Iran: No replacements for prefab housing

EARTHQUAKE, Bam, Iran, 26 December 2003
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International pledges of aid to countries hit by the tsunami are growing quickly. But there is increasing concern that promises of hard cash may not be honoured.

International pledges of aid to countries hit by the tsunami are growing quickly. But there is increasing concern that promises of hard cash may not be honoured.

A year after the earthquake that destroyed the Iranian city of Bam, residents are angry that the reconstruction work has not been carried out faster and that the pledged aid has not materialised.

On 23 December, President Mohammed Khatami said that only $17m (£9.5m) of hard cash donations had actually been received, although the pledges ran far higher. Up to $1bn (£550m) had apparently been pledged after the earthquake on 26 December 2003, but much of that was in the form of soft loans. Some money was also returned by the Iranian government to donor countries. Christian Aid's report into the shortfall states that £18m of government pledges translated into £9.8m cash.

"I'm living in a state of limbo," said Azam, 27, who lost two brothers and a sister in the disaster. "They're about to take our prefab away because it was just emergency accommodation but they haven't given us a better one to move into yet. We don't know what to do. The mayor told me he was still waiting for one too. "

The Iranian government has faced charges of inefficiency, with accusations that aid money and donated equipment was misused in the first weeks of the relief operation. In the spring, Bam residents rioted over what they saw as the slow progress of reconstruction.

"People in Bam are frustrated because they still live in temporary shelters," said Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, on 3 January. He warned that countries would be made to honour their pledges both for Bam and victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Unlike the Asian catastrophe, the carnage of Bam was restricted to an area only a few kilometres in diameter. But still nobody knows how many of the approximately 100,000 townspeople died under the crumbling mud-brick walls. The government's most recent estimate of the death toll is 31,000, with tens of thousands more left homeless.

International aid agencies, combined with Iranian government and private groups, are still working hard on the ground. A masterplan for redevelopment was only recently completed but physical reconstruction of parts of the city and its outlying rural satellites has already begun.

Shahzad Afkhami now lives in a prefabricated house in a palm grove outside the city. The home she and her family shared for decades is now being rebuilt by a Swiss charity, which is working in predominantly rural areas. Other international NGOs are also working on rural reconstruction, assisted by Iranian government soft loans.

But much of the relief work is in private hands. Schools, clinics and orphanages have risen from the dust beneath the gentle foliage of palms and orange trees for which Bam was famous. Many are the work of Iranians who responded to the tragedy by setting up a host of small and medium charities that look after as many people as they can afford. Such was the mood of solidarity that across the country, housing blocks, schools and other community institutions collected money or gifts to support the survivors.

The Behesht-e Zahra cemetery - which in the days immediately after the quake seemed to stretch into the far distance - now seems smaller and neater. Brick and concrete boxes cover the mass graves, many of which are now topped by marble blocks naming those buried inside.

The ancient citadel, Arg-e Bam, which had sat almost exactly on top of the fault line and had come to define the oasis city, is also lost for ever. Where once tourists roamed through its deserted streets, there are now only archaeologists, examining the historical strata thrown open by the quake. Their research shows evidence of a city that has survived for thousands of years, through foreign invasions and murderous droughts.

It is evidence that suggests a new Bam will eventually rise from the rubble.