Scars run deep in earthquake-shattered Iranian town

TRAGEDY'S TOLL: A year after a massive quake killed at least 30,000, residents of Bam are still rebuilding their lives -- and grappling with the loss of loved ones


Sat, Dec 25, 2004 - Page 6

When, after three days of digging, the bodies of Azam Amiri's husband, parents, two brothers and a sister were hauled out of the rubble that had been her home in Bam, she felt relief that the waiting was over.

But one year after the earthquake that killed at least 30,000 people in this dusty desert town in southern Iran, Azam is left with the pain and grief of losing her family.

"If God was just, he would have taken me too," sobbed the maths teacher as she sat, clad in black, in the staff room at a girls' high school this week.

The earthquake struck in the early hours of Boxing Day last year, burying almost a quarter of Bam's population.

Azam, in her late 30s with two small children, says she has to control her emotions in class to keep up the morale of her pupils.

But she regularly bursts into tears when she goes home.

"We didn't want a bunch of old clothes that they distributed. We needed help with our mental state," she says as other teachers in the prefabricated room agree with quiet nods.

"You cannot find anyone here who does not need help," says psychologist Abbas Zamyad, who conducts counseling sessions at the school. "Many suffer from deep depression, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder."

In the regular group counselling sessions inside the big tents erected in the town by Unicef and other aid agencies, mixed groups of adults and children talk about the loss of their friends, their homes and their neighborhood. Some cry; some are silent; some talk openly about how the earthquake changed their lives.

At Azam's school, a group of 15-year-olds become more tearful as their counseling session progresses. One girl, who lost a cousin, says she will not come to the next session as it is too painful.

Another girl, whose elder sister died, says she feels better only for a short while after these sessions.

"I never want to see my parents sad again. I wish I die before them so that I will not have to go through this again," she says.

On the other side of town, small orphaned children at a day-care centre are also trying to cope with loss and grief. Some 50 children between the ages of three and 12 are here. They are among nearly 4,000 who have lost either one or both parents. According to the staff, the children are becoming more talkative and playful, and in their drawings they now use colors rather than the black and brown they used in the months immediately after the earthquake.

Ten-year-old Aida is quieter than most.

"I was with my mum in Jiroft [a neighboring town] when it happened," she says. "We came back and looked through the rubble and found my dad who had died. We took his body to the cemetery and buried him."

While emotional scars remain deep, the efforts of many to rebuild their lives and homes are more encouraging.

A man named Akbar is building a prefabricated structure to replace his destroyed guest house. A US tourist staying there died in the earthquake. Today he is philosophical. He says he has learned that one should not be attached to what he calls "this material world."

"As long as there is life there is hope. As long as you are alive, you should struggle and do something. But don't think these are yours and you are going to live forever. This is what I have learned," he says. He adds quickly: "Tell everyone Akbar's guest house is open for business."