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Misery's company

Friday, December 31, 2004

TEHRAN, Iran -- The people of Bam, an Iranian town devastated by an earthquake a year ago, know what's ahead for the survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami: broken hearts, slow rebuilding and unfulfilled promises of aid. But Bam presents itself as proof of man's capacity to overcome.

Zohreh Safa, a teacher in the historic southeastern town where most people still live in temporary housing, was surprised to find her elementary school pupils asking how they can help the tsunami victims.

"The kids are right. The world's people helped Bam last year and this time it's our turn to help," she said.

Fund raiser for Asia

Abbas Esmaili, a city councilman who lost his mother, sister and brother in the quake, said he was helping to organize a fund-raising drive for southern Asia.

His advice to the survivors: "Unfortunately, there is no way except to persevere."

A year ago, it was Bam that was in desperate need: 26,000 residents were killed, homes and orchards were flattened and its point of pride -- a beautiful centuries-old mud-brick citadel -- was reduced in part to dust.

Most of the townspeople still turn out every Friday in the graveyard, visiting the resting places of relatives killed in the disaster, said Ali Jewshai, a local official.

Most of the city's 100,000 people are still living in prefabricated, temporary housing while new homes are built to replace the 15,000 destroyed.

A tenth of the population -- mostly women and young people -- suffers symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and are receiving government counseling. Most of the 5,000 children orphaned by the quake remain in state care, many of them suffering from depression, Jewshai said. Drug use has also increased as some try to find an escape from their grief.

"The town is still heartbroken," Jewshai said.

Bam's 6.6-magnitude quake came a year to the day before the much more powerful 9.0-magnitude quake that struck near Indonesia on Sunday, causing massive waves that wiped out coastlines in 11 nations around the Indian Ocean, killed tens of thousands and left millions homeless.

U.N. officials are saying the region will need the biggest international relief effort ever seen -- surpassing that for Bam.

But one of Bam's lessons is that pledges do not equal cash. Iranian officials have complained that of the $1.1 billion in aid promised by foreign countries and organizations, only $17.5 million has been sent. Most of the $415 million spent so far on reconstruction has come from government coffers.

Nevertheless, amid the sadness, reconstruction has gone ahead in the town, located in the deserts 500 miles southeast of the capital, Tehran.

"I lost my wife, two children and parents in the quake," said farmer Ghasem Naroui. "But I rebuilt both my palm garden and house to tell the people they should resist problems."

Date palm orchards were the mainstay of Bam's economy -- and a priority in the rebuilding.

A vital irrigation system of some 300 miles of pipe was among the first pieces of infrastructure to be restored. Bam's palm orchards produced thousands of tons of dates this year.

The health infrastructure was another priority. A French-built general hospital is set to open in two months. A recent Health Department report said infectious diseases have been successfully controlled in Bam.

The government also has managed to restore potable water, electricity, phone lines and other utilities.

Work on a 140-mile railroad connecting Bam to Kerman was been interrupted by the quake, but the link was completed and started operation last week.

The rest of the railroad, which will lead into Pakistan and on into South Asia, is under construction, part of a plan to restore some of Bam's ancient significance. The town was a major stop on the Silk Road in medieval times, located on routes to the Indian subcontinent to the east and the Persian Gulf to the south.

Government officials had promised to rebuild the Citadel of Bam, which once drew thousands of tourists every year. The effort has begun, but is expected to take years. The citadel stretched over 2 1/2 square miles and was the world's largest mud-brick fortress.

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