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. 

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

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.

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.

Local officials say the criticism – which continues, even as reconstruction is underway – is undeserved.

“The problem is that almost all of the 18,600 houses in the area are either totally destroyed or damaged and need to be rebuilt [because] a house with even 30 to 40 percent damage is not safe and should be taken down and rebuilt,” says Khalil Saei, the director general of crisis management for the province who was contacted in Tabriz last month.

More than 300,000 people have been affected, with 233 dead, says Mr. Saei. Losses are estimated at one trillion Iranian rials, or $335 million to $840 million, depending on the exchange rate.

Shortly after the earthquakes, Health Minister Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi categorically rejected complaints.

“We distributed 10,000 tents on the first day and setting up the tent camps was finished in two days,” Mr. Vahid-Dastjerdi told local media. “We determined the fate of every single victim in the disaster within 22 hours, which means the rescue operation was a record good job.”

That wasn’t how it played out in parliament in Tehran, where Mr. Pezeshkian said on Aug. 14, “If the people had not joined hands, had not helped, perhaps this crisis would not have been settled."

“My question is why a level six Richter earthquake should cause this much problem for the country?” he asked.

The “main problem,” he said, was poor management so that relief was inconsistent. While the rescue operation went smoothly in some areas, it was less so in some of the remote areas hit by the quake. “The main problem is the management structure of the country, because we have witnessed that the rescue and aid operation was going on smoothly in some areas, but in some remote areas was not good.”

In Bajabaj, a once-beautiful village which lost 28 of its several hundred residents, mayor Ali Bamdad raised the alarm in mid-September.

“Aid and rescue workers arrived soon and were so helpful,” Mr. Bamdad told local news agencies. “Honestly, the people’s help and aid supply was great at the beginning, it was important and effective on the first days, but it is getting looser and it seems as time goes on, they forget about us.”

Village council member Ali Moharrami said, “We appreciate the government and Red Crescent's aid from the beginning of the disaster, but the people were faster, the benevolent and generous people spontaneously took the lead to help us with urgent necessities. They were amazing."

'No time to lose'

Clean-up operations are underway, and reconstruction has started in places where rubble has been removed to make way for new building. Yet even the clearing away of wreckage has not been without controversy.

Officials ordered construction workers and truck drivers to clear rubble as quickly as possible, and to dump the debris along nearby roadsides.

Ali Mahboubi, a resident from a hillside village three miles along the road, called Choupanlar, complains that the "illogical dumping of the unsorted debris," consisting of muddy bricks, timber and household items, is seriously affecting the irrigation system of his apple orchard and will damage the farm soon. Mr. Mahboubi and his wife anxiously tried to direct the drivers, so that the dumped debris would have the least impact on their riverside orchard.

Mohammad Baghban, the road and construction official in charge of the operation, said speed was critical during a visit last month. "Today we just need to rush to clean up the villages so that reconstruction can start sooner.... We have no time to lose, and should act quicker."

All that is left of Zoleykha Nazari's home in Choupanlar is the rubble that was once her home, and tearfully holds up a broken dish to a visitor. Her husband is critically ill, and winter is almost here.

“It is cold even now, but still more is to come. This village especially gets cold quite early and we can’t survive in the tents,” says Mrs. Nazari, wiping away tears. “It is really hard, time is passing, and I am thinking how I can care for an ill husband in a tent…. The villagers here are all together helping each other, but everybody is facing a difficult situation. We lost everything.”

Scott Peterson in Istanbul, Turkey contributed reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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