Iran

Iran: Five years after the Bam earthquake - When victims become volunteers

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By Till Mayer in Bam, Iran

Two days ago, Abbas Sedri saved another life - up in the snow-capped mountain peaks which can be glimpsed through the date palms in his garden. He fought his way along the cliffs in the biting cold, through snow and ice. His colleagues from the Red Crescent, with respect in their voices, call him the "mountain rescuer". All the 50-year-old man will say is "It was not an easy task".

Behind him, to the left and the right, are two small prefabricated huts, with yellow clinkers shining in between. All around the recently built house on the edge of Bam are green date palms. "It is not completely finished. But it soon will be," laughs Abbas Sedri, rejoicing at the prospect of once again living in a spacious walled house after five years.

Life will also be a bit easier for his 80-year-old mother, as the prefabricated housing offered little more than protection against wind and inclement weather. Every morning, the old woman struggles to make her way with the help of a cane to the makeshift bathroom before the high garden wall. For her, the short walk is a difficult one. When the earth moved in Bam on 26 December 2003, a bit of rubble hit her leg. The remains of the former house have been cleared away, but her pain has lingered.

Abbas Sedri never complains about his fate. With the help of a low-interest government loan, he has built himself another house. He did not have to bury his own children, like so many others. But countless relatives, friends and neighbours are gone forever.

Five years after the disaster, he often has trouble understanding. There are times when he cannot grasp how, in a few seconds, the life of an entire city could change so dramatically - how 26,000 people could perish in a heartbeat, how an entire city could be reduced to a pile of rubble. How suddenly there are countless gravestones recounting the tragic fate of children. Then Abbas Sedri must fight back the tears welling up inside him, just like everyone else in Bam.

What he used to prefer was to get into his taxi, turn the engine on and drive through a city that no longer exists. Past the old covered market with its imposing vaults straight to the towering citadel - the centuries-old adobe fortress which was the city's pride and joy.

There, two or three tourists might have asked him to take them back to their hotel in his elderly Payman. Today, however, the Arg is piled high with debris. Since 26 December 2003, Bam has lost its appeal for tourists.

"That will change one day," hopes the 50-year-old. Archaeologists are supporting the rebuilding process. It is a painstaking puzzle. But the first walls are already up. In the city, many parts of the sprawling new bazaar are almost finished, and the first shops are due to open soon.

"Reconstruction is moving ahead," says the honorary Red Crescent volunteer proudly. Abbas Sedri invites me to take a ride in his taxi: the first stop has to be the splendid new football stadium donated by the Spanish football club Real Madrid. We pass brand-new houses and steel girders reaching up into the sky.

"Now, all of the houses are earthquake-proof", explains Abbas Sedri. Yet we can still see gaps between the new buildings and the construction sites - mounds rising in the middle of nowhere. "Often, whole families died in the earthquake," he says softly. Sometimes no one is left to rebuild at a particular spot.

The taxi pulls up to a large, yellow brick building. The Ferdousi school was built by the Japanese Red Cross, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has financed the reconstruction of nine additional schools in Bam, two health posts and an orthopaedic centre.

School principal Mansour Yousefi is very protective of his 200 students. "Every one of them has suffered so much. It makes me proud to see how hard they study," he says. "We are preparing the youngsters to study medicine among other things. In five years we will have the first doctors in Bam who started their medical studies in 2006 in the Ferdousi school.".

In one room sits Sina Motamedi. The 16-year-old aspires to be a doctor whatever it takes once he finishes school. "Bam needs me and I want to stay. It is my home town," says the young man.

The Red Crescent centre in Bam is a stone's throw from the school. Amidst the constant hum of sewing machines on the first floor, women learn the art of sewing. The class is part of the Red Crescent's psychosocial programme. Next door, sports classes are available at the gym run by the Red Crescent's youth organization.

"The German Red Cross is paying for renovating and rebuilding the Red Crescent centre. I was really impressed to see all of this help flooding in from all over the world and to realize that there is a movement where men and women from all nations work together, quite simply, to help," explains Abbas Sedri.

Since the disaster, the Red Crescent has become an important part of everyday life. "Before the earthquake we had 400 volunteers in Bam, and now we have 3,000," reports the local chairman, Hosseinpour.

Abbas Sedri also came to the Red Crescent in the aftermath of the earthquake. "I helped to distribute tents and food. When something so terrible happens, you have to pull together. 26 December 2003 showed me how important it is to be prepared for such a disaster. This is why the Red Crescent teaches classes for young people in the schools," he says.

The taxi driver pulls two certificates out of his breast pocket. "I started five years ago as a Red Crescent volunteer. Now I am a trainer; these are my certificates," he explains.

Now we climb back into the taxi for the return trip to the almost finished house with the date palms. On the way we pass gigantic warehouses, where tonnes of relief supplies are stored for an emergency.

"Before the earthquake we had 400 square metres of storage space. Now we have 7,000 square metres. We have learned a great deal from the earthquake; it has changed our lives in many ways", says Abbas Sedri thoughtfully.

The mountaintops shimmer through the date palms in his garden. Two days ago, Abbas Sedri's journey from an earthquake survivor to a Red Crescent volunteer saved a man's life.