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Bam Earthquake: Reflections on a Tragedy

May 24, 2004

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    Despite overwhelming destruction, the author found hope in the children of Bam. Photo: Bob Kellett/Mercy Corps Photo:

Why is it that in times of disasters and wars the sunsets are always so brilliant? As I drive out of Bam, I marvel at the full moon rising through the blood-red sunset. It is a welcome reminder of the hope for a better tomorrow.

After almost two weeks in Bam, Iran working as part of Mercy Corps' emergency response to the devastating earthquake that left over 30,000 people dead and 70,000 homeless, I have experienced almost every emotion imaginable: despair, grief, fear, frustration, hope and even glimpses of joy - if you can believe it.

Immediately after the quake, I was sent to assist Mercy Corps' already established Iranian national staff. We were an initial team of 11, eight national staff and three expatriates.

I thought I was tired when I arrived after a long journey. In retrospect, I had no idea of what tired really meant. For days on end our team worked unceasingly - meeting with displaced families to identify emergency needs, negotiating with government officials to obtain land for a camp for the displaced, pitching tents, digging trenches for latrines, loading and unloading trucks filled with thousands of blankets, heaters and other items being distributed to needy families. The list of things that had to be done now seemed to grow longer by the minute. Staff coordination meetings started late at night and ended very late. Static-filled, satellite phone calls to headquarters were conducted even later.

By the time we fell into bed, it didn't matter that we were sleeping like sardines with six people in a small, severely damaged motel room. The team felt fortunate to have access to running water after having spent the first few nights in tents.

When I landed in Tehran my luggage did not. I vaguely remember being concerned. No sleeping bag, no jacket or sweater. And it was cold, really cold. By the time I reached Bam, my lost luggage was a distant thought. We drove into town - or what was once town - at dusk. Families were gathered on the streets around wood-burning fires trying to keep warm. Children were almost touching the flames, straining to feel a little heat in the bitter cold. They had no where to go. Their eerily illuminated faces told their tragic stories. My small problems all seemed irrelevant. The work at hand was all that mattered.

On the first morning we headed out early to determine priorities and set to work. While the search and rescue teams continued to pull survivors out of the rubble, Mercy Corps worked with our partner organization Peace Winds Japan to set-up a large tent camp to house and provide for many of the displaced families in Bam.

In the following days a CBS News crew that came to film the Mercy Corps team heard about my still-missing luggage. Later that day as they left Bam they dropped off a parka, thermals and a sleeping bag for me. It seemed everyone was helping everyone. It's true that the good in people shines at the hardest times.

The Mercy Corps-Peace Winds Japan tent camp was a testimony to the spirit of working together and cooperation. By the time the 300-plus tents were pitched and families moving in, several other aid agencies had come to help. One group started cooking hot meals for families in the camp, another set-up a water-tank system, yet another helped distribute more desperately needed supplies. Together we probably spoke at least six different languages, but managed to communicate almost flawlessly.

It was New Year's Eve. We probably wouldn't have even noticed had it not been for the visit by the Iranian officials coordinating the disaster relief. They stopped by our camp to thank us for coming to help and gave us each a small gift bag with dates and a poster with a photograph of the ancient fort, Barg-e-Bam, this town had been famous for.

In the coming days I talked to many survivors of the earthquake. I learned that Bam was considered the "date capital" of Iran. Now, the date trees were dead and the ancient city destroyed. History, a way of life, and the two major sources of income for many residents were all wiped out in one fateful blow. But these concerns would have to wait. More urgent needs dictated our work.

With the tent camp up and running, Mercy Corps delved into the next priorities for the people: healthcare, education and helping the child-survivors cope. A team was dispatched to Tehran to procure more supplies and toys and educational materials for the children. Another team began assessing and planning for the reconstruction of several health clinics. And another team focused on developing plans for providing water and sanitation facilities to the rural areas in Bam. The work on these projects continues and the Mercy Corps team continues to expand.

On my last day in Bam, I walked through the tent camp and watched the children playing, and the mothers meticulously setting up their new "homes." Fatima and Hadi, two kids who arrived on the day the camp opened, ran up to me and dragged me over to play soccer. They had salvaged a flat ball from the rubble of their home. They took turns blowing up the ball, then kicking it back and forth until it went flat, and then blowing it up and playing again. For one brief moment it almost seemed as if we were all on one big camping trip.

The world may soon forget what happened in Bam on December 26, 2003, but it is etched in my mind forever. A tragedy depicted in the faces of the people. The mourning mothers, the innocent unknowing babies, the lost fathers and the unsinkable spirit of the children.