Survivors of earthquake face cold and disease

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The Independent Online

A mood of grim resignation has settled over the devastated city of Bam and its surrounding villages. About half the former population of the town is homeless; up to a quarter is dead.

A mood of grim resignation has settled over the devastated city of Bam and its surrounding villages. About half the former population of the town is homeless; up to a quarter is dead.

In the freezing night, many are still without shelter of any kind and most have only the flimsiest of tents or makeshift tarpaulin shelters. Increasing numbers are fleeing the city in cars and pick-up trucks, heavily loaded down with possessions salvaged from their ruined houses.

"I am from Bam but I'm going to a village outside," said Ali, a young man sat in the front of a pick-up truck.

He was obviously still in deep shock and looked listlessly at the dashboard, a surgical dressing on his forehead and a fresh scar running down his right cheek. "There is no food or shelter there either and we will have to sleep outside with just blankets. Here in the city, there is only rubble."

Large parts of central Bam are now becoming depopulated. The dust has settled to create a blanket inches thick that leaps into the air with every footfall. The smell of decomposing flesh is strong here, indicating that many bodies have yet to be recovered. But all hope of finding people alive is not yet lost, following the recent discovery of two children, seriously injured but alive, beneath the rubble of a destroyed house when chirping canaries attracted the attention of rescue workers near by.

Even so, bulldozers move in to clear the debris. The risk of disease is great, but United Nations officials say the cold weather and prompt distribution of clean water have, so far, pre-empted an epidemic. Most survivors escaped in their nightclothes and can wear only what was salvaged from the rubble. These are city dwellers, used to the comforts of a modern lifestyle and unable to cope with temperatures that dip below freezing at night.

One man said looters have started to come into Bam from other areas. They pretend a house is theirs and start digging for valuables. Checkpoints have been erected to catch them as they leave the city.

On the main streets, some families have set up tents; more are packing what few belongings they can pull from the wreckage and are driving away. Refugees clog the streets. Blankets, mattresses and chairs are the usual cargo. In other trucks and cars, I saw bicycles, sewing machines, dinner services and crates of oranges. On top of one pile sat a boy, his black headscarf fluttering behind him as his truck roars away.

Around the entrance to the Red Crescent compound was a desperate crowd of the homeless. A large, orange truck with an Isfahan licence plate pulled up and a man started throwing canisters of water from the top. There was a rush forward, stopping traffic and causing soldiers to intervene. The truck was forced to pull away and the crowd dispersed in disappointment.

Mohammed is from the village of Ghodarat, a few miles outside the city. There are no tents there and, at night, the 10 surviving members of his extended family have to huddle around a fire for warmth. Three are small children, pretty girls with woollen gloves and hats.

"God knows what we will do now," he said. "The children cannot survive like this. We come into the city every day to try and find tents or food. They say, 'Go back to your village', but there is nothing there." UN officials say most people now have some form of shelter, but most of it is inadequate. Ted Pearn, head of the UN co-ordination team, said: "This is an ongoing operation regarding medical aid and shelter. Perhaps stop-gap prefabs will be put up before the reconstruction starts."

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, visiting the city on Monday, pledged it would be rebuilt. But, for many residents, the idea of a future here is meaningless.