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Mostly grey
Before I traveled to Bam, I saw the situation as black and white

By Bijan Moshiri
April 21, 2004

Second email I recently sent to my brother from Iran.

Agha Saamaleik,

This is the second installment on the experiences that I have had so far in Iran [See: "Small increments"]. I am writing this from Bam, in a recently built house which is our organization's main office. It is a hot spring morning and from what the locals tell me, it is going to get much hotter than this, up to 45 degrees Celsius.

I arrived in Bam nine days ago not knowing what I was going to do here. The NGO I was supposed to work with ran into some budgeting problems and as a result could not sign a contract with me. But I soon received other offers and now am working with another NGO.

There are about ten people in our office, five foreigners and five Iranians. It is a pleasure to be working with the Spaniards. They are fun and have a good sense of humour. The head of our team is British, and he initially lived up to the stereotype of a polite, unemotional and (relatively) strict Brit. But as is often the case, once I got to know him I found him to be kind and with a good sense of humour.

In general, I have met so many interesting and unusual people here from all over the world. These are often highly-educated people who give up higher salaries in their own countries to travel all over the world to be part of humanitarian projects. Their salaries may be lower, but their work is often more emotionally fulfilling.

One of the members of our group is African. He is one of those really black ones (not brown, but black!). He is a water sanitation engineer partly educated in France, and he is a hard worker. Currently, I am working as his assistant and interpreter. We travel through Bam villages assessing the need for washrooms and showers and working with the local contractors to build the facilities.

Bam has been divided into fourteen zones, with each province responsible for one zone. The responsibility has been divided among the NGO's in a similar fashion, with each NGO working in one or two zones. The destruction here is terrible and complete. Everywhere you go, there are dusty roads alongside which tents are set up in front of destroyed houses. Each tent usually shelters one family which often includes parents, children and grandparents.

The weather is very hot and it is even hotter inside the tents. Behind the tents (where houses used to be) there is nothing but rubble and construction debris. When I travel to Tehran, people often ask me about the level of corruption in Bam and the extent to which the authorities steal from the people they are supposed to help. My answer is that before I traveled to Bam, I saw the situation as black and white (with the donations arriving and the authorities stealing). Now I realize that the picture is mostly grey.

There may be people who are using the situation to their own benefit (although I have not met any), but I have also met officials who seem to be doing what they can to help the people. Overall, there are several factors which make the task of recovering form the earthquake a difficult one.

The first is the extent of the destruction. It is amazing how much work there is to be done here. Even the most organized and advance country would have had its hands full trying to fully recover from a situation like this. A country like Iran would need at least a few more years. The second factor is lack of professionalism and systematic approach on behalf of the government in implementing aid projects. This would cause a problem on its own even if corruption did not exist. I will give a couple of examples.

Last week, I worked with a Danish psychological support team. They were observing the Iranian volunteers who went tent by tent talking to families and listening to people pouring out their emotions (on one occasion I was translating for a young woman who had lost all her four children.

Tears were quietly pouring down her face as she was talking. It was a good thing that I was wearing my sunglasses and that the conversation did not last long, as my own tears were choking me). The Iranian volunteers (mostly university students) are counseling people day after day listening to them pouring out their emotions without being debriefed themselves.

As a result, they experience severe cases of depression after couple of weeks of counseling and can not continue. Once they leave, fresh volunteers arrive to take their place and this cycle continues. The Danes are trying to teach the Iranians to organize debriefing sessions for their volunteers to prevent them from getting depressed and burning out.

Another example is the contractors our organization hires to make washrooms and showers for the locals. The contractors often do not maintain high quality standards, and unless we monitor their work closely, they will cut corners to finish the jobs faster and cheaper.

Finally, the attitude of the people affected by the earthquake also plays a very important role. They are often not interested in taking the initiative to improve their lives and recover from the disaster. In most cases, after three months since the earthquake, many people do nothing but complain that they have not received enough aid and that they are still waiting for more.

For example, I met a man of fifty who was loudly complaining about the government not having removed the remains of his destroyed house and build him a new one. A few meters away was the body of a dead sheep which was covered with plastic sheets. When I asked him about the sheep, he said that it was his and had died a couple of days ago. I could not understand why he had not found a shovel to burry the sheep.

This type of indecisive and (dare I say?) lazy attitude is common. I realize that a lot of people are still in shock, but there are also many who are obviously capable of taking the initiative but choose to hang around all day waiting for handouts and do nothing. Many attribute this indifference to high levels of opium addiction among the Bam population. Apparently, Bam was a major distribution center for the opium that arrived from Afghanistan and other places.

As I mentioned, the African fellow I work with is a hard worker. We work six days a week, and our schedule is from 8 AM to 8 PM. The local population is kind toward the foreigners and very much appreciates their presence.

As a matter of fact, the locals have a much more positive view of foreigners than they do of local authorities. They commonly believe that the foreigners provide the authorities with funds and supplies, but little of that aid gets to the people due to corruption. I am not sure how much corruption actually exists, as I have met many government representatives who seem to be doing what they can to help the situation.

Nevertheless, a few nights ago, there were protests in the streets of Bam with people burning cars and buildings. I actually passed the site shortly before the riots begun. The army was called in, and apparently some people were shot at.

(Incidentally, Shabnam had come to Bam the same night for a short visit from Shiraz. She was at the U.N. camp at the time of the riots and was with the Norwegian team. She told me that the Norwegians had two commandos for security purposes, and these guys were the two biggest humans being she had seen in her life. Both were more than two meters tall with very thick and muscular bodies :) She said that the Norwegians were extremely well-organized and ready to evacuate at any moment, but the riots did not last.)

One thing that I have come to like about the hospitality of the local population is their lack of prejudice. They are as kind towards the Americans as they are towards the Africans or the Europeans. They do not care where the foreigners come from, what language they speak or what colour they are. I have given some thought to what makes foreigners attractive to the locals. One reason is the inherent Iranian hospitality. The other is that the local population perceives the foreigners to be honest and professional.

That's it for now. Take care of yourself and talk to you soon.

Love and Ghorbanat,


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