Confusion hampers Armenia aid. Lack of personnel, equipment complicates rescue efforts
Moscow — As this nation reels from the horror of the earthquake in Armenia, and as the death toll continues to mount, several recurring themes are emerging in the Soviet media: An abundance of generosity, accompanied by equally large measures of chaos and confusion in the rescue effort.
The lack of trained personnel to respond to such disasters, heavy equipment to clear the rubble, and specialized medical instruments to treat survivors.
And a nagging question: Why did buildings of more recent construction, which should have withstood the earthquake better, in fact fare worse than older structures?
[Yesterday, a Soviet plane carrying soldiers to help in the rescue effort crashed, killing all 79 people aboard, the Associated Press said. The plane was approaching Leninakan, one of the cities hit hardest by the Dec. 7 earthquake.]
The Soviet leadership has yet to speak publicly of one crucial potential consequence of the disaster: its impact on the country's economy, which even before the earthquake was in disastrous shape. The relief and rehabilitation operation presents an added drain not just on finances, but on three of the weakest links in the economic and social infrastructure - food supply, house construction, and management.
And, as the relief operation gains momentum, there are signs that ethnic tension, which has disrupted life in Armenia and its neighbor republic of Azerbaijan for much of this year, may once again flare up.
Already many of the country's top planners and managers are in Armenia, trying to cope with the disaster. These include Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and Politburo member Nikolai Slyunkov. Others are involved in a Politburo commission formed to oversee relief activities.
Meanwhile the official media has been grappling with the problem of how to cover Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to the stricken area. The main TV news program, Vremya, on Saturday night showed only still photographs of a drawn-looking Gorbachev speaking to survivors as they stood among the ruins of Leninakan. This appeared to be an effort to play down the personal role of the Soviet leader.
Many Soviets are still deeply sensitive to any suggestion that a new personality cult is developing around President Gorbachev. But one of the most striking photographs showed Raisa Gorbachev, usually one step behind or to the side of her husband on official visits, embracing a distraught woman.
An official but provisional estimate of the casualties Saturday put the death toll at 40,000 to 45,000. Over half a million are homeless, and there is no estimate of people still missing. The toll is growing fast: On Friday evening, Vremya spoke of thousands dead. By Saturday it was talking of tens of thousands.
One Soviet newspaper said Sunday that two cities, Leninakan and Spitak have been ``essentially wiped off the face of the earth.'' Two others, Kirovakan and Stepanavan are more than one-third destroyed.
Reports over the weekend indicated that ethnic friction in the south has not been completely stilled by the disaster.
Five members of the ``Karabakh Committee,'' which has co-ordinated Armenian agitation over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh (see map), were reported arrested in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Official sources said the arrested men were trying to present themselves as an alternative source of authority and organization. Other members of the committee have reportedly threatened retaliation.
TV coverage has shown streets in Leninakan reduced to enormous piles of rubble. Survivors and volunteers sift through the ruins with their hands. Sixty thousand rescuers are reported to be working in the ruins of Leninakan. Survivors seeking missing family and friends stick small scraps of paper on factory gates. Entire cities of tents have sprung up; at night, the government paper Izvestia writes, the sky takes on a ``blood-red hue'' from the camp fires, the only way to keep warm. The temperature is dropping, and many of the homeless are said to be without warm clothing or food. All services as well as the institutions of local government have broken down, the official media report.
A team from Izvestia, which has carried some of the most graphic reports of the disaster, spoke of the continuing confusion and disorganization in rescue operations. The relief operation does not just need doctors, troops, and builders, an Izvestia commentary stressed. It needs organizers.
Describing the work of a French team, the paper wrote ``If only they had come earlier. If only we had special teams, equipped and trained like this.''
A correspondent for the armed forces newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda also commented on the chaotic state of initial rescue operations. But the paper stressed to its readers that the military had been quick to take matters in hand.
Izvestia and other newspaper also raised questions about the quality of construction of the destroyed buildings. Izvestia correspondents noted that in one school, only the newer of two five-story buildings had collapsed. There were no estimates of the missing, Izvestia said. All that was known was that 988 children attended the school.
One of the few houses in Leninakan that had survived the quake, the correspondents said, had been scheduled for demolition because of its age.