A Cold Isolation Grips Armenians People Are Forced to Search for Food and Saw Branches from the Trees in City Parks to Burn in Homemade Stoves

By Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 16, 1993 | Go to article overview

A Cold Isolation Grips Armenians People Are Forced to Search for Food and Saw Branches from the Trees in City Parks to Burn in Homemade Stoves


Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


BATTERED by war, starved by economic blockade, and beset by an unusually cruel winter, the nation of Armenia fights for its survival.

The once-modern capital city of Yerevan has regressed to a village. Under daily snowfall, the city's 2 million people huddle in icy apartments without heat or running water. Electricity runs two hours a day, if at all. Industry has ground to a halt. Two-thirds of the work force, by one estimate, is unemployed. All schools are closed until March, when the harsh winter should have eased.

With the subway and trams running sporadically at best, the populace is afoot. Armenians spend their days in a desperate search for scarce food or sawing branches from the trees in city parks to burn in homemade stoves. Only a fraction of the telephones work. Even if the power flows into the phone lines, many will not ring. On the roads leading out of the city, telephone wires lie on the ground; the poles have been chopped down and dragged away for firewood.

People stave off starvation with a daily soup of potatoes, onions, or whatever else can be found, plus the government ration of 250 grams (8.75 ounces) of bread - about half a loaf. By Saturday even the bread will be gone as Armenia's wheat supplies will run out before scheduled American grain aid arrives, US officials say. Already, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the death rates for those over 60 and under 2 years of age are 20 percent greater than last winter, when similar circumstances, though less severe, prevailed.

Stuart Willcuts, who runs the ICRC relief operation here, has spent 20 years working in the Somalias and Bangladeshes of the world, trying to help them start up the ladder of development.

"This is the first time I've been in a country that was developed that we're trying to keep from going all the way to the bottom of the ladder," he says. "It is difficult to watch a country slowly deteriorate, to watch the lights go out."

Armenia's plight is shared in some part by all the former republics of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the centralized Soviet economy and the difficult transition to the free market have shattered their economies.

The unique character of this crisis comes from the bitter undeclared war with neighboring Azerbaijan, the product of a five-year struggle to free the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azeri control.

For two years, Azerbaijan has imposed a blockade, cutting the rail and gas lines which were Armenia's main links to the outside world. A civil war in neighboring Georgia severed the other main rail line about six months ago.

The last remnants of a modern society depend on a gas pipeline running from Russia through Georgia. That line has been repeatedly blown up by what Armenians believe are Azeri-sponsored terrorists, most recently on Feb. 10. The only source of energy now is a hydroelectric plant drawing water from the shrinking Lake Sevan.

Only one route to the world remains open - a rail line to Turkey. But the Turks are allies of their ethnic brethren in Azerbaijan and historic enemies of Armenians, who were driven from ancient homelands in Western Turkey during World War I at the cost of an estimated 1.5 million dead.

Under pressure from the United States and other Western nations, Turkey is now allowing the dispatch of relief supplies over the railway, though Western aid officials here say it is still a trickle.

"This is not the first difficult, cold winter for Armenians," says former Foreign Minister Raffi Houvannisian, an Armenian-American who resigned his post last fall. "But there is an unfortunate sense among the people that they have been abandoned to their fate."

On the street, people blame the government more than the Azeris for their troubles. Some, such as mathematician Lili Nersesyan, talk bitterly of "the indifference of the world toward Armenia. …

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