Amid the Rubble: Survivors of Bam's Earthquake

Article excerpt

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. …