedly died in the last week because hospitals were unable to keep them warm.

"Babies are dying, dogs are turning into wolves," said Linda Bedeian, director of humanitarian aid for the Armenian Assembly of America. "The streets are full of children pulling sleds with pots of water. Elderly women are sawing away at the trees. By the time summer comes, there will be no trees left in the country."

The city air is filled with blue smoke as people burn whatever they can in homemade stoves -- door jambs, floorboards, anything at hand. Garbage piles up on streets.

But there may be worse to come.

The threat of disaster reaches far beyond this nation of 3.8 million people. Armenia's nuclear power plant, shut down after the devastating earthquake in 1988, is endangered by the lack of electricity. Even though it is inactive, the plant needs power to cool and ventilate its nuclear fuel and waste. An accident there could cause damage in the surrounding countries.

"The station is built on the Ararat Valley water basin," said Karine S. Danielian, the Armenian environmental minister. An accident could contaminate ground water in Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

"We can no longer assure its safety," Prime Minister Khosrov Harutyunian said last week. "Under the current situation, we can't guarantee a supply of power."

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