The scene that met us as we drove
into the city of Bam, Iran, was a spectacle that caught me unprepared.
Utter and complete destruction stretched from horizon to horizon as
far as the eye could see with nary a building left untouched. Banks,
hospitals, municipalities, hotels, and every other building you can
find have been reduced to piles of twisted steel and rubble. What is
more mind-boggling is the fact that most of the damage was done in a
mere twelve seconds. That’s hardly enough time for one to wake up
and realize that an earthquake was going on. On Friday, 26th
of December 2003, a powerful quake measuring 6.3-6.7 on the Richter
scale hit the city of Bam at 5:28 AM while most of the inhabitants
were still sleeping. Bam was up to then most well known for its’
ancient citadel, dating back over 2,000 years, as well as being one of
the most beautiful cities in the whole of southern Iran. Today, all
that has been laid to waste by the earthquake with estimates of
casualties reaching 60,000 with countless others injured and homeless.
The damage extends beyond the ruined buildings though, and the greater
pain is felt by those who have had their loved and dear ones snatched
so suddenly from them. “Almost everybody has lost a relative or a
family member”, one of our Iranian guides who estimates that he has
lost about 100 relatives, tells us.
A woman sits
mourning at the Beheshte-Zaharoh cemetery as sounds of
sobbing and wailing can be heard from a distance. No amount
of rebuilding will be able to restore those who perished in
the earthquake to their families. Up to 80% of the bodies
found were buried at this cemetery.
The one business
that was thriving as a result of the quake, the sale of
months later now, the plight of Bam has all but slipped off the radar
screen of the world as other global news interests unfold. Most of Bam
still lie in the ruin and debris of collapsed buildings. Those who can
afford it have all but left the city but as many as 50,000 or more
remain behind. Tents can be seen along the roadsides, often near what
used to be homes to families who stayed there. Many others though have
been evacuated or are in the process of being relocated to relief camps
that have been set up at various sites around the city, providing food
and shelter for the victims. At least twelve such camps have been
established in the wake of the disaster and the managing of these camps
are being undertaken by different provinces and government ministries.
Even so, most camps are full and there are still those who are seeking
shelter as those from surrounding villages are drawn to the main city of
Bam for help. The city itself has been divided into twenty-four sectors
which have been assigned to different provinces and departments for
camp we were located in was run by BAFIA (Bureau of Aliens and Foreign
Immigrants Affairs), the coordinating body for refugee affairs in
Iran. Located in the southern outskirts of Bam, it houses some 2,000 people in
over 400 tents.
is it like, living in a relief camp?” was the question I had on my
mind as we arrived late Thursday night at the BAFIA camp, having made
the two-hour flight from Tehran to the Kerman private airstrip serving
Bam. As our team poured out of the crammed vehicle, the chilly winter
air bit us. It was now the tail end of winter in Iran but the nights
still get near freezing at times and the strong winds mean that unless
one was well insulated, it could be uncomfortably cold in the nights.
One cannot help but wonder about those without adequately insulated
tents and blankets, of which there are many in the devastated city.
was 5:30 AM as I woke up and stumbled out of the tent into the dark
and freezing cold outside. The small trickle of water running from the
tap outside was so cold it hurt and even a face wash and the brushing
of teeth turned into a minor ordeal. I was sorely tempted to retreat
into the warmth of our tent where we had spent the night but I simply
dug deeper into my jacket.
the sun breaks the horizon, the majestic Jabal-Barez mountain range
can be seen to the south and the Kabuti mountains to the northwest.
The camp slowly awakens from its’ slumber and comes to life with the
dawn of a new day. The first order of the day usually consisted of a
quick wash before heading to the various distribution points and
joining a queue for bread and other breakfast items. The bread, known
as “naan”, is prepared from flour which is made into dough the
evening before and then baked in the morning before distribution. This
is one of the staple foods, apart from rice, for Iranians and is eaten
not just for breakfast, but often also for lunch and dinner.
queues quickly get longer as the smell of freshly baked naan wafts
through the camp. As is the common practice in Iran, there are separate
queues for men and women. Other queues form at trucks where jam and
cheese are distributed to go with the naan. Though the naan is supplied
as regularly as possible, there sometimes are disruptions such as
electricity supply failures which prevent the oven from being operated.
“Shoub bekhyr”, or “Good morning” in Farsi, is the common
greeting one hears as you walk past the early birds going for breakfast.
7:00 AM, the sounds of children can be heard as they engage in a bout
of morning exercises led by some of the women serving in the camp.
This is followed by a schooling programme for various grades run by
the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young
Adults. This is run in-camp as public school buildings have been
destroyed along with an estimated 3,000 teachers and 12,000 students
who were killed.
The sun is now rising higher into the
sky and temperatures begin to soar as the cloudless sky offers little
respite from the burning heat. What was too cold a morning now quickly
turned into an unbearably hot day. Even the tents become stifling hot
due to the lack of ventilation. Water points become a focus of
activity as residents collect water for use while some women seize the
opportunity to wash their laundry, by hand of course. Most of the
water for the camp comes from two water-bladders, which are filled up
at about mid-morning. The pressure from the bladders forces the water
through a system of makeshift hoses to various water points and
toilets in the camp. Additionally, there are also individual water
tanks at different locations throughout the site, which prove to be an
added convenience as it cuts down on the walking distance to the water
supplies. This is also useful because the water-bladders are usually
drained by the following morning, resulting in very low water pressure
or even no water altogether.
the Tuesday morning after we arrived, one of the water-bladders burst
as a result of over-filling and halved the camp’s water supply. The
ensuing flood forced some of the NGO’s to move to different tents.
the earthquake, not only were lives and possessions lost, but jobs as
well. Most of the men at the camp are now unemployed. Those who still
have their vehicles could at least rent them out, or become drivers. A
small handful are able to continue their work for less pay but for the
vast majority, their jobs simply existed no more. This means that they
no longer have regular incomes, thus impeding their ability to rebuild
their lives and often leading to a sense of frustration and despair.
Men while away their time walking around, often aimlessly, seeking new
meaning, direction and dignity for themselves and their families.
Others find solace in alcohol and opium which can be obtained easily
given the proximity of Bam to the Afghan border.
Reza, taking an opium break in the shade of a bus.
Daud’s right leg was crushed during the quake as a beam fell on
it while he was shielding his pregnant wife with his own body
from the crashing ceiling. His baby, Toktam, born just a week
after the earthquake, is now 50-days old. This is little
consolation though, because his 14-year old son wasn’t as
fortunate and died in the quake. Daud now spends his days
reading in his tent and wheeling himself to the hospital 2km
away to have his cast checked. I was invited to have lunch at
their tent where "gheymeh" was served, a delicious
dish with lamb meat and rice.
many of those living in the camps, the transition from a reasonably
affluent lifestyle to one in which they possessed nearly nothing is a
hard one to make. Some have managed to salvage some of their
possessions that escaped the earthquake and you will see the
occasional television and radio or two. The use of these appliances
adds to the risk of electrical fires as too many of them are being
added to the power points within the tents. Battered cars ply the
streets of Bam with nearly as many lying under piles of rubble. Within
the camp itself there are no phone lines or public phone booths. To
procure the use of a cellular phone, one would have to first fork out
USD$1,300 for a SIM card, on top of the cost of the phone and usage
charges. That leaves most people cut off from the rest of the world
where communications are concerned. For the most part, their
lifestyles and living conditions now are but a pale shadow of what
they used to have. In many ways, this change and loss of independence
contributes to their sense of frustration and sometimes anger.
With the noon sun high in the sky,
one is prompted to find shelter in the cool of a shade. The low
humidity of around 24% turns the skin dry quickly. Cracked lips and
skin become a common occurrence in these near-desert climates. As the
winter tails off, temperatures begin to rise progressively and in a
few months, the daytime temperatures can reach a searing 50°C. The
now occasional strong winds will turn into gales reaching 115 mph
for the 120-days period between June and September, drawn by the air
pressure differences between the mountains of eastern Iran and the
northern Afghan plains. In the night, you can hear the frame of the
tent creak under the force of the westerly winds. It is clear that
there is simply no way that the rickety tents now used in the camps,
inadequate as they are in winter, can withstand the extreme heat and
harsh winds of the coming months. Those living in the tents know this
and are waiting in trepidation, and hoping that by then they’d have
something safer to live in.
our camp, common toilets have been set up but the hygiene conditions
leave something to be desired. Rubbish is strewn everywhere and the risk
of disease is something that needs serious consideration. When we
arrived, the toilets did not have lights, nor were they flushable. Water
supply in the toilets were not consistent and one would sometimes be
required to bring water for use and for cleaning up after using the
toilets. Sewage tanks were buried into the ground near the toilets, or
in other cases, deep holes were dug for sewage. During the week, I could
see ongoing enhancements being made to the sewerage system and by the
end of the week they had the lights in the toilets working nicely.
visit to the city revealed the extent of the damage. Hospitals, banks,
schools all lie devastated. One would occasionally see people sifting
through the rubble of their collapsed homes in the hopes of recovering
something of their possessions. The more entrepreneurial ones have
managed to set up roadside stalls selling everything from fruits to
shoes and clothing with more appearing each day. It is not unusual to
see large throngs of people crowding around trucks distributing food
and other essentials. Long queues form at phone booths as people wait
for their turn to make outgoing calls. It is not unusual to find three
or four kids riding pillion on a motorcycle since there has been until recently
very little control on their use. I even managed to get myself a free
ride, along with my translator, on a bike driven by 15-year old Fashid.
A common sight, young men on their motorbikes.
through the city, our driver Abbas burst into tears and lament. Even
though I could not understand Farsi, I could tell that he was in deep
grief. Through my translator, I finally understood the reason for his
outburst. Abbas had cheese this morning and driving through this
particular street where his 6-year old daughter, Haneyeh, died, he was
painfully reminded of how he used to have cheese for breakfast with
his daughter every morning. Through his tears, he recounted how he
used to complain jokingly that he did not have enough money for
cigarettes and how his young daughter would offer to sell the little
gold she had to buy him cigarettes. As the memories of his girl came
flooding back, Abbas just choked up in tears and emotion. I could not
help but share in his tears. He bears an added sense of guilt because
he woefully recalls that his daughter had innocently suggested moving
out of the house to a tent just four days before the quake, and how he
had ignored the suggestion. Abbas is also worried for his wife who has
lost all her relatives in addition to their young daughter, Haneyeh.
As he cried on uncontrollably, I wondered how many other such tragic
stories were to be retold in the aftermath of the Bam earthquake.
As we visited some of the tents, we
found the Iranians to be a warm and friendly people. I stepped out of
our car at Al-Mahdi street and looked into the compound of a tent. “Salam”,
meaning “peace” in Farsi, is how you’d greet those you met in
Iran. We were warmly welcomed to look at their tent and family, by
people whom we’ve never met before. Even more to my surprise, and
before I could object, tea was served with sugar cubes. The family,
which had lost 17-girls and 5-boys, had lost none of their Iranian
hospitality. As we talked, they brought out photos of family members
and relatives who have died in the quake.
Afouz holds up a photo of herself and her sisters and
cousins taken during her last birthday party. All in the
photo, except herself, had died during the earthquake.
During our stay
there, we found no lack of welcome and hospitality, and tea. There is
no question in my mind that Iranians are a very hospitable people,
even in the midst of tragedy.
Back at the camp,
dried food that had been trucked in from Tehran were being sorted out
and packed for distribution. Crisis Relief Society Singapore purchases
and supplies the daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, in camp BAFIA. The
food packs, which include rice, potatoes, onions, spaghetti, cooking
oil, sugar and many other common foodstuffs are packed into plastic
bags and then stacked neatly into tents. These are then distributed to
the camp residents by BAFIA officials. Many prefer cooking their own
food, for which they have kerosene stoves, to prepared foods as this
gives them more variety.
Various NGO’s are also serving in
the BAFIA camp besides CRS. The Japanese NGO, NICCO, provide
infrastructural support such as water points, toilets, and so on,
while the Child Foundation and the Institute for the Intellectual
Development of Children and Young Adults, for example, look into the
welfare of the young children in the camp. There are also the
occasional volunteer groups that are unaffiliated with any NGO’s who
distribute clothing and other essential items. One group of Iranian
ladies independently raised funds from overseas to supply such items
to the camps, all by themselves.
Around the corner at the eastern side of the camp, you can get
yourself a free haircut.
The cool of the evening sees the
children, quite a number of them in the camp, come out to play. The
kids are fascinated with the digital cameras and love being
photographed. “Aks! Aks!”, many would call out in Farsi, pointing
to themselves and their friends as they strike a pose for the camera.
The younger ones are oblivious to the problems around them, but the
older children are often anxious about what the future holds for them
and their families. Programmes for children of different levels are
provided for by some of the local NGO’s. Formal schooling is limited
though, by the lack of teachers and facilities. Those schools that
still run usually provide a limited curriculum.
Programmes are run for children by various NGO's.
Masjid Zayed. The twin minarets of this mosque still stand, though
The call of the minaret can be heard
as dusk falls, bringing yet another day in the camp to a close. The
question on many minds has to do with the road ahead. Where will it
lead and how long will it take to get there? With no clear end in
sight, they can only pray and hope for the best.
One thing you quickly realize when
living with the people in a relief camp is that the statistics hardly
tell the whole story, especially when dealing with large numbers in
tragedies such as the one in Bam. We have to realize that the numbers
eventually reduce to individuals, each with their own stories, often
painful ones, to tell, and each one is important. I found that I have
more in common with those I met in Bam, than any differences we might
Article and photos by
Daniel Wee 2004