BAM, Iran -- Bam lives on. But more than two months after the destructive and deadly earthquake which in just 15 seconds killed 43,200 and injured another 30,000 of the city's 125,000 residents, the survivors still find themselves in a state of shock, desperation, hopelessness and fear of what the future holds.
'Our greatest worry right now is that Bam will disappear from the world's conscience. Bam needs all the support and attention it can get,' says Iain Logan, who supervises the Red Cross' daily work in Bam. Logan emphasizes that the work has only just begun.
Choking on dust
Street scenes in the middle of Bam are still hard to imagine. Families live along the roads and in the medians in tents supplied by the Red Crescent. Traffic is an odd mixture of huge Land Rovers driven by United Nations and Red Cross workers and Bam's own cars transporting people around the city despite their collapsed roofs and windows void of any glass. The houses are almost all gone. The quake wrecked everything and reduced Bam to a pulverized city. 'Not everyone died of injuries on impact,' explains Johannes Hoffman, Danish camp manager for the Red Cross. 'Many choked to death. Two weeks after the tragedy the air here was still filled with dust from the collapsed houses.' The old mud houses that provided perfect protection against the burning sun turned into pure deathtraps when the menace came from below.
Emergency relief workers in Bam agree that they have never seen anything like this. 'Normally, families neighbors and friends are first on the scene to help after an earthquake,' explained a volunteer from the Red Crescent who didn't want to be named. 'But it was different in Bam. No one was left here since the accident took a toll on everyone.' Not even the city's emergency preparedness was able to help. Two out of three hospitals collapsed, and half of all doctors, nurses and local Red Crescent volunteers were killed.
An epidemic threatens
Outside of a tent on a smaller side street lies a three year-old girl with her old grandmother. The remains of their house are across the street. One outer wall and a single room on the second floor remain as a mournful reminder of a family that no longer exists. The roof and the floor are one. The grandmother explains that the girl's mother, father and three siblings were buried alive under the rubble. The girl and her grandmother survived only because they happened to be visiting acquaintances in Teheran when the earthquake struck.
'Almost every night when she tries to sleep, she calls out for her mother,' explains the grandmother. Like many of the survivors, these two have placed their tent as close to their onetime home as possible. Rumors have circulated that people from other cities are coming to claim the buildings that have been abandoned. These rumors, along with peoples' psychological attachments to their 'homes' make it difficult for Bam residents to move to tent camps where they have access to clean water and more sanitary conditions that the Red Cross has worked hard to establish.
But convincing people to move away from the streets is important -- partly to begin the rebuilding effort but also due to the risk of infection. 'The risk of infection is a big danger,' explains Logan while we sit in his 'tent office' and sweat in the 30-degree (Celsius) heat. 'So far we've avoided epidemics and serious diseases, but temperatures here will reach 45 and 50 degrees (Celsius) in a few months, and sand storms are on the way too. We are currently setting up a quarantine area which we'll use if epidemics suddenly arise.'
When the heat really kicks in, living in tents will become virtually impossible. The Iranian government has promised that all Bam families will be able to roll up their tents and move temporarily into prefabricated houses before the middle of April. But those pledges seem awfully optimistic considering the extent of destruction in Bam. The earthquake leveled 25,000 of the area's 29,500 houses. Removing all the mud bricks is enough of a task, and very few sites are already being rebuilt.
Iain Logan also underscores that, from the Red Cross' perspective, Bam isn't ready to move into phase two -- the rebuilding phase. 'We are still in the catastrophe phase,' he says. 'The 40-day Muslim mourning period ended only recently, and the survivors are only now beginning to look forward. That path in front of them looks almost hopeless. Bam will need a psychological-social presence here for many years to come,' says Logan, adding that the Red Cross will have emergency aid workers here for the next 10 years.
A total tragedy
Add increasing drug misuse to the tragedies that continue to befall Bam. The city is situated on the old silk route between the Far East and the Mediterranean Sea. But today opium from Afghanistan has replaced silk as the biggest commodity. A relatively large portion of the more than two million Iranian drug addicts live in Bam and its surrounding areas. Official figures from a Saudi Arabian field hospital in Bam indicate that more than half of the 2,000 patients treated in the second week after the earthquake were current or former drug abusers. Doctors from the Red Cross confirm that more and more patients have shown dependency symptoms, and several worry that drug addiction will increase as a sense of hopelessness spreads.
In addition to the unfathomable number of deaths, injuries, traumatized survivors and the increasing temperatures, the entire area's infrastructure has also been wiped out. There are no jobs left; the date fields have been destroyed; and many families have lost their only source of income since the man of the family is dead. Tragedy is everywhere. But other than a visit in January from Prince Charles, the outside world has already moved on to the next bestseller tragedy.