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Breaking with past, Turkey allows Armenian aid workers to join earthquake response

Armenian rescuers used a dog as search and rescue operation continued in Syria's northern city of Aleppo last week.-/AFP via Getty Images

When an 8-year-old girl was rescued Saturday from the rubble of a building destroyed by the earthquake in southern Turkey, a name was added to the list of survivors of a catastrophe that has killed more than 25,000.

And some history of very different kind was made.

Aiding in the rescue of the child, who had been trapped for more than five days, was a team sent from Armenia, with the permission of the Turkish government. The two nations have been bitter enemies for more than a century, so this was a small but meaningful breakthrough.

“This has been difficult work for us, excruciatingly difficult, considering the conditions,” Haig Darbinyan, an Armenian translator who accompanied the team, said in an phone interview with the Globe. “But seeing what I saw today made it all worthwhile. Seeing these [Turkish and Armenian] men working side-by-side and saving this girl’s life, unimaginable.”

Darbinyan, who took video of the recovery, said that the girl was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. The rescue took place in the city of Adiyaman, which was devastated by the quake.


Shortly after the earthquake struck, Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, expressed his condolences to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, and in that phone call offered to send a rescue team to assist in the search for victims. Erdogan accepted the offer, and the team of 27 took off from Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan a few hours later.

In a further sign of understanding, a border gate between the two countries was opened Saturday for the first time in 30 years to allow the passage of five trucks carrying 100 tons of humanitarian relief supplies. According to the Turkish news agency, the border gates in the Turkish eastern province of Igdir had been opened last in 1988 to allow for Turkish supplies to be sent to Armenia after an earthquake in its northern region killed 25,000 people. It was at the time a rare act of generosity by the Turkish government which prohibited the air shipment of humanitarian aid over its territory unless the planes were checked for possible armaments.


The leaders of the Armenia Assembly of America, a nonprofit that advocates on Armenian issues in Washington, said they were encouraged by the cooperation that both Armenia and Turkey showed in allowing the rescue team to assist.

The enmity between the two countries dates back to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the killing of more than 1 million Armenians ordered by the rulers of Ottoman Turkey at the outbreak of World War I. The two countries do not maintain diplomatic relations, and the border between them is closed to commerce and tourism. Armenia has accused Turkey of assisting Azerbaijan, its ally to the east, in blocking Armenia open passage to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabagh where thousands of ethnic Armenians live.

“Perhaps, Turkey’s acceptance of our humanitarian outreach will led to a better understanding of the many problems that divide us,” said Van Krikorian, cochair of the Armenia Assembly. “Hopefully, something good can come out of this tragedy.”

Stephen Kurkjian, a retired member of the Globe staff, is active in the Boston Armenian community.