The 'miracle of Bam': an old woman emerges from her nine-day tomb

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The Independent Online

They were calling it a miracle yesterday - with some justification, as Iranian rescue workers pulled a woman, believed to be in her late 90s, alive and apparently in good health from the rubble in Bam a full eight days after an earthquake destroyed the city.

They were calling it a miracle yesterday - with some justification, as Iranian rescue workers pulled a woman, believed to be in her late 90s, alive and apparently in good health from the rubble in Bam a full eight days after an earthquake destroyed the city.

"She doesn't have a scratch on her face," said Masoumeh Malek of the Red Crescent. The woman, Shahrbanou Mazandarani, was located by sniffer dogs in the ruins of a collapsed building. Soldiers saw a hand protruding from the rubble then heard a weak voice and, after three hours, succeeded in digging her out.

Otherwise there is little now to disturb the rubble of the devastated city. A week ago the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery was a roaring, dusty swarm of activity, with heavy machinery digging mass graves and queues of trucks disgorging bodies for burial. Now, with almost 30,000 earthquake victims laid to rest, new arrivals have slowed to a trickle.

Small knots of survivors gather around burial plots, but one young man comes alone. He limps to a grave - the resting-place of every other member of his large family - and sits down in the dirt, crying disconsolately.

The quake that destroyed this mud-brick city was extraordinarily concentrated - travel more than five miles outside Bam in any direction and there is no damage - but the final toll could be the worst in any natural disaster in decades, exceeding Iran's grim record from 1990 when a quake in the north of the country left 35,000 dead.

Its scale prompted the first reduction in hostility for more than two decades between Iran and the US, which sent rescue teams and eased sanctions to allow aid to flow in more quickly, but this weekend it was doubtful whether there would be any lasting change in relations. An American offer to send a high-level delegation was rejected by the Iranian leadership.

Long-term aid will certainly be needed if the Iranian government is to fulfil its pledge to rebuild Bam within two years. But the question is whether the survivors have the stomach for such a project. Those left alive are cursing themselves for failing to act on the warning tremors before the catastrophe. On Christmas night the ground shook several times, making eerie noises, but such shocks are common in this unstable zone, and most inhabitants of the city simply went back to sleep.

"We were sitting inside and I was playing with my six- month-old son. There was a huge tremor and we ran out," said Azam Deghani, standing by a line of tents at a road near the cemetery. "When nothing else happened we went back inside, and later on the earthquake struck. I dragged myself out, but I have no idea what happened to my baby."

Ali Reza Shokrani woke early and left for work. When the quake hit minutes later he was knocked to the ground. He ran back to find the house in ruins and his family buried alive. Seven people died. "I only managed to save my little boy," he said.

In the centre of Bam, more than three-quarters of the buildings sustained heavy damage. In some blocks, not a house remained standing.

"I was trapped for two hours," said Akram Zangi, a 23-year-old woman standing by the tent she now shares with four other families. She bears scars on her hands from trying to claw through the walls. "My parents' room collapsed and they were killed but I was in another with the children. We were screaming for the neighbours to come and save us. We thought it was only our house until my brother dug his way through to us."

For much of 26 December there were no emergency services or help from outside. The healthy were caught in a horrible dilemma: whether to take those they had saved to hospital or to dig deeper for other family members, neighbours and friends. At the prison, which was undamaged, authorities declared a general amnesty and released the inmates to help clear the rubble.

That night, a biting cold set in, freezing those who still lay alive in the rubble, but their numbers were few. Mud-brick walls and ceilings crumbled to dust, preventing the creation of air pockets and choking survivors.

Now almost all of Bam's remaining residents have temporary shelter. Tents rise from every ruin in the city, which has taken on the air of a giant refugee camp, one in which the question of what to do next is constantly debated. "We haven't yet decided whether to stay here or not," said one survivor, Mahmoud Elahi. But then he added: "This is not a city for living in any more."

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