Iran's killer quake

Published : Jan 16, 2004 00:00 IST

A woman's body lying half buried in rubble. - VAHID SALEMI/AP

A woman's body lying half buried in rubble. - VAHID SALEMI/AP

A powerful earthquake in the early hours of December 26 leaves in its trail death and destruction of unimaginable proportions in the Iranian heritage city of Bam.

IT has been the most devastating earthquake in the history of Iran. Two days after the killer quake struck the ancient city of Bam, in southeastern Iran, Iranian authorities estimated that more than 20,000 people had lost their lives. Another 30,000 people are said to be seriously injured. Iranian Health Minister Ahmad Pezeshkian has, however, made the dire prediction that the toll could go up to 40,000. He said that up to 70 per cent of Bam's population of around 100,000 have either been killed or injured.

Though the earthquake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale and hit Bam in the pre-dawn hours of December 26, was only as intense as the one that hit parts of California, United States, before Christmas, the damage caused to life and infrastructure in Bam was almost beyond imagination. In California, only a handful of people were killed and a few buildings suffered damage. Unlike in the U.S. and many other parts of the developed world, the buildings in the old city of Bam were not built to withstand quakes of this magnitude. In fact, many of the structures in Bam were rudimentary ones built of mud and bricks. Most of the citizens of Bam were asleep on that bitterly cold night when the earthquake struck.

Bam, described as "the emerald of the desert", is an important part of the historical and cultural heritage of Iran. It is situated on the ancient Silk Route passing through Central Asia and was an important commercial and trading centre linking East Asia and Europe. Bam's importance declined after it fell to Afghan invaders in the early 18th century. Its days of glory were in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was under the control of the Safavid rulers of Persia. One of the buildings flattened by the quake was a 2000-year citadel - the Arg-e-Bam. This was the largest mud-brick structure in the world. The city centre consisted almost entirely of houses built of mud bricks, clay, straws and trunks of palm trees. Bam had prospered in the medieval times also because it was a centre of pilgrimage for Zoroastrians who visited the fire temple located there. The grand mosque in the city dates to the 10th century. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has recognised the city as a world heritage site. It has been among the top destinations for international tourists visiting Iran.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called the quake a national calamity, and declared three days of national mourning. The President admitted that Iran could not cope with it on its own, given the magnitude of the disaster. "The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all our needs," Khatami told the Iranian people. He said that he would welcome help from all corners of the world, with the exception of Israel. The U.S. President George W. Bush, who had put Iran among the three countries constituting the "axis of evil", was quick to pledge aid and assistance to the quake victims.

The Iranian Red Crescent Society, which has considerable expertise in dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes, is trying its best to cope with the task of finding thousands of people who are still trapped in the debris. Earthquakes are frequent occurrences in Iran. Since 1991, according to official figures, there have been more than 1,000 quakes, which have claimed more than 17,600 lives and injured 53,000 people. The last major earthquake in Iran was in June 2002, when tremors measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit northwestern Iran, killing 235 people. An earthquake measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale hit Bam in late August of 2003 but there were no casualties then. Iranian officials had told this correspondent during a visit to Teheran in the mid-1990s that one reason why Iran was forced to turn to nuclear power was that the building of dams to generate electricity was not feasible in the earthquake-prone region.

Reaching medical aid and relief to Bam has not been easy. The town is more than 1,000 km away from Teheran, the capital, and is surrounded by a desert. All hospitals, dispensaries and government offices in the city have been flattened by the quake. Seventy per cent of the city has been reduced to rubble. The airport is busy with planes landing and taking off frequently. In the first day itself, the government sent 19 aircraft to ferry the injured to hospitals in Teheran. A makeshift hospital has come up at the airport.

Although pledges of assistance have come immediately from the international community, humanitarian aid started trickling in only after 48 hours of the event. Entire families have been wiped out. The stench of rotting corpses has started pervading the town. Hundreds of bodies have been buried in mass graves, complicating matters is the sub-zero temperatures. Almost all the survivors in Bam are at the mercy of the elements and have been sleeping in the biting cold. The earthquake has snapped water, power and gas lines. Also out in the cold are more than 120,000 people living in the outlying villages, which have also been affected by the earthquake.

On December 28, two US C-130 Hercules aircraft landed at the Kerman airport near Bam, carrying relief materials. This has been a significant event as it is the first time since 1980 that an American aircraft has landed on Iranian soil. In 1980, the U.S. had launched a military mission to rescue Americans held hostage in Teheran. That mission ended in a fiasco, further souring U.S.-Iran relations. The Bush administration is also sending 200 American personnel to help in the relief work. An American State Department spokesman said that his country's help to the earthquake victims "will not alter the tone or intensity of our dialogue with the Iranians in other matters of grave concern".

The United Nations has released an emergency grant of $90,000 to help Iran tackle the aftermath of the quake. The U.N. has also sent experts to assess the damage. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has sent medical kits and called for $350,000 in immediate donations. Aid from more than 21 countries has either reached or is on its way to the earthquake-hit area. Iranians are rushing to Bam to help their compatriots, creating huge traffic jams in the process and hampering relief work. Russia has dispatched rapid-response units of doctors, paramedics, and sniffer dogs and their handlers. The British and Italian governments have also sent sniffer dog units. Sniffer dogs have helped rescue some people trapped inside the rubble almost as soon as they were deployed in Bam and the surrounding areas. However, experts in disaster relief operations are pessimistic about the chances of finding many more survivors. Roland Schlacter, head of the Swiss rescue team, told the media in Iran that the way the buildings are constructed in the area leaves "very few air spaces when they collapse".

Japan and China are pitching in with tents, blankets and other supplies. Pakistan has sent two planeloads of relief supplies. India has put its Army Medical Corps at the disposal of the Iranian quake victims. New Delhi has conveyed to Teheran that it is ready to rush in medicines and set up an emergency field hospital to cater to the needs of the victims. Political parties in India have also announced contributions for the victims of the earthquake.

"The fatal disaster has shaken the heart of the nation. World nations sympathised with Iran despite so many atrocities, cruelties and violent acts around the world," Khatami told the Iranian people in a televised address.

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