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On Hard-Pressed Russian Isles, Quake Is Grim New Trial

October 8, 1994

BUREVESTNIK, Kuril Islands (AP) _ Ships lay sprawled helpless on their sides, halos of fuel spreading in the shallows. Cheap Soviet-style concrete buildings are collapsed into rubble. Cliffs battered by tidal waves bleed long trails of dirt into the gray sea.

On the remote Russian-held Kuril Islands off Japan’s northern coast, life has never been easy for its 13,000 residents. Now, after the island chain was pounded by a powerful undersea quake, a hardscrabble existence looks likely to get even harder.

″I’m sick of life here,″ said Natalya Popova, 32, crowding with her three daughters, aged 10, 8 and 7, onto the return leg of a relief flight from the Russian mainland. ″This earthquake - seeing the hospital in a pile of rubble and some houses smashed - I’m taking my children away from this place.″

The quake’s devastation adds a new dimension to the debate over the future of the islands, which stretch from Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido toward Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

Japan has for decades demanded the return of the three southernmost Kuril islands - Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup - and a group of tiny islets seized by the Soviets in the closing days of World War II. The territorial dispute has long soured relations between Tokyo and Moscow and blocked a much-needed infusion of Japanese aid.

The three islands serve largely as military installations, but soldiers and their families have fared worse than others since the breakup of the Soviet Union, with inadequate housing, paychecks delayed months, and salaries eaten away by inflation.

Those who live in remote parts of Russia have been particularly hard-hit by the economic changes introduced in the past two years. Prices have skyrocketed and supplies from the mainland have become more sporadic.

Tuesday night’s quake, centered under the seabed about 90 miles southeast of Kunashir, was the world’s strongest this year, with a magnitude of 8.2. It produced 9-foot-high waves that slammed into houses, inundated coastal areas, sank 5-ton fishing boats and tossed others onto land.

The death count may take weeks to verify as rescue workers struggle to reach isolated outlying villages. Because of conflicting reports and communications problems, the exact toll was not known as of Saturday, but was believed to be between 10 and 20.

Property damage was widespread, compounded by the shoddy construction. Poured-concrete buildings built by the Russians often have no reinforcing rods, making them quick to collapse when shaken.

For Popova and others, the earthquake’s devastation was the final straw in a desolate region where survival was already a grim struggle.

″There’s barely any work here,″ said Popova, whose weary visage and anxious manner make her look older than her years. ″I hope we can find someplace better.″

Adding to the misery, the Mendelevya volcano on the island of Kunashir has been showing signs of activity, frightening residents already made jittery by a long string of aftershocks. From the air, a plume of smoke was clearly visible, waving like a feather from the mountain.

″When the ground shook, we were in great fear of the volcano,″ said Kirill Kuzanyn, a scientist from Moscow visiting the island’s nature reserve at the time of the quake. ″It is capable of a major eruption.″

On Saturday, four days after the quake, Russian rescue efforts appeared scattered and disorganized.

″I’m not really sure what kind of medicine we’ve been bringing; I really don’t know how many evacuees have already left,″ said a harried Vadim Egumientsiev, 30, an army lieutenant dispatched from Sakhalin to fly supplies into Burevestnik on Iturup island. ″I don’t know how many people were injured. There are no figures.″

Since the quake, nine bodies have been recovered from the rubble, including those of a pregnant woman and a 14-year-old girl. Heavy rains and strong winds hampered relief operations, but a rescue plane dropped warm clothing and food.

Northern Japan, by a quirk of undersea geography, escaped almost unscathed, although the quake’s epicenter was almost equidistant from the Japanese mainland. Damage was confined to cracked roads, a few collapsed buildings and broken water mains.

The southern Kurils’ links with the outside world are tenuous even in the best of times. In winter, ice floes ring the islands of Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup. There are no passenger boats built for icy conditions operating in the region.

The only airstrip in the region is closed to civilian traffic, and there are no long piers. The region routinely suffers fuel shortages and goes without electricity for months at a time during the harsh winters. The soil is an unyielding volcanic ash, making cultivation almost impossible.

A few telephones in the regional capital of Yuzhno-Kurilsk are capable of calling the outside world, but the undersea cables are faulty. It can take hours to get a call through.

In sharp contrast to the poverty and hardship on the islands themselves, the residents are surrounded by one of the world’s richest fishing beds, yielding harvests worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

That fishing wealth brings a greater volatility to the dispute over the islands. Russian patrol boats and Japanese fishermen have long engaged in high-seas sparring that often takes a violent turn. Only hours before the quake, a Japanese fishing boat was sunk and its three crewmen detained.

Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty ending World War II because of the dispute, and the fate of the islands is a major issue in Japan.

Right-wing nationalist groups threaten violence if Japan abandons its demand for the territories. Small towns hang billboards demanding the return of the islands on town halls. The government even sponsors a nationwide essay contest about the need to get the islands back.

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