A year after quake, Iran city struggles to rise above the rubble

The palm trees still rise from the Iranian desert in the oasis city of Bam. But their dusty leaves now overlook a shattered city, razed by a devastating earthquake that killed more than 30,000 people in 10 seconds.

From a distance, not much seems to have changed since Dec. 26, 2003, the day of the 6.5 magnitude temblor. Collapsed buildings still line the streets. Those families who survived in the center of town have not returned. Caramel-colored dust coats everything.

But out of the devastation, this city, once middle class, is slowly coming back to life. Gone is the smell of death that hung in the air for months, as well as the tents that dotted the city. Some 75,000 survivors live in prefab cabins near town.

Makeshift shops line the main streets - a grocery in an old army tent, a barber shop with cracked mirrors salvaged from the ruins of a salon.

Yet a year after nearly 90 percent of Bam was leveled, just $17 million of $1 billion in foreign-aid pledges has come in, says President Mohammed Khatami. Five percent of the houses have been rebuilt - underscoring challenges Southeast Asian countries may face in rebuild- ing poor and remote areas devastated by last week's earthquake and tsunami.

Aid workers are pleased with the rate of progress in Bam and say rebuilding a city from scratch will take at least three years - if not longer.

"Yes, reconstruction has been slower than we expected, but you can't rebuild a city overnight. Not even in a year - that's impossible," says Patrick Parsons, a project coordinator for the British-based humanitarian organization Merlin, who has been in Bam for the past year.

Iranian officials have ambitious plans for the city, which was home to Arg-e Bam, a 2,000-year-old citadel that drew thousands of tourists yearly.

The government has enlisted the help of a Dutch architect who specializes in designing "child friendly" cities to incorporate more playgrounds and parks and a teachers' resource center. The plan is to consult the children of Bam for their vision of a perfect city.

Along with the prospects for physical improvements in the city, social changes are emerging as well. Many women in the conservative city - impelled by the loss of many male heads of household - have left the confines of their homes to run between housing associations, ministry buildings, and banks to get papers stamped and new ID cards verified in the protracted quest for aid. Out of sheer practicality, more are also shedding the tentlike black chador in favor of a head scarf.

Rapid first response

In the days following Bam's earthquake, more than 1,600 aid workers from 44 countries streamed in to help with the rescue and relief operation. For the first time since the 1979-81 hostage crisis, an American government presence was allowed, with a team of American search and rescue workers drawing excited crowds.

Tents and medical supplies were airlifted in, and experts from the World Health Organization and nongovernmental organizations set about dealing with health and sanitation needs. Everything from "school-in-a-box" kits to hand tools for clearing rubble was distributed.

But now, the sprawling international camp on the grounds of the old sports stadium has been closed down and only a handful of international agencies remain.

Some survivors are finding the pace of reconstruction hard to accept.

"Look around. It's been a year. How many new buildings do you see? Where has all the money gone?" says Hassan, echoing the sentiments of many.

He spent six months living in a tent with his young family and was one of hundreds of Bamis who took to the streets in an angry protest in the spring, denouncing the relief effort as too slow.

Indeed, a key challenge has been that former residents of the city are only just coming to terms with what has happened to them. For the past year, many have been in a state of shock and anger - something that has spurred what doctors and psychologists say is a growing drug problem.

The sweet smell of eucalyptus and orange blossom that used to fill the alleys of this ancient city has been replaced by the thick reek of opium that wafts out of shelters. Thousands of Bamis, doctors say, are turning to drugs to forget horrific memories and ease the pain of daily life.

"It's a really big problem. And now people are also turning to prescription drugs," says Mohammed Abeeyat, a clinical psychologist for the Iranian Red Crescent Society, the relief agency.

Dr. Abeeyat, who sees up to 10 patients a day, says post- traumatic stress syndrome is the biggest problem that survivors face. In response, Iran's Ministry of Health and UNICEF are running extensive psychosocial counseling programs.

Talking to children

Under the palm trees in the village of Baravat on the outskirts of Bam groups of children sit crosslegged in group therapy sessions organized by the Ministry of Health. Amid the playground banter talk of the "balloon technique" emerges - therapy speak for a breathing technique to help children deal with anxiety attacks. Many of the young ones heard their families screaming for help under the rubble and listened as their cries faded away.

"I've learned to deal with my bad memories," says 11-year old Azam. "Therapy has taught me that whenever I get those bad memories I should put them in a box, lock the box and put the key away."

Azam lost both her parents in the earthquake. She heard them calling out to her and dug at the rubble, but her little hands could not cope.

Hope for the future

Seventeen-year-old Reza considers himself one of the fortunate ones - he lost "only" three members of his family.

"I feel the government has looked after me - I've got a prefabricated shelter and I'm sure that one day I'll have permanent shelter," he says.

Seven members of his family now live in a 20-by-13-foot shelter. Like most survivors, he has not gotten a job. Being indoors all day with nothing to do gets him down.

"They say they're going to rebuild Bam into a better city. I don't doubt they will rebuild it, but Bam will never be the same again," he says. "Maybe bigger and newer, but never better."

For most survivors in Bam, it is simply a coincidence that the earthquake and tsunami in Asia happened on the same day - at almost the same hour - as their own.

The residents of Bam say that they will be forgotten now that they have been eclipsed by a bigger earthquake, but they say they feel a connection with the Asian survivors.

"I suppose nature works in cycles," says Reza. "But I know exactly what the Asians are going through. Everyone in Bam does."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A year after quake, Iran city struggles to rise above the rubble
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today