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A Journey into Misery

8 minute read
John Kohan/Yerevan

After a harrowing flight aboard the first private American relief plane to reach Armenia, a TIME correspondent encounters extraordinary chaos, anguish and deep suspicion of Moscow among the earthquake’s survivors

The call from the cockpit startled me out of a fitful sleep in the cramped cabin of the chartered Southern Air Transport jet. We had left New York’s City’s John F. Kennedy Airport 14 hours earlier with a crew of six and four passengers, bound for Armenia with almost 85,000 lbs. of medical supplies from AmeriCares, a nonprofit organization based in New Canaan, Conn. In a race for time, we were the first private American group to be airborne with emergency relief for the earthquake victims.

When I last looked out over the control panels of the Boeing 707, as we were ascending after a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, the sky had been a brilliant blue, with the first orange and green streaks of dawn. Now nothing was visible through the windshield but a swirling mass of gray.

“Here, see what you can make out in Russian!” yelled one of the crew members, shoving a pair of earphones into my hands. The urgent tone of his voice snapped me out of my drowsiness.

A Soviet aircraft, running low on fuel, was asking for clearance to land at Zvartnots airport in Yerevan. I heard someone calling out numbers over the radio in Russian, but his Armenian accent made them difficult to understand. The Soviet pilot was obviously having trouble comprehending the response too, and asked ground control several times to repeat the coordinates.

The confusion hardly boosted the confidence of our plane’s crew, which was awaiting permission to start descending toward the invisible landing strip.

“Flight 528. Over.”

A long silence, followed by more cryptic exchanges in heavily accented Russian.

“Five-two-eight. Over.”

As strong head winds rocked the plane, the mustachioed young co-pilot looked around anxiously.

“I think we should blow out of here to Turkey. I’m going to ask for the vectors to Ankara.”

Finally a response came, in broken English, from the control tower.

“One-five-two-nine to 600 meters . . .”

“This is five-two-eight. Repeat, five-two-eight. Please repeat that.”

“One-five-two-nine to 600 meters,” came the message.

“That sounded like 1,600 to me,” said the navigator. “Did anyone else get that?”

“They’re still giving us the wrong call signal,” the co-pilot pointed out.

Pilot Jack Thetford, a seasoned veteran of emergency cargo runs, opted to hold course, following the sporadic commands in broken English. The minutes of waiting for the next radio message seemed endless. Since Yerevan is ringed by craggy peaks, even the slightest imprecision in altitude readings could be a matter of life or death. “I looked at my map and could see that at one point they had us heading directly into a mountain,” Thetford said afterward.

Only when the first glimmer of lights from the runway shone through the clouds did the tensions in the cockpit ease. “That was too goddam close,” said Thetford. Later we learned just how lucky we were. Shortly before our arrival, a Soviet transport plane carrying relief workers to Leninakan, some 60 miles north of Yerevan, crashed. All 78 people aboard perished. A second aircraft, with medical equipment from Yugoslavia, went down as it approached Yerevan, killing the crew.

The reason for the confusing signals from the control tower became clear once our plane touched down on the rain-drenched runway, littered with wind- blown bits of sagebrush. The narrow ribbon of tarmac at Zvartnots airfield looked like a crowded parking lot: an American military C-141, its tail marked with a large Stars and Stripes, an Algerian transport plane, a commercial Austrian airliner — in all, about 15 foreign planes, not counting a regular fleet of Soviet Ilyushin 76s and Tupelev 154s. Hundreds of dark-clad figures milled about. The usual tight military control that exists at every Soviet airport seemed to have all but broken down.

A lanky young Russian in a rain-soaked khaki jacket immediately appeared at the plane’s open doorway, his figure outlined against the leaden, gray afternoon sky.

“Good evening,” he announced incongruously in broken English, taking a walkie-talkie from his ear. “You are from where?”

There were no formalities, no inspection of visas. The security guard deposited our passports in his pocket, where they remained for the duration of our nine-hour stay.

Grief and bewilderment etched the weary, unshaven faces of the airport volunteers, whose bloodshot eyes seemed to brim with tears. Workers formed a human chain in the pouring rain to unload the plane’s cargo of pain-killers, penicillin, iodine swabs and bandages donated by American companies. They worked by flashlight well into the night. A young man took me aside and whispered, “Be sure to tell everyone in America and Europe how thankful we are.”

Amid the confusion of passing trucks and landing airplanes, my services as a Russian interpreter were in great demand, stretching my technical vocabulary to the limit. I was asked to come quickly and sort out a bizarre accident on the airfield. The wing tip of a passing Ilyushin 76 cargo plane had somehow clipped the tail of a parked Air Europe Boeing 757. Both aircraft were stuck in place. I tried to explain to an ever changing group of airport workers that the British pilot needed a small tow truck and strong steel cables to move his plane forward.

At one point, ambulances suddenly raced in a pack down the tarmac. More survivors had arrived from Leninakan, their clothing still caked with dried mud. A young woman bundled in a green checkered blanket stared listlessly from a stretcher. Others exited on crutches or took their own shaky steps down the stairs of the Tupelev 154, dazed by the crowd of white-coated medics and the flashing lights of the waiting emergency vehicles.

Whenever I paused for even a moment, there was an anxious tug at my sleeve.

“Do you understand in the West what is going on in our Armenia?”

“When did you receive permission to come? Did Moscow try to delay you?”

“If we had only had your cranes and heavy machinery one day earlier . . .”

“You know, Gorbachev has no great love for the Armenians.”

“Yes, he came here, he shook a few hands, and then he left. Sure, they have organized a relief commission. But you tell me who is in charge.”

“We do not need to send our orphans and homeless to Moscow. There is no child who will go without shelter in Armenia.”

“You have heard death totals of 45,000 and 100,000? At least 300,000 have died, believe me.”

“We have cried out for justice, but who can believe in it after this?”

The rain-streaked faces of the speakers blurred in the gathering darkness. A bleary-eyed Yerevan doctor in a fur-collared coat who had worked for four whole days without sleep. A bespectacled economist who told of digging out one lone survivor from among 48 corpses in a Leninakan classroom. An airport worker who had held a dying child in his arms. A grizzled old man in a shabby winter coat simply shook his head from side to side. “There is nothing left there,” he said. “Nothing. Everything must be built from scratch.”

Sometimes these tales of grief from the earthquake zone merged seamlessly with horror stories of brutal rapes and beatings during ethnic clashes last February in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. The people I spoke with insisted that after the earthquake, Azerbaijanis refused to help, announcing that “Allah has finally heard us.” Some claimed that trains from the neighboring Muslim republic were even scrawled with graffiti reading DECEMBER 7. HAPPY HOLIDAY! When I asked an airport official if he had seen any aid arrive from Azerbaijan, he responded, with a dismissive wave, “Even if they offered it, we can do very well without it.”

Then I encountered George, a homespun Armenian philosopher in a green nylon jacket decorated with a red-white-and-blue American sticker showing clasped hands. He told me of a relative in Leninakan who lost two children in the rubble; a third child had her legs severed at the knees. He reflected on Armenian hopes to regain Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, and told how his six-year-old son can already sing patriotic songs about his Armenian homeland. “We already have had our share of grief this year,” George said. “And now this new disaster promises us even more. But if you come back again this week, I will wait for you here. With a bottle of cognac. Life must go on in Armenia.”

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