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.


Right 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.



Below The one business that was thriving as a result of the quake, the sale of tombstones.

Two 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 rebuilding.


The 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.

“What 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.

It 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.


As 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.


The 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.



At 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.


On 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.


With 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.

Above Reza, taking an opium break in the shade of a bus.



Left 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.

For 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.


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.


A 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.

Above A common sight, young men on their motorbikes.

Driving 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.





Right 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.




Left 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.


Below Programmes are run for children by various NGO's.




Left Masjid Zayed. The twin minarets of this mosque still stand, though damaged.




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 share.



Article and photos by Daniel Wee 2004