Los Angeles Times "Crusading on a Wing and a Prayer"

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Front Page - The Los Angeles Times

September 3, 1998

Crusading on a Wing and a Prayer


YEREVAN, Armenia - He is a most unlikely national hero, this foreign-born crusader dressed in wrinkled dress pants, Hush Puppies and an outmoded Member's Only jacket.

His eyes blinking against the light, Harut Sassounian walks tentatively down the steps of the U.S. military's C-5 Galaxy cargo plane, the largest airborne transport vehicle on Earth. Once again, the 47-year-old Glendale newspaper publisher has packed a mammoth plane with millions of dollars in aid collected from donors across the United States.

For Sassounian, this war-torn former Soviet republic is at once an exotic and heartbreaking place that has become the center of his cultural identity. Eight thousand miles from home, it is the road's end for all his energies, the coveted kingdom to which he returns again and again bearing the fruits of his emotional modern-day crusade.

This summer, for the 100th time in the last 10 years, Sassounian's Glendale-based United Armenian Fund arrived with an array of supplies aimed at jump-starting the economy and self-respect of this infant democracy.

The private $230-million airlift mission, bankrolled in major part by investor Kirk Kerkorian, has become the largest to any one country since the United States government's historic Berlin airlift after World War II.

Sassounian's homeland--a brutal-yet-beautiful region settled more than 3,000 years ago--desperately needs the help. In the space of a decade, Armenia has endured a devastating earthquake, the fall of the Soviet Union, deadly border conflicts and a punishing economic blockade by hostile neighbors.

On the Tarmac, Sassounian--a shy man still reticent despite numerous such encounters--steps into a pressing phalanx of reporters.

"What have you brought us?" one local journalist asks.

Sassounian, the United Armenian Fund's executive director, recites his $8-million cargo of precious medical and technical supplies, explaining that a second, smaller plane will arrive the next day.

"All of it," he shouts over the roar of the plane's big engines in a fluent native tongue, "it is for our Armenia."

The tale of the 100th mission in Harut Sassounian's crusade is as much the story of the 10 years and 99 often-manic and near exhausting flights he organized before.

The crusade is the litany of countless telephone calls, arm-twisting, all-night strategizing and near-begging that it takes to fill an airplane with donated supplies and safely guide it into the waiting arms of a needy people.

The crusade is savoring the satisfaction of opening the battered metal doors of yet another monstrous cargo jet, one with a belly large enough to swallow half a soccer field, and to see the fruits of ones labors: computers, kerosene lanterns, pallets of syringes, antibiotics and textbooks, mammography machines, even entire hospital operating rooms.

Most of it has been given free of charge, not only by supportive groups but also some very profit-conscious hospitals and universities--all because Sassounian knew where to look and how to close the deal.

"Getting materials at the cheapest price is Harut's last resort," said a friend of Sassounian. "His first priority is to convince companies to donate all they can and then pay the freight to have it shipped."

If you're Harut Sassounian, the crusade's payback comes when you arrive in the homeland. It's hearing the appreciative oohs and aahs of needy doctors and nurses who until now have watched helplessly as people die of curable diseases and injuries because there is not enough medicine. Or the exclamation of the schoolteachers who can't take their eyes from the textbooks, the new computers and building supplies you deliver, the ones who take your hand and cry as they thank you.

Once a month since the effort began in 1990, the United Armenian Fund has landed a plane in the capital city of Yerevan, many times accompanied by Sassounian himself, who coordinates the seven disparate Armenian religious and charitable groups that comprise the fund.

His homeland is a place of cruel contrasts. Unemployment is said to reach 60%. The average salary is $40 a month. Yet trendy stores in the nation's capital sell soccer balls and Nike sneakers costing more than two months salary, and until last year, the richest 5% of Armenians paid no taxes.

A decade after the 1988 earthquake, which killed up to 100,000 people and left at least another half-million homeless, thousands of families continue to crowd into the metal containers that were used to transport foreign aid immediately after the disaster.

Sassounian's homeland is a place that until a few years ago often had no energy to run factories or pump water into homes because so much money was being used to fund the war against neighboring Azerbaijan. It is a place where until recently you were issued a candle when checking into a hotel because the lights were out.

Each time he comes, Sassounian negotiates a drab-looking landscape of pollution, broken concrete, harsh edges and homely Soviet architecture. He is sometimes driven to distraction by a country where the statue of Lenin in Yerevan's main square was only recently dragged away--a place where the people still sing Russian songs, where the groups of humanitarians Sassounian leads are still tailed by grim government handlers, just like in the old days.

Through rigorous controls and detailed manifests that keep tabs on shipments, Sassounian has fiercely battled the legacy of Russian graft that threatens to suck the life from his crusade.

"I don't kid myself," he says. "I know that some supplies are diverted, maybe as much as 20%. I just hope that one day Armenians will discontinue that foolish holdover from the Soviet days when people were proud to steal what they could from the government."

Before the earthquake, he had visited Armenia only once--as a tourist. His ancestors were driven from the homeland centuries before, and Sassounian was born an exile in Syria. Only in the crusade has he found a way to go back home, to allow the lonesome Armenian landscape to cast a haunting shadow over his entire life.

"For us, Armenia is a dream, an ideology, a passion," he says. "Our homeland is the root of us all. Without it, we couldn't cling to our sense of heritage for very long.

"And so everything we do, it is for Armenia."

Ground Zero

A tour bus rumbles slowly through the dusty, potholed streets of Giumry, Armenia's second-largest city.

Sassounian and his group of humanitarians, lobbyists and investors are beginning a four-day tour that will include a reception at the presidential palace and a visit to the national assembly.

But first, at Sassounian's insistence, they come to Giumry, a depressed city of shattered concrete and kerosene-smoked skies that in many places looks as though the quake struck 10 days ago, not 10 years.

Although the government has built new apartments for an estimated 100,000 people, another 150,000 still live in substandard housing .

The rebuilding, they complain, has come far too slowly.

"Ten years and nothing has changed," one woman weeps to the delegation. "They've done nothing. We live like dogs."

Said Sassounian: "That's why many government officials don't even come here anymore. They can't take the heat."

At a lunch, local officials congratulate themselves on their progress. But later, after Sassounian's bus leaves, the mood remains bleak.

At a local church, Father Paren Avedikian laments that people are still starving. He questions the nature of aid now concentrating on rebuilding schools and hospitals, not bringing food.

Inside one abandoned aid container, 40-year-old Melo Arakelian lives with his wife and five children. He once worked at the Soviet Union's largest hosiery factory in Giumry, one that was leveled in the quake. He hasn't worked since, existing on money sent by relatives in America.

He kisses his 10-year-old son on the cheek. "This is all I have," he says. "It is not easy to be an Armenian."

It became even more difficult on Dec. 7, 1988.

That morning, at 11:41 a.m., some 22,000 citizens populated the tiny Armenian village of Spitak in the country's northern reaches.

Less than a minute later, after a mammoth 6.9 magnitude earthquake, only 2,000 were left alive.

The convulsions fatally trapped children inside their classrooms, workers in their factories.

Residents of Spitak, located atop the quake's epicenter, recall the floors of buildings rising four feet into the air before being flung, twisted and broken, back to earth during the interminable 40 seconds of violent tremors and several sizable aftershocks.

Buildings pancaked to the ground, their infrastructures weakened, residents say, because Soviet builders mixed extra sand in the concrete to save money.

In the middle of the town's small soccer field, the Soviet government set up a hospital unit for the wounded. All around the doctors, on the field's stone bleachers, sat countless coffins, waiting for stunned and silent family members to arrive and claim the dead.

Newspapers told the story of a 10th-grader who saw a hand sticking from the rubble. He recognized a ring on one finger and began digging. "Mama, give me your hand," the boy said. He saved his mother, but the rest of his family died.

The disaster changed Sassounian's life. He was no longer happy just to write a weekly column in his 2,500-circulation California Courier, often criticizing Soviet policies. He longed to do something. He knew part of the game. After coming to the United States in his teens, he had worked overseas in marketing for a large corporation.

He knew, too, that Armenians were often their own worst enemy, a hopelessly fractured people with many factions battling for a political upper hand.

So after watching the angry breakup of several aid meetings in Los Angeles, Sassounian hatched his own plan: He asked Kerkorian, an Armenian American who had made his fortune in airlines and hotels, to pay for an emergency cargo flight into Armenia. Kerkorian offered to provide $100,000 for an airlift if other Armenians could fill the plane. And the crusade was born, as Sassounian organized a coalition of seven groups, including Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation.

"All my friends laughed at me," he recalled as mission No. 100 flew over the Atlantic. "They said, 'Armenians haven't been able to agree on anything for thousands of years. How are you going to change that?' "

He changed it on Dec. 2, 1989, exactly one month after he pitched his idea to Kerkorian, when 25 tons of emergency aid left for Armenia aboard a rented Boeing 707.

Immediately came talk of a second flight, then a third.

>From his office in Glendale--home to many of Southern California's 300,000 Armenian Americans, the largest such community

worldwide--Sassounian developed contacts with domestic aid groups and government officials on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I'm no longer just an observer," he remembers telling himself on one of those first airlifts. "I was actually helping out, the real thing. Not sitting in a warm house in Glendale and writing a check. You handed out food and saw the thanks in people's eyes.

"They were crying. I was crying."

Each trip seemed to hit a wall of Soviet bureaucracy. On the first airlift, the Soviet government initially denied permission to land. But Sassounian says he went on packing the plane anyway, convincing a friend in the Soviet ministry who went to school with then-Communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev to intercede.

"On the morning the plane was to leave, we got a telegram from Moscow containing just one word: 'Yes.' Nothing more," Sassounian said. "It was that close."

On another early flight, his cargo plane was forced to land in Soviet Georgia by a Russian air force pilot who Sassounian said threatened to shoot if they did not submit to an inspection.

Problems still persist. Sassounian, who frequently draws audiences with Armenian President Robert Kocharyan and other high-ranking ministry officials, recently prevailed upon Kocharyan to fire a high-ranking customs official he suspected of charging for bogus "lab" tests on shipments of towels and children's vitamins. Another time, a warehouse full of aid from a group other than Sassounian's also disappeared from a Yerevan airport hangar and was returned only after a ransom was paid.

In an interview at the presidential palace, Kocharyan said he was battling the problem through reforms to the country's corrupt judicial system. "What kind of decisions are made by judges paid only $25 a month?" he asked.

In Spitak, residents complain that little free medicine ever reaches them.

High in the mountains, Spitak remains emotionally scarred by that December day when the earth was torn apart. To handle all the dead, the town's cemetery tripled in size. In the newer sections, the headstones, with their bas-relief portraits of the quake victims who lie beneath, lists only the birth dates.

No one can forget the date of death.

A Holy Site Beyond the Border

With a sigh, Sassounian points at the place that stands as inspiration and woeful political reminder for all Armenians.

Rising some 17,000 feet above the plains outside Yerevan is sacred Mt. Ararat, where Armenians believe the biblical Noah built his ark.

"No other place holds as much historical significance for Armenians," Sassounian says. "But it's not even ours anymore. Today, it lies in Turkey."

Armenia exists in a tough neighborhood, a nation that has not known real peace in its seven years of existence.

Left to fend for themselves after the Soviet Union's historic collapse in 1991, Armenians continued a turf battle begun in 1988 over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

The war has led to a punishing five-year military blockade of Armenia by both Azerbaijan and age-old enemy Turkey.

Many Armenians say the United States has gone too easy on NATO-ally Turkey and on Azerbaijan because of oil reserves there being eyed by the West.

The tension puts Sassounian in an odd position.

In past years, he has taken advantage of a U.S. State Department program that supplies aid to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, using free American military cargo flights for 35 of the 100 airlifts. Yet in his newspaper columns, he has attacked U.S. shortcomings, and on his recent visit he blasted American foreign policy at a meeting honoring his group at the home of Peter Tomsen, U.S. ambassador to Armenia.

Most painful for Armenians is the U.S. government's refusal to condemn or even acknowledge the 1915 genocide of some 1.5-million Armenians by occupying Turkish-Ottoman forces.

To draw support for his crusade--and for recognition of the genocide--Sassounian has toured the country with sympathetic U.S. politicians, including then-Republican Sen. Bob Dole. On each trip, he visits the genocide museum on a hillside overlooking Yerevan, a disturbing place with pictures of beheaded Armenians and an eternal flame of remembrance.

This, too, is part of the crusade.

"Armenians were nearly exterminated as a people," Sassounian says. "We can't ever let the world forget it."

Glimmers of Hope

Hours after Sassounian's tour bus full of humanitarians has left Giumry, Avetick Sarkisian, a local TV producer, watches a group of children play in the rubble of one of thousands of crumbled buildings.

"Look around," he says. "These children all go to school in tin shacks and they think it's normal to live in a city that's nothing but ruins. I'm an adult. I understand horrible things such as earthquakes. But they don't."

And this, too, is part of Harut Sassounian's crusade, to show Armenians that life is more than poverty and devastation.

In Yerevan, before leaving Armenia, he tours a children's cardiac center that his group has helped supply with modern equipment and medicine. In the last few years since receiving Sassounian's help, the center has successfully operated on more than 1,800 men, women and children.

Sassounian, a father of three, visits a 7-month-old girl with a congenital heart defect whose operation that morning couldn't have happened without supplies from the latest airlift.

He sits on the edge of her bed, disturbed by the sight of tubes running into her mouth, her tiny eyes blinking as he strokes her hand.

Later, he holds a 10-month-old boy born sickly and blue-skinned. Now, after a recent heart operation, his face looks rosy and healthy.

Like Armenia itself, the child now has a chance at life.

"What a boy," the crusader beams proudly. "What a beautiful boy."


PHOTO: A young Armenian girl takes an early-morning nap at a food

market in Yerevan while her parents eke out a living selling tomatoes.

ID NUMBER: 19980903hmn0156


PHOTO: (3 photos) Crusade organizer Harut Sassounian, above, is greeted

at Yerevan Airport as 100th airlift arrives. Below, a family waits

along a road hoping to sell a jar of honey. At right, a woman sweeps

outside her Yerevan home.

ID NUMBER: 19980903hmn0157


Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1998

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