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 December 6, 2002 

Nightmares and Making Peace: A mother looks back at 14 years of loss

Tomorrow (December 7) makes 14 years since the Spitak earthquake killed 25,000. Children who weren't even born then are teenagers now, many born to parents as replacements for children who died.

Laura Atanesyan is such a parent and this is a glimpse of her experience...

After a few years' break Laura again started cooking dolma, when one day her son said: "Mom, would you make that meal with green leaf?"

After the earthquake she wasn't cooking dolma for a long time, as it had been the favorite meal of her 10-year old and 12-year old sons who died under ruins. Artyom was born a year later...

The word "earthquake" for Laura is the widely opened eyes of her son and his question:

"Mom, what is that?"

"I was going to send him to school, I had already taken his coat to put it on my Artush and then I heard a thunder-like sound and the building shook. I understood it was an earthquake. My Artushik was round-eyed with fear. I told him not to be afraid, it was an earthquake and that I would quickly lead them to the elevator. The elevator was in our floor, my neighbor had just gone up. I opened the door to go out when the building collapsed."

For the past 14 years and till now Laura feels there is something she could still do to rescue her children. And what she would have done, had there been another earthquake. Whether she would have managed to help her sons get into the elevator. Especially at nights, when she goes to bed free from everyday life, she again and again goes through the whole scene of the earthquake.

"I opened the door for us to go out and the building fell. I tried to wrap my sons with my arms in order to hold them at least with my back, but the ground slipped away. And when I came around everything had disappeared."

Prior to the earthquake Laura saw a dream - pigeons and horses in the sky, no fire, but white pigeons were burning and falling down black. Her neighbor explained the dream: the horse was a desire, pigeons meant youth that would be broken in Karabakh. The earthquake coincided with the movement in Karabakh, to which they were connecting their dreams. Four days later the earthquake took place.

"We had an iron door. The door had fallen on something and a triangle had been formed, I was stuck under the door. There was space in front, there was no roof, only the sky. And I saw my younger boy in front of me, I did not know what had happened to my Grisha and knowing he was safe I started looking for my Artush. I heard the voice of Artush for some five minutes, then it disappeared and the last thing I heard was: 'Mom, I can't bear this anymore'."

Laura would not imagine that her children had gone. She would participate in the secondary school end of year party of her deceased son. When her sons would reach the conscript age, she would go to the commissariat, "I would think that my children were among those. What a self-torture it was."

Laura Atanesyan teaches art history in Gyumri's Pedagogical Institute and Merkurov Art School. Many years ago she exempted two students from the lectures, as she thought that if her two sons were not dead they would have been like them.

"I was not able to look at them, I told them not to come to my lectures if they wanted, that I would not put absent and that they would get their grade at the end." But later when she got to know that one of the boys was born in the same year and month with her elder son, the opposite reaction arouse. "Unwillingly I wanted to see him, I thought he was my child, and thanks to him I began accepting children of that age."

But her husband Vanya, who was a trainer of track and field athletics at the Pedagogical Institute and Sports School, left both places, as he couldn't communicate with the children. He was not able to recover from the shock and to return to his previous work.

Five years ago he left to work construction in Moscow. Laura thinks that he chose that work with an express purpose - to isolate himself and not have any contact with children.

Husbands of her four friends also left for Russia to work, as there were no jobs in Gyumri and they did not find other ways to support their families. (According to an official from the mayor's office, seven out of 10 families in Gyumri are split - that is, one or more members of the family is working outside the country).

Laura thought that everyone was to blame for the earthquake. She was angry with all. She blamed even her husband for him not being at home to rescue the children. Her husband was at school at that time taking pupils out of the ruins. And Laura blamed him for being able to rescue strange children, but not his own.

She blamed even Mount Aragats.

"One day Aragats was in a fog. My Grishik called me and said, 'Mama, come and look, Turks took away Aragats.' 'Grishik jan, nobody took away Aragats, there is just fog.' Later I would look at it and say, 'I loved you so much, my children loved you, too, why did you do so?'"

Of course, she managed to hide her anger that others expressed more acutely, but the anger and envy did not leave her. Why did the misfortune happen to her? The anger has now passed, she has conformed to that, and knows that nobody is to blame. It was just a natural calamity. But the question 'why' still arises.

Every year as December 7 approached she became tense waiting for that day to come. She did not want to see people's faces. She got angry even when her son born after the earthquake wanted something. How could the child understand that his mother suffered?

Now December does not arouse such acute feelings anymore. Laura knows that tomorrow she, calm and conformed with the past, must go to her sons' grave to do her duty.

A few years after the earthquake Laura saw her deceased son in her dream, "He told me, 'Mom, my legs are cold, there is water.' A few days passed and I saw him again, then I told my husband that we had to dig the grave and if it is wet we should change the place."

The husband and father dug into the grave and found it half filled with water. He dug a new grave, and when Laura saw that the new grave was dry they reburied their sons.

"Now I ask myself why I made my husband dig that pit. What I did was something inhuman."

When Laura's son Artyom was about to reach her deceased children's age, she despaired and worried that this son did not deserve the same fate. Now that anxiety has gone, as Artyom is older than her other sons when they died.

"I've lived whatever I should have lived: everything dies when you lose children. If I hadn't Artyom, my living would have had no sense."

Though they still live in a temporary small house and nobody knows when they will get an apartment, Laura's only care is her son.

"Now I want to manage to quickly do everything that I haven't done for them. I am afraid I won't have time to. I would think: is it useful for my Artyom. If it is not I won't do that. I am not interested in whatever doesn't relate to my son in my life."

The earthquake is always present in Laura's dreams, where she always tries to rescue her sons.

"I would wake up because of uneasiness and would feel suffocating and with the sweat on my forehead would understand that it wasn't an earthquake, but just a dream. I would look and see that Artyom is next to me, everything is in its place, nothing is ruined and would slowly calm down."


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