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2018 Aurora Dialogues: Stephen Kurkjian on the International Response to the 1988 Spitak Earthquake

By Arakel Minassian

The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative continued its 2018 Aurora Dialogues on humanitarian concerns today with a talk by former Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian.

Mr. Kurkjian, who is currently writing a piece on the 1988 earthquake, is a forty-year veteran of the Boston Globe, and a founding member of its influential “Spotlight” investigative journalism team. Held to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1988 Spitak earthquake, his talk focused on the humanitarian response to the tragedy that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Specifically, Mr. Kurkjian discussed the role international journalism played in spreading awareness of the earthquake to different parts of the world, and thus facilitating quick responses. Then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to allow the world press into Armenia to cover the events was significant in this regard.

Mr. Kurkjian also spoke to the rupture between Armenians in the diaspora and in the Soviet Union at that time. He commented that the earthquake was important in breaking this division, as diasporan Armenians recognized the need to send aid to the Soviet Republic, and went on to help through significant humanitarian initiatives.

The talk was followed by a question-and-answer period, in which a major topic of concern was the continued struggles facing people devastated by the earthquake. Thousands of people in Gyumri are still said to be living in makeshift homes, called “Domiks,” after their own residences were destroyed. Mr. Kurkjian commented that, were Armenia’s government functioning as a proper democracy, the issue would have quickly been addressed, because no politician would be able to stay in power if their constituents were forced to live in such conditions. The problem was, however, that in the years following independence, Armenia’s democracy was not properly functioning. He held out hope that this would change in the years following the Revolution.

Continuing in this vein, Mr. Kurkjian related a story about an encounter with former President Serzh Sargsyan. Mr. Kurkjian met with the former president after journalism students in Yerevan lamented that their work made no difference, because the government would never change. In their meeting, Mr. Kurkjian said “amot” – the common Armenian word for “shame” – that Mr. Sargsyan’s corrupt regime was tearing down the hopes of young Armenians. Their conversation did not last much longer.

Mr. Kurkjian’s talk ended with praise for the young Armenians who successfully unseated the former president from power in the recent events dubbed the “Velvet Revolution.” He commented that the work did not end with Nikol, but that young Armenians should take charge and write the next chapter of their nation’s history.