Quake divides rich and poor in Armenia, Columbia FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sun, 21 Feb 1999 09:59:54 -0800 (PST)

FWD  Washington Post - Tuesday, February 2, 1999


     By David Koop
     Associated Press Writer

ARMENIA, Colombia (AP) -- Tears in her eyes, the nun stared at the statue
of Saint Anthony helping a poor beggar. Around the statue was scattered
what once was the Sanctuary of Miracles church -- walls, roof, steeple,
altar, all reduced to rubble. The statue itself was unscathed.

``It's a miracle. It shows that God hasn't forgotten the poor,'' Blanca
Gomez said.

Armenia's poor might not agree.

With almost surgical precision, a magnitude 6 earthquake sliced Armenia in
two on Jan. 25, devastating hovels and aging slums in its poor south while
leaving the sleek high-rises of its wealthy north largely unscathed. The
quake's toll mirrors a society in which a vast gulf separates a rich elite
from a poor majority.

Armenia was ground zero for the earthquake. Most of the nearly 1,000 deaths
caused by the quake were in that city, the state capital, and 200,000
remain homeless. But in some areas, little damage can be seen.

``Not one wall fell here,'' said Gilma Geraldo, 45, pointing at the block
of posh condominiums in Armenia's exclusive Northern Towers district where
she works as a receptionist. ``The rich never suffered. It is as if even
the earth hates us humble people.''

Cracks appeared in the walls of three of the complex's seven buildings and
the other four were untouched. None of the 300 residents were hurt.

Electricity and water were quickly restored, sprinklers soon watered lush,
green lawns and banking machines soon started pumping out cash.

In southern Armenia, the quake leveled entire neighborhoods and left a
post-apocalyptic landscape of rubble. Stunned survivors dig through the
rubble of their homes for family members, or at least their remains.

People, blackened with dirt, sleep in squalid camps or plastic lean-tos on
the street and fight for scarce food and water in camps staffed by harried

Geraldo's uninsured home collapsed, and rescuers pulled the bodies of three
of her neighbors from the rubble. She says she is still in shock and cries
at night. But she went back to work Monday because she can't afford to lose
her job.

She was amazed at what she saw when she ventured into northern Armenia.

``It's almost unreal being here and seeing people watch TV and drink beers
on their patios,'' she said.

Eighty percent of the buildings destroyed in Armenia were in its poorest
neighborhoods, according to Mayor Alvaro Patino.

The reason the poor suffered most was not bad luck, but bad architecture,
said Ariel Ospina, head of Red Cross rescue operations in Armenia.

Homes built with flimsy materials on weak foundations collapse easily
during earthquakes, while the well-made homes of the rich have a better
chance of surviving, he said.

``Natural disasters usually hit the poor the hardest,'' he said.

Among the homeless, resentment is growing.

People weary from days of digging through rubble and living on the streets
grumble that the best aid is either being stolen or diverted to wealthy
districts with minor damage.

``Every day we hear that tents are arriving from the United States and
Canada, but none reach us. Where does it go?'' asked Alonso Botero, leader
of a camp of ragged lean-tos in the city's Uribe Park.

The rich have a different set of worries. Wealthy housewife Martha Garcia,
who lives in the condos where Geraldo works, recalls with a shiver the
first nights after the quake.

Despite the high, iron fence that rings the complex, terrified residents
armed themselves with pistols and machetes to protect themselves from gangs
of poor looters, she said.

``We stayed up all night trembling, guarding the gates. There was no law
those first nights,'' she said. ``My father joked that he was going to lock
the food in the safe.''

The government later sent in 6,000 troops to stop the looting of
supermarkets, relief camps and homes, and to protect businesses that dared
to open. Little violence has been reported this week.

A week after the quake struck, Armenia is slowly crawling out from the
rubble. Stores are starting to reopen and some neighborhoods are getting
electricity and water again. Authorities are preparing temporary tent
cities on the edge of town.

But in the quake's aftermath, Armenia has awakened to the realization that
it is two separate cities.

Said Mayor Patino: ``We need to come together as a city to heal the wounds.''


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