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Bam: Five Years After


By Ramin Mazaheri

click on images to see high resolution - Arash Arjmand and his family made the day's drive from Shiraz to wonder what this room with no roof and no door might have been. The family sidestepped mound after mound of ruined terracotta as they toured the ghost fortress of Bam Citadel, just five years ago a 25-century-old monument but now merely ruins.

At the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the ancient Silk Road city of Bam, Iran, engineers from around the world are attempting to piece together what used to stand as the world's largest adobe structure and best example of a fortified medieval walled city.

On December 26, 2003, an earthquake killed 32,000 people, flattened 70% of Bam's buildings and equally devastated the nearby town of Baravat and 260 area villages. Bam Citadel (or Arg-e-Bam) was reduced from a stunning byzantine garrison, visited by more than 100,000 people yearly, to a canyon of pulverized rubble not much different than the other treeless, rock-strewn mountains that delineate the central Iranian plateau from the southern desert.

"I don't know what it was, but it must have been something," said Mr. Arjmand, whose face beamed with patriotic pride as he began talking not of this exemplar of Iran's storied past, but of the public school across the street remarkably constructed of glossy yellow granite and regal marble.

Iran seems to be taking advantage of Mother Nature's demolition by replacing an antiquated Bam with a contemporary one that can resist the inevitable next earthquake. The metropolitan area is further along than the Citadel in a vast, government-led reconstruction effort that has significantly restored the luster to a city formerly known as "The Emerald of the Desert."

"Bam is 80% what it used to be," gauges Mr. Mohammad Saeedi-Kia, Iran's Minister of Housing and Urban Development. This seems to be a fair assessment: Startling signs of progress routinely emerge amid half-completed homes and countless piles of debris.

But 80% of a modern city may prove to be better than 100% of the rickety town that fell. Bam's picturesque but archaic mud-brick buildings were the primary instrument of the quake's carnage. When these buildings collapsed they didn't leave the voids and air pockets that emerge when modern concrete buildings crumble, claiming more than a quarter of Bam's population.

Foreign governments immediately promised more than $800 million in humanitarian assistance - slightly more than $50 million was ever delivered, according to reports published by the Iranian government. The reconstruction was left to the federal government and supported by committed humanitarian organizations such as The International Red Cross and Red Crescent, the United Nations (U.N.) and countless Iranian charities and aid workers.

Billions for Bam

Just because it's an Islamic government doesn't mean it was bearded holy men in robes carrying clipboards in Bam. In this science-happy nation the staff was just your average, next-door engineer, like Majid Keshavarzmehr, 38, a flat-topped Iraq War veteran who brims with capability, competence and seriousness. As the Deputy of Reconstruction, Mr. Keshavarzmehr was stationed in Bam throughout the repair effort. As we toured the city and Citadel together I scarcely had recourse to my prepared questions as he ceaselessly spouted facts and anecdotes.

"The plan was to tackle Bam's problems in the following order: Residential housing, hospitals and clinics, day care, schools, bazaar," said Mr. Keshavarzmehr. "Maybe we made a mistake and over-estimated the need for day care and clinics, but progress has been steady."

In 2004 the World Bank anticipated that rebuilding Bam would cost $1 billion. According to reports published by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, nearly $1.5 billion has been spent in combined public and private funds, with the Iranian government shouldering about 85% of the total. Many Iranians warned me that the money for Bam has been embezzled - that seems to be the ongoing assumption here - but touring Bam leaves no doubt that a great deal of money has been expended and value was realized.

The reconstruction statistics are impressive: The number of schools more than doubled from 90 to 183. 50 new mosques have replaced the 100 that fell. 11 cultural centers have been built, along with six libraries and three universities - two public and one private. An enormous government worker complex, replete with fountain, wrought-iron gate and covered in Iran's famed tile, is set to open this spring. Five new fire stations, new police headquarters, new courthouse, amusement park - in short, almost everything a city needs to function is present and brand-new. Everything the federal government constructed has been officially turned over to the city and the state of Kerman, according to Mr. Keshavarzmehr.

One of the first major structures to be completed, the Fajr Sports Complex was a joke here several years ago - you sleep in a trailer but you play soccer in luxury - but now the 6,000-seat soccer stadium and impressive facilities seem almost conventional.



Progress Slow in Bam Citadel

Abbas Jahanpour, manager of Hotel Azadi in Bam, knows as well as anyone the vital role the Citadel played in the economy of Bam.

"Before the earthquake we had tourists every day - now we have nobody," said Mr. Jahanpour. "People only came to see the Citadel. Maybe in ten years it can be back to normal and then the tourists will return."

Five years into their 15-year refurbishment plan the government has budgeted only $10 million of the estimated $80 million required for renovation. According to Minister Saeedi-Kia, the government plans to increase the Citadel's budget now that the area's reconstruction nears completion.

"Which is more important," asked Mr. Keshavarzmehr, "to take care of the city and the people or Arg-e-Bam?"

50 people work in the Citadel on an average day, including roving teams of engineers and specialists from Japan, Italy and the U.N., but their task is epic.

Standing amidst the scaffolding and heaps of broken bricks you see bits and pieces of what made the Citadel so astounding - an unbroken latticed terrace here, a refashioned rooftop there - but you didn't have to tax your imagination when Arg-e-Bam stood in its glory.

The Citadel has to be modernized to survive the next quake but without losing its nostalgic character. The ancient recipe for clay bricks is evident in pits all over the Citadel: take dirt, add water. Mix in some straw for good measure. But the new, hidden ingredient is carbon, which will strengthen the clay while maintaining that old-fashioned Achamaenid-era appeal.

"The clay they are using is passing the laboratory tests," confirmed Mr. Keshavarzmehr.

The before and after pictures posted at the Citadel's entrance makes one wonder if this mass of broken clay was really ever so intricately detailed. But the tourists will just have to wait - the citizens have to come first.


Need for Charity Was Immense 

Sparing no one, Bamis were torn apart by the quake, losing spouses, children, limbs or all of the above.

 "It took them a long time to get back on their feet, and the first year was especially difficult," said Nasrin Mirzadei, 32, a social worker working with destitute and orphaned children in Bam. "With all the improvements here in the last year or so it's much easier."

But the quake left no shortage of people in the direst of straits. One example is a woman who asked not to be identified. Her husband was killed and she became disabled as their house disintegrated on top of them. Her sister and brother-in-law also perished, leaving her to raise their two orphans along with the two now-fatherless children of her own.

This new family of five moved from an emergency tent to a government-supplied 324 square-foot (36 square-meter) temporary trailer, which she now uses as a bedroom for two of the children. The government built her a one-bedroom, 720 square-foot brick home, common in the city. As government projects go, it's adequate but new, and a far cry from being destitute.


"Good health care for her and the children is available for them - this is Iran," pointed out Ms. Mirzadei.

The woman receives about $150 a month from a humanitarian organization and around $600 a year from the government. It's not enough for a family to live well on in Iran, but it is a foundation perhaps strong enough for their lot to improve.

While the government dealt with the majority of these hardship cases, charities have contributed more than $220 million to the reconstruction.

I visited an impressive widows home, wholly funded and supported by various Iranian aid organizations. Attractively built in a modern adobe style, the 30-unit complex has a 24-hour security guard, maintenance man on-site and a courtyard.

Soghra Abadian has lived in the home with her three young children for more than a year. She invited me in and revealed a spacious two-bedroom townhouse with a large living room replete with carpets, as essential to Iranians as her tiled kitchen and bathroom.

"Recovery from such a tragedy is never-ending," she said. "So many widows like me are worse off economically because of the quake, but charities like these have helped tremendously," said Ms. Abadian, who is scheduled to receive job training soon.

Stirring New Schools

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Bam's rejuvenation is the dazzling new schools. Iran is a country with a daring visual sense and their architectural style is far more colorful, playful and innovative than what is generally found elsewhere.

As such, nearly every school is distinct in appearance and gleams with promise, sometimes mystifyingly materializing from difficult to traverse side-streets or pockmarked lots. Keeping children cool in granite and marble, enclosed by new walls and gates; they can nearly be called palatial.

Ms. Shamsedineh, Deputy Principal of the Hakim Farabi Technical School for Girls said what many people think: "In many ways, Bam is better off after the quake."

"The new schools have more space and are much better equipped," said Ms. Shamsedineh. "They make teaching easier and the children are glad to have more space and sports facilities. There are actually too many schools in Bam for now, but they are equipped for the next 50 years."

If you believe what the residents tell you, apparently the only nice buildings in Bam prior to the quake were the Citadel and the centuries-old Main Mosque (Masjed Jame'a), which went unscathed. Examining the remains of an old school - cramped, barred, made of Iran's common yellow "3 centimeter" brick - doesn't do much to dissuade.

"The teachers in Bam don't have any needs for more equipment or anything material," she said. "We all feel that we have enough resources for the number of students we have." She laughed with disbelief when I said these words may have never been spoken by American public school teachers.

"After five years the children are coping well," she added.

Re-Housing Plan Succeeding

The Iranian government, with much earthquake disaster experience, did not just throw money at homeless Bamis and let them figure it out.

Instead, the government invited nearly 40 architects from Tehran to Bam and housed them in the newly created Technical Services and Materials Exhibition Complex. There, residents chose their own house design, fašade and furnishings. Far from being a bleak city of row houses, the results are homes that are largely individual.

"The negative psychological affect has been much less pronounced in Bam than in other Iranian disasters because the biggest issue we tried to resolve was getting the people as involved and as empowered as possible," said Minister Saeedi-Kia.

It's a novel re-housing plan that has drawn inquiries from governments and organizations from Pakistan to China, according to Dr. Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, professor of structural engineering at the University of California-Berkeley, principal investigator in the collapse of the World Trade Center and adviser in the reconstruction effort.

Bam residents received from the federal government $5,000 outright in the form of a construction voucher, then $11,000 in low-interest loans. Mr. Keshavarzmehr estimated it cost $15,000 to build a one-story home several years ago but that figure approaches $25,000 today, due to rising worldwide construction costs.

30,000 540-square-foot (60 square-meter) rural units were tackled first, to allow the farmers to maintain their fields and simpler to build than the urban units. "The rural houses are much better built than their old homes, much prettier and much, much safer," said Mr. Keshavarzmehr. The rural reconstruction effort has been declared complete, according to Minister Saeedi-Kia.

In Bam, the 20,000 homes destroyed by the quake have been replaced with 26,000 720 to 900 square feet (80 to 100 square meters) complete, modern, earthquake-resistant houses. According to Minister Saeedi-Kia, the majority of 6,000 incomplete homes belong to former renters who only recently secured government loans. These half-finished homes are a major source of dust and debris and lay bare the ongoing state of the reconstruction.

Area resident Daryoosh Khosravi said that most Bamis seem not to have been reduced in their economic station as a result of the quake.

"Only the people who were pretty poor before don't have proper homes now," said Mr. Khosravi, a sentiment echoed all over Bam. "Housing is not a problem here."

New Bazaar Opening Soon

After a great deal of haggling, the only way business gets done in Iran, the city's bazaar is set to open on March 21st, the Iranian New Year.  Another architectural eye-opener, it is modeled not on the bazaar that fell but on the Citadel's ancient bazaar.

"The UN came here and were surprised at how fancy the new bazaar is," said Mr. Keshavarzmehr. "They asked, 'Why did you build it up to European standards?' 'Well,' I said, 'this is not Somalia!'"

Bazaaris (Farsi for people who work in a bazaar) fought the new construction plan for years, even sleeping in their old stores so they couldn't be demolished. The project didn't get started until the government guaranteed every merchant a spot and issued low-interest loans to help finance the move.

The area buzzes with activity as the bazaaris have taken over construction of their interiors, now that the government has completed the exterior.

"We haven't recovered yet - we've been barely getting by," said Mr. Eisai, a clothing retailer and real estate agent, as he watched several workers setting tile in his modern stall. "The government has really helped out, especially with loans, but the management of the situation could have been better."

The government is halfway through constructing two additional commercial areas adjacent to the main bazaar. The three combined will house all 1,000 of Bam's estimated businesses.

It's a far cry from the makeshift bazaar that has been, as they say here, "made in China." A city without a bazaar is inconceivable in Iran, so businesses improvised one out of whatever wasn't in pieces. For five years stores have been operating out of the metal shipping crates usually found on railroads and ocean liners, often bearing the logos of Chinese companies, which were used to deliver the emergency aid.


Problems Remain

The last thing a dusty desert town needs is more dust, but a day outside in Bam leaves one coated in grime.

"Yes, it's the government's responsibility to remove the rubble," said Mr. Keshavarzmehr. "We got a court order to remove the dangerous materials so dust is the only issue."

The quake upended every paved road but the government has completed the major thoroughfares. Unfortunately, due to a lack of coordination between the Water Department, Light Department and the City, according to Mr. Keshavarzmehr, Bam's side streets have yet to be cleared as some areas wait for updated water pipes and electrical lines to be laid. Water and power have been provided for free by the government since the earthquake, and blackouts are minimal, but these obstructed streets add greatly to the gritty atmosphere and their immediate repair was the most common request of area residents.

"We just lack the resources to remove it all, to be removing it daily," said Mr. Keshavarzmehr. "People complain but they are patient - they know we are doing the best we can."

They have already carted away over 15 million tons of debris. Mr. Keshavarzmehr came up with the idea to deposit the rubble in the form of two enormous mounds, by far the tallest structures in the region. He hopes he can convince the city to grass it over and call it "Old Bam Park," giving residents a breezy view of the city, the nearby mountains and the surrounding desert for dozens of miles.

It also gives a stark view of Bam Cemetery (or Behesht-e-Zahra), which quarters 25,000 Bamis killed in the quake. Entire families are buried together en masse, sometimes six deep.

To preserve Bam's dominant industry, date production, restoring the functioning of Iran's ancient and extensive underground waterways (or qanats) was the first item on the government's reconstruction list, but production is currently below pre-quake levels.

"In the surrounding villages the farmers are doing ok but a drought the last few years is their main problem," said Mr. Keshavarzmehr. "Production is down, but that is not earthquake-related or due to anything the government failed to do."

Bam has a reputation in Iran for being a tough town, probably a result of its location along a drug corridor that watches a tremendous amount of the world's opium and heroin pass through from Afghanistan. Many area residents are reported to have turned to the cheap and plentiful drugs in their sorrow.

 "You find a higher proportion of female drug addicts here than usual," noted Ms. Mirzadei, who believes grief over lost loved ones is the common cause.

In the quake's aftermath several thousand people from nearby rural areas flocked to Bam, squatted on land at the edge of town, built rudimentary homes and haven't left.

"It was always a bad area, full of drug addicts, but it really grew after the quake," said Ms. Mirzadei, whose social work takes her often to the area. An estimated 5,000 people now live in this ghetto. Local resentment is widespread for these non-Bamis, who are viewed as carpetbaggers trying to leech off government aid.

The area received the same excellent schools and clinics as the rest of the city but poverty is clearly endemic. Most in the neighborhood live in the temporary trailers that were part of the emergency aid. A few "tricked the government," in the words of countless Bamis, and have built real homes. Hopefully they find it an improvement from the rural villages they reportedly left behind. More government aid for those in the ghetto is planned, but apparently not immediately.

 "We have not provided money to them because we want them, after many rounds of loans, to stand on their own two feet," said Minister Saeedi-Kia. "The Iranian government is planning to provide them money, but only for those people who absolutely require it."

It's a New Bam

In another five years, at the current rate, Bam will no longer be in recovery but an entirely new place. "This will be a very nice city to live in and much better than before," opined Mr. Keshavarzmehr. "There won't be any comparison."

In a remark typical of the perfectionist and idealistic nature of Iranians, Mr. Keshavarzmehr concluded, "I expected better results in Bam," which might have floored a visitor from New Orleans. "We should have gotten more support from the local people and local government in the beginning," he said. "We could have used more government coordination."

Back in Tehran, Iranians have had difficulty accepting that the government-led reconstruction is a budding success. Their knee-jerk reaction was, to a person, "It must have all been done by the charity organizations." But the facts don't bear that out.

"This mistrust of the government goes back 2,500 years," said Minister Saeedi-Kia. "It's ingrained in the culture: They expect more than can be delivered."

Everyone has their own opinions on the ideals of the Islamic government of Iran, but to properly judge the specific actions of a government requires an objective suspension of personal ideology.

Everyone may also have different standards of what constitutes a "good reconstruction," but a reasonable yardstick may be the most appropriate gauge, such as: "Have the essential components of every society been re-established, such as adequate housing, education, health care, employment opportunities, infrastructure, etc.?" By that measure, in a few years Bam may qualify as a success.

About the author:
Ramin Mazaheri is an Iranian-American journalist based in Paris. He can be emailed at:

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