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Last Updated: Monday, 9 August, 2004, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Recovery brings social change to Bam

By Lucy Williamson
BBC World Service Middle East reporter, Bam

The dust has settled in the southern Iranian town of Bam - seven months after the earthquake which killed at least 22,000 people and destroyed some 90% of the historic town. Now the relief effort is over and the master plan, which will map out everything from the width of Bam's roads, to the size of its houses, is being finalised.

Line of new housing in Bam (Picture by Lucy Williamson)
Many Bam residents have been rehoused in neat rows of white pre-fabricated houses
But as the slow task of rebuilding begins, those left behind are having to face up to changes in themselves and their society.

Driving through Bam these days, you don't pass fields of tents any more. Now there are rows of white pre-fabricated houses, strung out along the road like small bright teeth; and stalls set up in shipping containers; and traffic.

But with the crisis settling into an awkward normality, new problems are rising to the surface.

Mr Jouhari is just back from honeymoon when I call at his new prefab house, set down among the rubble of his former home.

He lost his first wife in the earthquake. Remarrying was his way of easing his feelings of grief and depression. But Mr Jouhari worries about some of the other ways people in the town are finding relief.

"In one camp a boy was arrested for having an affair with a girl from the same camp," he says.

"The boy had lost his family so nobody could do anything. The only thing the family of the girl could do was to kick him out and send him to another camp."

Social codes crack

Sex outside marriage is not only a social taboo in Iran, it's also illegal.

Like many provincial towns, Bam is a conservative place, but with families being forced to make their homes in the street, or in camps, the cracks in Bam's strict social codes are being exposed.

Family outside new housing in Bam (Picture by Lucy Williamson)
Social change is coming to the conservative town of Bam as rebuilding continues
Suddenly the private life of Bam isn't private anymore.

Opium addiction, alcohol, relationships outside marriage - these were all there before, says Siamak Razavi, a sociologist working with a local children's organisation, but they were hidden behind the walls of the houses.

According to Mr Razavi, the earthquake has also highlighted the failures of the local authorities.

"Before the earthquake, decisions were taken at the top and dictated to the bottom," he says.

"This hierarchical system - top to bottom - revealed its weakness because there was confusion when the earthquake happened."

'Burden of guilt'

The city council offices are in a tiny replica of part of the town's famous citadel, built on a traffic island and surrounded by plastic orange palm trees.

Inside, the head of head of Bam city council, Abbas Ismaili, sits slumped in a chair, unresponsive and leaking tears.

Head of Bam city council, Abbas Ismaili (Picture by Lucy Williamson)
Abbas Ismaili, head of Bam city council, admits to a burden of guilt over the quake
The quake took its toll on the city officials too. All seven members of the council lost friends and family in the disaster.

"A couple of nights ago I felt I really needed someone to talk to, one of my friends, but I couldn't find anyone," Mr Ismaili tells me.

"I've been living in this town for 40 years, I'm a doctor, I've been involved in social work, I've established relationships with people, I've been involved in the destiny of my city, but I couldn't find anyone to talk to."

He admits that there's a burden of guilt that weighs on him since the earthquake, but he also points out the uselessness of hindsight.

"There wasn't any unified surveillance for making sure the building standards were observed - banks had their own engineers, the Education Department had their own.

"And unfortunately, a lot of the modern buildings in the city - hospitals, the fire services - didn't survive. People had to remove the bodies of their relatives from the rubble themselves."

Grass roots groups emerge

Responsibility for making sure all buildings in Bam conform to safety regulations is now in the hands of Iran's Association of Engineers. But the question is whether this will really change the situation on the ground.

Partly destroyed building in Bam (Picture by Lucy Williamson)
About 90% of Bam was destroyed in the earthquake
Mr Razavi says the local authorities are still struggling to meet the huge needs of Bam's population, and into this gap are stepping grassroots organisations like his.

It might focus on rebuilding family life, but it also has on its agenda issues like women's rights and local empowerment.

"We all try to change things a little from top-down to bottom-up," he says.

"The local community can empower people to manage disaster."

And maybe, I suggest, this will mean the people of Bam will have a different relationship to the authorities.

"It could change, it's a way of managing the social system - better and with less corrupt," Dr Razavi says.

Less corruption and more democracy? It's a question he didn't want to answer.

It can be difficult for Iranians to talk about democracy to a Western journalist.

Mr Razavi insists the government has nothing to fear from local groups organising in Bam.

But the problems of this town seven months after the earthquake present challenges that go right to the heart of what kind of society Iran wants to be.

You can hear more from Lucy Williamson on the situation in Bam, in Monday's edition of Analysis, broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Concealed fault caused Bam quake
15 Jun 04  |  Science/Nature
Iran lowers Bam earthquake toll
29 Mar 04  |  Middle East
Starting from scratch in Bam
02 Jan 04  |  Middle East
Bam: Jewel of Iranian heritage
27 Dec 03  |  Middle East


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