December 28, 2003


Tragedy overwhelms quake city (Jason Burke, Kamal Ahmed and Neda Ghasemi in Tehran, December 28, 2003, The Observer)

'The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs,' said Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, declaring three days of mourning. He has opened Iranian airspace to all planes carrying aid or relief workers and waived visas for foreign relief personnel.

But the death toll keeps rising. The leader of one local relief team, Ahmad Najafi, said that 200 bodies had been pulled from the rubble in one street in just an hour.

The Iranian regime is already being criticised for the chaotic rescue effort. Until the arrival of Western teams, the authorities had only a few drug-sniffing dogs to look for survivors. One local man interrupted Interior Minister Mousavi Lari Abdolvahed as he spoke to reporters in Bam yesterday. 'My father is under the rubble,' the man said. 'I've been asking for help since yesterday, but nobody has come to help me. Please help me. I want my father alive.'

Lari stressed to reporters that the death toll issued by his ministry was 'only an estimate'. 'There is not a standing building in the city. Bam has turned into a wasteland,' he said.

With hospitals destroyed, military transport planes have had to evacuate many wounded for treatment to the provincial capital, Kerman, and even to the Iranian capital, Tehran, 630 miles to the northwest, where stunned families, still covered in mud, wander the airport.

Tempers flare in battered backstreets of Bam (AFP, December 27, 2003)
In Bam, the grim priority now appears to be finding dead bodies, loading them into pick-up trucks and driving them out of town for quick burial.

But the Iranian government's refusal to publicly acknowledge any need for foreign search teams has also fueled anger in a region that is one of Iran's poorest.

The leagues of volunteers also appear to be lacking in organisation. After all, organising the work of various government ministries, the army, air force, Revolutionary Guards and Basij volunteer militia is no simple task, even if the Islamic republic has been working on it for near-on 25 years.

That was highlighted earlier Saturday, when Iranian Health Minister Massoud Pezeshkian called on international donors not to send volunteer workers, but send drugs and equipment.

"We don't really need them (foreign volunteers). We have a lot of volunteers coming in from all over Iran, in fact so many that we are having difficulties coordinating," Pezeshkian said.

Hassan Salehi, a 32-year-old computer engineer who sped down from Tehran in his beat-up old car, wondered what was holding the aid effort up.

"The Red Crescent are slow. Even I beat them in getting here," he complained, saying relief teams only began to appear on the streets around where his parents and sister lived hours after he completed his 15-hour drive from the capital to the other end of the country.

We should obviously be helping as much as we can just because it's the right thing to do, but also because we recall that the failure of the Somoza regime to respond effectively and responsibly to Nicaragua's big quake in 1972 helped spell the doom of the regime. There is an opportunity for future freedom in Iran even amidst this horrific rubble.

US sending medicine, food to Iran: Boston team to join relief bid as toll hits 20,000 (Charlie Savage, 12/28/2003, Boston Globe)

The United States will send search-and-rescue teams, food, and medical supplies to its longtime adversary Iran, the White House announced yesterday, as the death toll climbed to at least 20,000 from Friday's massive earthquake that devastated the ancient city of Bam.

More than 200 civilian disaster response specialists are being flown into Iran, while the US military is delivering more than 150,000 pounds of medical supplies from bases in Kuwait. The assistance could be on the ground as early as midafternoon today. [...]

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage personally offered the aid along with US condolences on Friday night to Iran's UN ambassador, Mohammad Zarif. The call was a rare moment of direct official contact with the Iranian government, with which the United States had not had diplomatic relations since revolutionaries overthrew the US-backed Shah in 1979 and took American Embassy workers hostage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 28, 2003 6:33 AM

I am old enough to remember how much gratitude was generated when Carter bent his embargo to send in 50,000 tons of heating oil.

You have invented some paragon-Iranians, but there's no evidence I know of that real Iranians behave that way.

They keep trying to tell you they think you're the Great Satan. You should listen.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 29, 2003 1:18 AM

Besides Nicarauga we should remember that similar poor earthquake disaster reliefs In Mexico City in 1986 and in the Caucasus in the early 1990's helped remove the established parties from power.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 30, 2003 12:21 PM

I'll be interested to see if our friends the Iranians skip chanting "Death to America" after Friday prayers this week.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 30, 2003 4:14 PM