Tim Pitts is a freelance photojournalist.
On December 26, 2003, a devastating earthquake struck the Kerman province of Iran, killing over 43,000 people. The earthquake, which measured 6.5 on the Richter scale, struck at 5:26 in the morning, when most of the city of Bam's 140,000 citizens were still asleep. It destroyed almost every building. In a matter of seconds, children became orphans, wives became widows, and husbands widowers. It was the first earthquake to hit Bam in over 2,000 years, and the city was at the temblor's epicenter.
Of the approximately 100,000 who survived the earthquake 55,000 were injured. All were homeless. Even those whose homes remarkably withstood nature's fury were afraid to go back indoors. The aftershocks, some severe, lasted for weeks and though the survivors began to take them in stride, nightmares kept them from sleeping under a roof.
Bam is an ancient city in southern Iran about 800 kilometers southeast of Tehran and 150 kilometers from Iran's border with Pakistan. The city, originally Arg-e-Bam, was founded during the first century A.D. It was an important commercial and trading center along the fabled Silk Road and a focal point for pilgrims visiting the beautiful Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Today, Bam is best known for its ancient citadel, which was-- before the earthquake demolished it--the largest mud-brick building complex in the world. While the exact age of the citadel is unknown, it had been under renovation since the 1950's. Renovations were close to completion. In a matter of seconds, the earthquake destroyed what had taken almost a half a century to restore.
Bam is typical of the towns built in the high mountain desert of southern Iran. Most of the homes are constructed of baked mud and straw, built around support beams that are of wood and, most recently, steel. Some few buildings have been built to a modern-day code with bricks, mortar, and reinforced steel. But an earthquake of this magnitude was too strong even for the best-constructed buildings. Ninety percent of the buildings in Bam collapsed. It is estimated that most of the 10 percent that remain standing will ultimately have to be torn down.
Buildings can be replaced. The more daunting task, however, is rebuilding shattered lives. The story of the destruction of Bam is not really about the loss of material things. With hard work, determination, tools, materials, and donations, these can be replaced. The real story of Bam is the human story. It is the story of unimaginable loss, death, despair, and terrible screams in the dark. It is the story of people, neighbors, and other countries responding to a call for help. Finally, it is a story of the slow process of recovery, healing, and moving on.
A survivor's story
In the predawn hours after the earthquake struck, Sashimi Khnbaba struggled to free herself from the rubble that was once her home. Three weeks later, she recounted how she could remember waking as the house fell in on her, then experiencing an eerie silence until one of her children started to scream. On that dreadful morning, Sashimi did not know the extent of the devastation. But what had happened to Bam was the least of her concerns. All she knew was that the house in which she and her three children were sleeping had collapsed, and she had to free herself to save her children.
In many ways, Sashimi as survivor is a metaphor for Bam itself. Sashimi and her three children were sleeping in a rarely used room. Her husband, a mason, had been working in the main part of their small house. As the new masonry was still wet and the smell of moist clay strong, he had suggested that they sleep in the one part of the house that he had yet to repair. He then left to work in his shop telling Sashimi that he expected to be late and would sleep at work rather than disturbing her when he came home. He died when the shop fell in on top of him.
Sashimi knew nothing of that as she struggled to dig out from under the rubble and save their three children. Two of her children, a boy and a girl were sleeping next to Sashimi. She had her arm around her son who, according to her, had a weak heart. Unlike the youngest son, who was sleeping in a corner separate from the others and survived alive and unharmed, the two children closest to her were dead. Sashimi thought she detected a pulse in her daughter and tried to revive her using mouth-to- mouth resuscitation, but to no avail.
In a house just down the street Sashimi's mother died while her father was spared. She was soon to learn that 9 of her 11 sisters and both of her brothers were dead. In the end, the randomness of death made her question life itself. The foundations of her faith lay bare to question.
Thousands of people like Sashimi suffered grievous losses. Families are important to the people of Bam and few families escaped death. Every person in Bam knew people who died--and in some cases entire families. Just across the street from Sashimi, a family of 12 perished beneath the rubble. Businesses were lost, but in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, businesses were not important. Simple day-to-day routines that normally define daily life had been turned on end, and for a time the survivors were too stunned to begin the process of rebuilding.
The struggle to help
Relief agencies and governments responded immediately to calls for help. According to Rudy von Bernuth, director of emergency response for Save the Children in Westport, Connecticut, his staff met immediately and sent a representative to assess the situation. Save the Children's mission is to create real and lasting change in the lives of children around the world. One of their major strengths is emergency relief. Rob MacGillivary, Save the Children-U.K., arrived in Bam on January 27 and began the process of evaluating steps needed to address the horrific situation.
Englishman Chris Cattaway left his home in New Zealand to manage the situation for the Save the Children Alliance. He arrived in Bam on January 3. Cattaway is no stranger to emergency rehabilitation efforts, having spent several months leading the emergency relief team for the Save the Children Alliance after the earthquake in Gujarat, India, in 2001. According to Cattaway, the difference between the damage in Gujarat and what he encountered in Bam was striking.
"The Gujarat quake affected several cities in a fairly concentrated area, and, while some 23,000 people died, it could have been much worse. Sections of the area were affected by the quake and, to be sure, some areas were completely destroyed. Other areas experienced little, if any damage, at all. What I saw in Bam was almost beyond description. It was as like looking at a picture of Hiroshima after World War II. The devastation was utterly complete, and there was nothing random about it at all. The entire city was destroyed."
Kevin Riddell, a New Zealander living in Sweden, is a project coordinator for Merlin. Merlin is a Britain-based, nonprofit, nonpartisan charity that provides lifesaving health care for people in crises and disaster situations around the world. At the time of the earthquake, Riddell was part of Merlin's Iran team stationed in Baghdad. He arrived in Bam three days after the quake and observed a situation that was, in his words, "surreal."
"Here, in the midst of sheer devastation, with mountains of rubble everywhere and people in a state of trauma, the electricity was on and lights were shining everywhere. Somehow, it struck me as bizarre that the houses and office structures could have been so poorly constructed and the electrical power system could have been, in comparison, so contemporary." Riddell observed that, beyond the rescue activities, it was essential to get adequate shelter, clothing, medical supplies, and food and fresh water to the survivors.
Grief and service to others
On January 18, I accompanied Humayun Rizwan, a doctor from Islamabad, Pakistan, as he traveled through Bam to inspect the community health centers. As we walked over what used to be houses, it was clear from the smell that rose from the rubble that many of the dead had yet to be recovered. What we found was a health system in complete disarray. Not one of the buildings that formerly served as a clinic was fit to be inhabited, and in most cases the people who had staffed the clinics were dead.
Rizwan had first arrived in Bam just days after the quake struck, driving from the Pakistan border with other Pakistanis who were there to support Save the Children's team. He explained that reestablishing the community health centers was a priority, as most health activities in the city tended to be very local. Without easy access to the most basic medical care, people, not knowing where to find proper care, would tend to go without, and the results could be devastating.
During the course of the day, we visited five clinics and discovered that none was operational. Three of the five had lost all staff, while one, remarkably, was fully staffed and needed only proper accommodations and materials to begin providing care to the community. Save the Children arranged for two large tents to be delivered, along with basic medical supplies. The tents were pitched just outside of the now- destroyed clinic, which was able to begin operation two days after our visit.
It was on the last visit of the day that we met Sashimi Khnbaba. Our translator, a tour guide from Tehran, was questioning a woman who lived next to the clinic in a neighborhood called Espikan. He was told that Sashimi, a Beh Varzed, or under-medical assistant, had survived the earthquake, lived just blocks from the clinic and would volunteer to reopen the clinic as soon as tents and materials could be delivered. The first meeting with Sashimi was difficult and emotional. As she held her surviving child close, she told us about her tremendous loss. Through tears, she spoke at length about her guilt at having survived while most of her family died.
The longer she spoke, however, it became clear how important she, an individual survivor, could be to the future survival of her neighborhood. Sashimi, 34, had married at 15 and after finishing a two- year study program, gone to work at the clinic. She had worked there for 16 years. The clinic was less than a quarter of a mile from her home, in the same neighborhood where she had been born. According to Sashimi, she knew almost everyone in the neighborhood, could help with a current census, and, according to her friend, the woman living next to the clinic, "everyone knows she knows everything about people in the neighborhood."
Today, with the help of Save the Children and using materials donated by relief agencies like Merlin, Sashimi is able to put her grief aside for a few hours each day to serve the needs of her neighbors. In many ways, I feel her story really is a metaphor for her devastated city and community. Perhaps, even, she is everyman in the struggle for human survival. Hers is as much a story of survival and rebirth as it is a story of generosity and caring. In the end one senses that for Bam, Sashimi, and all the survivors of a morning of terror, there will be another day.…