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Iran's summer earthquake leaves 100,000 shivering in tents as winter descends

The Iranian government has failed to rebuild a remote province devastated by an August earthquake, leaving more than 100,000 Iranians in tents as winter arrives. 

By Afshin ValinejadCorrespondent / November 22, 2012

A woman who survived the Aug. 11 Iranian earthquake works outside of tents set up as shelters for local residents.

Afshin Valinejad


Bajabaj village, Iran

As winter settles in on this remote province of Iran, a pair of earthquakes that devastated the area in mid-August will likely claim new lives.

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The Aug. 11 quakes devastated the mud and mud-brick houses typical of this area. Of the 306 villages hit by the earthquakes, 65 were totally flattened, officials say.

Three months later, government promises to rebuild before winter have not been met, leaving more than 100,000 Iranians in tents waiting for fierce winter weather. The area is known for hard winters with strong winds and rains and flooding that turn earth to mud.

Allahverdi Dehqani, a lawmaker from the region, told parliament on Nov. 18, "Unfortunately so far only 15 percent of the people in Varzaghan disaster area have been settled... mismanagement has meant that people in 63 villages still live in tents though the snow and cold has already arrived," according to Vatan Emrooz daily.

Still, on Nov. 19, Iran's Revolutionary Guard and voluntary Basij militia announced the completion of 772 housing units in the earthquake zone, part of 2,000 they committed to build by next month. More than 7,000 units to protect livestock from winter weather were also donated. 

"The Basij and Sepah have been with the people in the disaster area from the first moments of the earthquake and will remain close by them until the end of reconstruction and their problems are over," said Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari.

The risks are clear in this once-picturesque village, 400 miles northwest of Tehran. The use of electrical heaters with too-thin wiring started a fire that swept through 10 tents before dawn on Oct. 10, killing an elderly woman and injuring two children.

“When I heard the news…my whole body was shaking out of sadness and anger,” says Farzin Rezaei, a university student from Tabriz who has volunteered in the earthquake zone. 

“I could not imagine a lady of that age who lost [her home] once, facing a tough situation, now losing her life,” says Mr. Rezaei. “The news pushed me deep down into a terrible feeling.”

That concern was echoed by Akbar, an aid worker with the Iranian Red Crescent who was with the rescue and firefighting team when the tent fire broke out. He asked that only his first name be published.

“It is already cold here. Two months passed since the disaster, and unfortunately the authorities failed to fulfill their promises: no temporary housing units, no rebuilt houses,” Akbar said last month.

“It’s not easy to witness these kind people facing so many difficulties… I saw someone use his blanket to protect his sheep [because] animals are more important to them, just vital,” says Akbar. “The weather is going to be more unfriendly. You can’t blame them for carelessness – to keep an electric heater turned on next to them in a small tent while asleep.”

Government falls short

The earthquake brought a wave of criticism for what was seen as the authorities' slow response, and the lack of attention from officials in Tehran, who were preoccupied with preparations for the late-August summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. Senior Iranian officials were chagrined at the summit when visiting leaders offered condolences for the hundreds of dead, inadvertently highlighting how few public statements they themselves had made about Iran’s own tragedy.

Masoud Pezeshkian, a lawmaker from Tabriz and former health minister, noted that the state TV broadcaster IRIB made no breaking news reports, “as if nothing has happened…and that is a question in the people’s mind.” Instead of reporting on the quake, he said, IRIB continued airing a comedy program.


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