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

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 sim ilar 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." But not a single person voices regret over independence or is ready to abandon his brethren in Nagorno-Karabakh in order to end the suffering here.

The combination of despair and grim determination is found all across the city. Amid general deprivation, Armenia is struggling to house and support about 360,000 refugees who fled from homes in Azerbaijan. The most recent influx are 16,000 who came last summer after an Azeri offensive seized two Armenian-populated regions in Karabakh.

About 24 families of refugees from that assault are tightly packed into what were the dormitory rooms of a school for retarded children. The group, whose members range from grizzled old men to young children, walked 17 days over the mountains to reach Armenia last June.

But the effects of war have followed them. The refugees are freezing, their darkened floor heated only by two wood-burning stoves around which the families sit in their coats and hats. The parquet floorboards are disappearing into the furnaces. The children are not allowed outside for fear they will get sick.

The refugees say not a single ruble has been paid in salary or relief assistance for the last two months. The government can provide only the daily bread ration and when it does not arrive, as happened this day, hunger is immediate.

"We are waiting for the partisans to recapture our village," says Greta Zagaryan, who lost both her husband and son to the fighting. "We hope to go back."

Already about 400 refugees are returning to Karabakh every three weeks, reports Willcuts. "Conditions are not that different, so if you're going to suffer, you might as well suffer at home," he says.

At a home for retired persons nearby, they have gone two days without bread. "We have almost nothing to feed the people," director Volodya Petrosyan says of his 240 charges. He has issued a desperate plea, addressed to all government agencies, with a list of food items: a ton of butter, a ton of meat, 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of rice, a ton of sugar. The home has a state credit in its account, but only state institutions will accept that non-money and these have nothing to sell, he says.

Angry women, tears in their eyes, surround a visitor to a complex of 14-story prefab concrete slab apartment blocs in the southwestern part of Yerevan. Two months ago, with the heat gone, the water froze in the pipes, cracking them. A thaw sent water and raw sewage seeping through all the walls, into the apartments. Now the stinking apartments are without any water, heat, or even electricity.

Shouting and gesturing, the residents surround the newly elected mayor of Yerevan, who arrives to see the situation. The pipes cannot be repaired without heat, he tries to explain to the crowd. They lack the resources to even fix the broken transformer which cut off the meager electricity to five buildings.

"We are trying to do something but the people have given up hope," an aide explains. "Even I go home at the end of the day and sit depressed in the cold and do nothing." She recounts the tale of a friend, a scientist who sits at home in the dark and makes sculptures out of the semiconductors he once did research on.

Edik Katunyan, a young art student, is planning to leave soon for Germany. Like increasing numbers of Armenians, he is desperate to escape these conditions, even though his parents urge him to stay. "I'll come back, but I don't know when," he says.

Others also retain hope. At an orphanage, 49 children do not lack for loving care although their hands are icy from the cold. The orphanage lives on the kinds of strangers - on hoarded supplies of powdered milk from France and kerosene stoves from local businessmen. Down in the frigid hallway, work is going on to install a system of radiators.

"We are renovating," explains director Yelena Gasparian, "so that when we do get gas, we will have central heating."

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