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Iran: One Year After Quake, Bam Residents Rebuilding, But Psychological Scars Run Deep

Victims of Bam's December 2004 earthquake A year ago, an earthquake of a magnitude of 6.6 destroyed the historic Iranian city of Bam and killed more than 25,000 people. Some 75,000 people were left homeless. Both of the city's hospitals collapsed, and 80 percent of homes, schools, and administrative buildings in the city and its surroundings were flattened. The quake also extensively damaged the 2,500-year-old citadel of Bam, the world's largest mud-brick structure.

Prague, 21 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At dawn on 26 December 2003, a powerful earthquake shook the southern Iranian city of Bam.

Due to poor materials and ignored building codes, most of Bam's houses and buildings were flattened. In a few seconds, tens of thousands of city residents were buried under tons of rubble.

In the end, more than 25,000 people were killed and many thousands left injured.

Most survivors lost not only their homes but their livelihoods. Immense sorrow and deep despair became part of daily life in Bam.

Doctor Sean Keogh, a consultant on emergency medicine, arrived in Bam 72 hours after the earthquake struck. Keogh, who works for Merlin, a British relief organization, says the scene was one of utter devastation.

"Much of the city was completely flat," Keogh says. "There were a few buildings standing normally, and the rest were kind of perched at a precarious angle. There was still a bit of rescue work going on, but the problem was that, because of the materials, when buildings had collapsed it didn't really leave any air pockets for people to breathe in. So most people who died died quite quickly, in the first one or two days. The structures in the rural areas that were made predominantly of mud were just completely flat, and you could barely tell that there had been a dwelling there at all. And some regions and some villages were completely obliterated."

One year later, the streets of Bam are still full of bricks and rubble, but there are also signs of life.
"When we asked [residents] what their favorite place was in Bam, they were saying the cemetery, because they spend maybe a day or a day-and-a-half a week in the cemetery."

"Shops have opened. People are getting around more," says Patrick Parsons, who is in charge of Merlin's rebuilding program in Bam. "The schools are open. The children are going to school. Life is really coming back to some semblance of normality for them."

Many of Bam's residents are living in temporary, prefabricated houses. Others are living in tents where their homes had once stood. Reports say the Iranian government recently completed a master plan for the city.

Parsons says rebuilding has started in Bam -- but at a slow pace: "The government has insisted that they try to rebuild away from the fault lines, which run right across Bam. The work is going on. It will be some time, I believe, before the people of Bam can fully reintegrate into their houses, their properties. If you can imagine, the estimates were that there were 12 million cubic meters of rubble to be removed from Bam city before rebuilding could even start. "

Some relief agencies estimate it will take up to 10 years to rehabilitate Bam.

Many Bam residents have been critical of the government because of what they see as mismanagement and the slow pace of reconstruction. Last spring, Tehran expelled a correspondent for Britain's "Guardian" newspaper, who had traveled to Bam without permission to report on the state of relief efforts.

In addition to anger over the pace of rebuilding, many in the city have been traumatized by the tragedy. The majority of residents lost family members, friends, or neighbors in the earthquake.

"When we asked [residents] what their favorite place was in Bam, they were saying the cemetery, because they spend maybe a day or a day-and-a-half a week in the cemetery," says Parsons.

Thorir Gudmundsson of the Icelandic Red Cross recently returned from a mission to Bam with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He says Bam residents are urgently in need of both housing and psychological support.

"The scars of one year ago remain and are quite deep," Gudmundsson says. "Lots of people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, so it's very much like soldiers coming back from a battle and reliving the event again and again. So there is quite extensive need for psychological support."

According to Red Cross and Red Crescent, psychological disorders caused by the earthquake are characterized by sleep disorders, an inability to carry out normal social functions, explosive behavior, domestic violence, and a dramatic increase in drug addiction.

The destruction of the 2,500-year-old Bam citadel has also caused sadness among the population. The citadel was a major tourist attraction and for many in the country a source of enormous pride.

"People said to me at the beginning of our mission here that life had gone out of Bam because the Arg [citadel] had been destroyed. I don't believe that is true," Parsons says. "Life is coming back into Bam, and it's a credit to the medical authorities, the medical NGOs who have been here. And I've got enormous amount of respect for the Bami people, as they're called, because to pick themselves up after this disaster is an enormous credit to them."

The citadel is due to be rebuilt with the help of organizations such as UNESCO, which recently added it to its List of World Heritage in Danger.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.