Bam: The Catastrophe Continues

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.

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