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Iran Quake Leaves Lasting Aftershock

In the Iranian city of Bam residents suffer psychological problems one year after a massive earthquake killed more than 40,000 of their relatives, friends and neighbors, the Red Cross federation said on Monday. 

For the first time in its history, the agency deployed a psychological support program immediately after the disaster, and said it hoped to use the lessons that are still being learnt when it tackles the next crisis.


Some 75,000 people were left homeless by the quake that struck on December 26, 2003, and almost every family in the city of about 120,000 lost a loved one, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said.


"Twelve months later, signs of the devastation are still evident, not just in the collapsed buildings but in people's minds," said Mohammed Mukhier, head of the international federation's operations in Iran.


The impact of the quake continues to manifest itself through "sleeping disorders, the inability to complete routine tasks, explosive behavior, domestic violence and a dramatic increase in drug dependence," said the IFRC.


There had also been a dramatic increase in drug abuse.


Positive experience


However, Mukhier said the model of integrating psychological support into a relief effort following a disaster had shown positive results.


"Our experience in Iran can be used in response to future disasters elsewhere, and we should take care to provide that support to the victims and to rescue workers," he said in a statement.


A team of Red Crescent aid workers in Bam have interviewed more than 20,000 people following the quake.


Out of some 9,300 who were identified as needing psychological support, more than 5,600 have received counseling.


The types of support include group therapy, painting, sewing, computer classes and play therapy for children, the federation explained.


"The aim of the group activities is to get people to talk about their experiences and not to keep them tucked away in an isolated corner in their minds," said Aghdas Coffee, who heads the program, which is supported by the Red Cross Societies of Iceland, Denmark and Italy.


The European Union's humanitarian office is the main backer of the initiative, which continues to receive new patients.


In September alone, 129 new patients diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were registered at one Red Crescent counseling center.


"The problem is compounded by an increase in drug addiction following the earthquake," the federation said, noting that the city lay on the smuggling route through Iran from Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Physical restructuring work is also ongoing after the tremor, which measured 6.5 on the Richter scale, destroyed all 131 schools in the city as well as its hospitals and clinics, the federation added.


Historical recall


It was 26 minutes and 52 seconds after 5 AM on December 26, 2003 when the earth shook.


American seismologists at the World Data Center measured "the event" at 6.5 on the Richter scale and located it at 28.9 degrees north, 58.2 degrees east.


Moments later in the slumbering Iranian city of Bam, between 6,000 and 15,000 people lay dead, 30,000 were injured, the historic mud-built fortress had collapsed along with 70 percent of the houses, and all communications with the outside world were cut off.


Unable to get a clear picture from the ground, the Iranian army sent up five helicopters and found block after block of destroyed homes.


As news of the disaster spread, the roads around Bam became choked with people trying to leave the town or enter it to check on relatives, hampering rescue efforts.


In the town, distraught survivors wept beside corpses shrouded in blankets as mechanized diggers began hollowing out trenches where victims were buried without ceremony, by the hundreds.


"I have lost all my family. My parents, my grandmother and two sisters are under the rubble," Maryam, 17, told a reporter.


At the city's only cemetery, a crowd of about 1,000 wailed and beat their chests and heads over some 500 corpses that lay on the ground.


Mohammed Karimi, in his 30s, was at the cemetery with the bodies of his wife and 4-year-old daughter. "There is nothing but devastation and debris," he said.


The death toll was confirmed later to be at least 40,000.


Bam, with a population of around 200,000, is one of the best-known towns in Iran. Built around an oasis in the desert, it lay on the ancient Silk Road and its spectacular citadel, dating back more than two millennia, had become a major tourist attraction.


As darkness fell and homeless survivors shivered in below-freezing temperatures, the full scale of the disaster was still unclear.


Traffic jams made access difficult, there was no electricity, and telephones, including mobile services, were cut off by the earthquake.


The local airport was still functioning but Bam's two hospitals were not. The earthquake had wrecked them, too.


The injured, 90 percent of whom were described as critically ill, were being ferried by any available transport to the provincial capital of Kerman, 176 kilometers away, or treated on the spot in tents set up by the Red Crescent.


President Mohammed Khatami, who chaired an emergency meeting, declared three days of mourning.


He ordered the formation of a crisis center and dispatched the interior and transport ministers to the area to assess the needs of survivors.


The first 48 hours would be critical, he said. Iran needed equipment to find those trapped alive and also heavy machinery to lift the rubble.


The interior minister, Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari, said the two priorities were dealing with people trapped under collapsed buildings and transferring the injured to other areas.


Four transport planes had already carried some of the injured out of the area, he told Iranian television.


He said it was also imperative to set up tents for the homeless. Night-time temperatures were expected to drop to minus 6˚C.


Government ministries set up bank accounts for people to donate funds, and launched appeals for tinned food, warm clothing and blankets.


Iran suffers frequent earthquakes and is relatively well-organized for coping with the aftermath, though casualties tend to be high because buildings are not constructed to withstand tremors.


In October 2003, a leading Iranian earthquake expert warned that earthquake education in Iran was very poor.


"Most people think what God wills will happen. This is absolutely wrong. This thinking is poisonous," said Bahram Akasheh, professor of geophysics at Tehran University.


The country's another deadly earthquake, in June 1990, devastated the Caspian regions of Gilan and Zanjan.


It killed about 35,000 people, injured 100,000 and left 500,000 homeless.


The Iranian Government soon appealed for international help. Germany, Russia, Britain, the United States and other countries sent their aids to Iran.


Historic Silk Road city


The ancient, pre-Islamic Arg-i-Bam or Citadel of Bam, founded more than 2,000 years ago and a United Nations world heritage site made of mud bricks, clay and straw, was flattened.


"The historic quarter of Bam has been completely destroyed and many of our countrymen are underneath the ruins," said Mohammad Ali Karimi, the governor of Kerman Province, where Bam, 960 kilometers Southeast of Teheran, is located on the edge of the Lut Desert.


The city is made entirely of mud bricks, clay, straw and the trunks of palm trees and was originally founded during the Sassanian period (224-637).


Some of the surviving structures date from before the 12th century, most of what remains was built during the Safavid period (1502-1722).


During Safavid times, the city occupied 6 square kilometers, was surrounded by a rampart with 38 towers, and had between 9,000 and 13,000 inhabitants.


Bam prospered because of pilgrims visiting its Zoroastrian Fire Temple and as a commercial and trading center on the famous Silk Road.


Upon the site of the Zoroastrian temple the Jame Mosque was built during the Saffarian period (866-903) and adjacent to this mosque is the tomb of Mirza Naiim, a mystic and astronomer who lived three hundred years ago.


(China Daily December 24, 2004)

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