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
This is the second installment
on the experiences that I have had so far in Iran [See: "Small
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
do not maintain
high quality standards, and unless we monitor their work closely, they will
cut corners to finish the jobs faster and cheaper.
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
As a matter of fact, the locals have a much more
positive view of foreigners than they do of local authorities.
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
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
That's it for now. Take care of yourself and talk
to you soon.
Love and Ghorbanat,
goodbye to spam!