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IRAN: Special report on Bam - one year after the devastating earthquake

Twelve months on and most Bam earthquake survivors now live in prefabricated shelters

BAM, 4 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - A year after an earthquake that killed at least 30,000 people in just seconds, and on the surface not much has changed. The mangled remains of a lost city are strewn across this once-fertile desert oasis. Debris, rubble and twisted metal girders are still piled high on every street and down every alley, almost untouched since the earthquake struck on 26 December 2003. Around them are date trees and a few half collapsed buildings stubbornly standing, precariously lopsided.

But the devastation that still litters Bam is not a sign that it has been left to rot, but an indication of the magnitude of the natural disaster and the colossal business of rebuilding a city from scratch. The quake left three out of four of the city's 100,000 residents homeless, injured at least 50,000 people and created more than 5,000 orphans.

"The rebuilding of Bam is going slower than we expected but that's purely because it's an enormous task," Patrick Parsons, a project coordinator for the NGO Merlin, told IRIN. "Twelve million cubic metres of rubble have to be removed before you can even think of rebuilding. You can't build a city overnight - it's impossible," he said.

According to an official at the Islamic Housing Foundation, who did not want to be named, another reason for the slow clear-up rate is because the authorities need legal permission from the landowner before they can clear the remains of his house.

"We've got to have warrants before we can clear away the rubble, because there may still be belongings of value under the debris," he told IRIN. "This is a huge problem as the owner may have left to go to another town, or the owner might be dead. So it's taking a very long time trying to track everyone down."

The earthquake resulted in a historic moment - for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution an official US delegation arrived in Iran. A team of American search and rescue workers flew the Stars and Stripes from their camp in Bam surrounded by an excited media.

In the days following the earthquake, the Iranian authorities, with help from the International Red Crescent Society (IRCS), launched a massive rescue and relief operation. More than 1,600 aid workers from 44 countries arrived while about 60 countries provided in-kind and cash contributions.

"In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, there was an impressive display of solidarity of response on the part of numerous national and international agencies," said Jan Egeland, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator.

But the flood of foreign intervention has not been an easy transition for Iran - many NGO workers found it hard working in an environment that was totally unused to their methods.

Patrick Parsons of Merlin told IRIN that the biggest problem he has faced during the past year has been Iranian bureaucracy. "Iran's been a closed country for the last 25 years," he said. "So the authorities have no idea how an NGO operates." Parsons says the biggest headache for NGO workers has been securing visas, which has eaten up precious time.


While the rubble is painstakingly cleared, the survivors must live a life in limbo, housed in temporary shelter with no idea of when they will be able to settle into a more stable, secure life.

Six months after the earthquake, in June 2004, the flattened city was dotted with tents. Now all but a few remain. In their place are thousands of white box-like prefabricated buildings. Families of up to eight squeezed into a room measuring six by four metres now live in these temporary shelters until the city is rebuilt. The survivors have mixed feelings about their predicament.

"I'm just happy I'm not in a tent anymore. It was getting bitterly cold," 27-year old Reza told IRIN. He spent six months in a tent with his younger brother and sister. He lost his parents and a sister in the earthquake.

"Things have got better. We're lucky as we're only three people in a prefab and now my sister is at university in Kerman, there are only two of us." Reza is proud to show his prefab - immaculately tidy with sleeping blankets hidden under a Persian rug. Reza salvaged a few items of furniture from the wreckage of his family house.

Reza is one of the few male earthquake survivors who has managed to find work. He borrowed money from friends and family and bought a car he now uses as a taxi. In a good week he can earn up to US $35 - but that's rare. In a bad week he earns nothing at all. He spends all his earnings on sending his sister to university in Kerman. That costs $750 a year.

"I want her to get a qualification. I want her to have a job one day and I don't want her to think she has been denied all these things in life because of what happened." Reza's decision to send his sister to school was taken with his younger brother - Reza could only afford to send one of them to university and the brothers agreed it should be their sister. "She's more sensitive and we didn't want to upset her after all that's happened," Reza explains.

Enterprising survivors have opened stalls in Bam, selling everything from handbags to food. Those with no savings to use sell cigarettes on the side of the streets.

The government is offering loans and grants of up to $11,000 to those who lost their home, to rebuild 85 sq m earthquake-proof bungalows, but many survivors do not know of the offers or how to go about claiming them.

"Even to get my prefab, I was sent from one office to another. It took months and was a confusing process," says Reza.


There are some signs of reconstruction sprouting up throughout the city. According to official figures, about 5 percent of the houses have been rebuilt. Sa'adi School is one of the first buildings to be rebuilt and ready for use, complete with a newly-erected flag and shiny bright green desks stacked outside waiting for their first lesson.

Elsewhere mounds of fresh bricks and vats of cement dot flattened wasteland. This is the first evidence that after a year of finalising the Master Plan - the blueprint for mapping, designing and building the new city - it has finally been approved and is ready to launch.

The Master Plan has been blamed for what many Bamis see as the slow process of reconstruction. But it is easy to see how the Master Plan has taken so long to reach fruition - over 85 percent of the city was destroyed with all 195 schools unusable and all three hospitals flattened, along with rural and community health houses.

The authorities have been ambitious, with many officials saying they want to rebuild a better city, which would become an example of good planning and design to be replicated throughout the country. The Master Plan incorporates wider roads, neighbourhood markets, public halls and recreation grounds. These plans have included working with a UNICEF appointed "child friendly city" consultant to involve the children of Bam. The objective is to include "child friendly" aspects to as many parts of the city as possible, including nurseries, primary and guidance schools, a health care centre, a civic centre and a teachers' resource centre, a number of child friendly houses, as well as a playground and public park.

"UNICEF takes the view that if children are truly involved in planning their own cities in Iran, the urban areas will be more healthy, sustainable and child friendly than current Iranian urban development practices," said a UN press statement.

UNICEF has trained 10 young Iranian architects from the High Council of Architects to facilitate children's workshops in 10 schools in Bam.


Extensive psychosocial therapy programmes have been a landmark success for the Ministry of Health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is endemic and has been the biggest health hazard posed by the after-effects of the earthquake.

So far psychosocial services run by the Ministry of Health, with assistance from UNICEF, have resulted in 17,127 tent visits covering 67,108 people. There has also been a public awareness campaign with 35,000 pamphlets and 5,000 posters produced and distributed and radio and TV programmes focusing on psychosocial issues.

Survivors heard the desperate cries of their loved ones from beneath the rubble and with only their bare hands to claw away the debris, many could not save their relatives in time and had to endure the agony of hearing their cries fade away.

The devastating effect this has had on the survivors has been profound, especially on children. According to UNICEF, some 4,812 children lost either one or both parents. Many of the orphaned children were sent to other towns, including Kerman, Shiraz and Tehran. Others were taken into care by extended family members but some 200 children are currently in orphanages in Bam and Kerman, the nearest city.

"Group therapy has helped me deal with memories," 11-year old Leyla told IRIN. This is her third session, in a portacabin that doubles up as a kindergarten in the centre of town. Colourful pictures of happy families and perfect rows of homes surrounded by gardens are tacked on the walls - the children's little masterpieces of visions of hope. The drawings also reflect the children's more positive state of mind - straight after the quake the pictures depicted horrific scenes of death and destruction the children had witnessed, almost always drawn in black crayon.

"There are several techniques that group therapy teaches you. One is just like changing a CD. So if you're thinking bad thoughts of what happened during the earthquake, you just change over the CD - my CD is of a jungle with flowers and animals. It's very beautiful." Leyla explains. Leyla lost her two older sisters in the earthquake and countless extended family members and friends. Group therapy sessions have been a chance for her to make new friends and share her experiences.

"Straight after the earthquake the survivors felt shock and anger - sheer disbelief for what had happened to them," Dr Abeeyaat, a clinical psychologist working for the IRCS and ECO (Economic Cooperation Organisation) and supported by the Health Ministry, told IRIN. "The situation they're in has only just started to really sink in, and for some the grieving process has only just begun," he said.

Abeeyaat receives referrals from the Ministry Of Health - survivors who cannot be helped by group therapy sessions and need more intensive face-to-face counselling. It has been a busy year for Abeeyaat and he sees up to 10 referrals a day. He does not expect a reduction in his workload any time soon. "Unfortunately the healing process takes a long time - you don't get better in a year."

According to Abeeyaat, a huge surge in drug abuse is plaguing the healing process - many Bamis have turned to opium and heroin to cope with the pain. Being so near the porous mountain passes of Afghanistan, the drugs flow in freely and what was once seen by many as an acceptable cultural pastime is turning into a worrying epidemic.

"It's a big problem and now we're also seeing prescription drug abuse," says Abeeyaat. "We need to act fast to try and change people's cultural perceptions of opium - that's one way of tackling the problem."

Abeeyaat says the next step for the survivors of Bam would be family counselling sessions. UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Health to extend services to life-skills training and teaching and they are supporting the training of professionals from the Ministry of Health, and social welfare organisations in trauma identification and group trauma counselling, led by Norway's Centre for Crisis Psychology, which comprises 1,380 teachers and 105 counsellors.


Perhaps the most dramatic change evident in Bam is social. Although Bam was renowned in Iran for being a middle-class affluent city populated by educated professionals, it was nevertheless a deeply conservative place, where traditional values ruled. Women married young and stayed indoors. But for the first time, the patriarchal family structure has been given a jolt - thousands of women are now finding themselves as heads of households. The business of everyday family life are in their hands.

"It is giving us confidence - that we have to be strong and get on with it," said Nahid, a 33-year old mother of three who lost her husband in the earthquake. Nahid encourages women in her street to meet up and help families out. "It gets them out of the house - it can be boring sitting in all day waiting for things to happen. And when you've got nothing but your thoughts, depression gets worse," she told IRIN.

More and more headscarves are being worn instead of the tent-like black chador. Headscarves were simply more practical to sift through the rubble in and for many there was no turning back.

Many Bamis say that families have become more tolerant, especially concerning matters of the heart. "My neighbours found out that their daughter had fallen in love with a boy a few prefabs down," 17-year old Ali Jezeeni told IRIN. "Before, there would have been hell to pay. Yes, the family were angry but they have bigger things to worry about. However, the couple are banned from seeing each other."


Two major sources of income for Bam were the tourism trade and the dates that hung heavy from the date trees. Thousands of tourists a year would come to Bam to get lost in the labyrinthine alleys of its deserted walled citadel. Over 2,000 years old, many travellers claimed it was a wonder of the Middle East. With most of it crumbled into dust and now, apart from parts of the old fortress, it resembles a giant pit of crumbling mud brick.

UNESCO has agreed to include Bam as a World Heritage Site which should enable increased funding. There are proposals to rebuild the citadel which Bam residents told IRIN would greatly assist regeneration of the tourist industry. A few adventurous tourists have started to trickle back, on their way to Pakistan, with a macabre curiosity to experience living in a city ravaged by death and destruction. But they are not enough to bring any hope to the citizens of Bam who used to rely so heavily on their cash.

After a shaky start, the date industry is looking more hopeful. The earthquake had disrupted the underground water systems, known as "qanats" that fed much of the water to the date farms. The Iranian authorities and several NGOs acted quickly to repair damage and redirect the water.


"The people in Bam are without hope, worried about their future," Abeeyaat told IRIN. Certainly most of the survivors IRIN spoke to said they had resigned themselves to the fact that their lives have been irrevocably changed.

"The Bam tragedy underscores the need for increased attention to disaster prevention and risk reduction," Jan Egeland, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said.

"There is a need to pay more attention to essential buildings and infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, which are key when an earthquake strikes," said Salvano Briceno, director of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. "Architects, mayors, local and regional land planners have to work hand in hand to reduce vulnerability and to design safer buildings," he added.

And these words echo even more strongly in the light of the tsunami in Asia, which killed at least 150,000 people and happened a year after the earthquake in Bam - almost to the hour. Many Bamis feel overshadowed by the Asia quake, and feel their plight will now be forgotten.

"We know what they're going through," Reza told IRIN. "I know Bam will never be the same again, and that we'll get less support now from the world as they have bigger disasters to see to, but as long as I have a roof over my head, I'll be happy."

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

... Payvand News - 1/5/05 ... --

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