When Bam was struck by a devastating earthquake on 26th December I was utterly appalled by the sheer scale of the disaster and the tragic loss of life. In my capacity as President of the British Red Cross, I arranged a seminar at St James's Palace the day before I left for Bam in order to draw further attention to the relief efforts. I was keen to go to Bam because the Red Cross had told me of their concern that the plight of the city and its people was already slipping out of sight on the world media agenda.
What I saw was both horrifying and yet encouraging. Horrifying to see, quite literally, a whole city brought to a shuddering halt in a few seconds of violent seismic activity with the epicentre immediately under Bam. Encouraging because the aid effort, led by the Iranian Red Crescent and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement as a whole, has clearly brought a substantial measure of relief, in the short term at least.
As we drove past street after street of devastated houses, piles of rubble and twisted metal, derelict shops and dusty tents, I realised that there was simply nothing left standing. From a city of approximately 120,000, more than 42,000 have died: we saw the long mounds of earth covering their bodies in the cemetery. 30,000 people have been injured, and I visited some of them in the Red Cross field hospital which now serves as the only in-patient care facility for Bam and the many surrounding villages after the city's hospitals were destroyed and many doctors and nurses killed.
But these statistics tell nothing of the personal impact of this tragedy on the community as a whole, and on families and individuals. I talked to a date farmer and his wife. He owns a few of the famous date palms upon which the city depends for its livelihood. His trees have to be watered in the next two or three weeks in order to ensure this year's harvest, but the ancient underground channels or ‘qanats', which bring the water often many miles from a distant source, have been blocked or destroyed. Within just a few days, he must climb the trees to pollinate them – but with so many family members and agricultural labourers dead, and his house destroyed, this has become a desperate personal challenge.
Soon after this meeting we came to the Citadel itself, over 2,000 years old, one of the finest mud-brick structures in the world – and now reduced, at first glance at least, to a pile of brown dust and rubble. As I looked down on the desolate ruins, I remembered the advice given by an eminent expert on these buildings at the seminar in London that, with international funding, they could be recreated, using local materials and labour – but I could see what a huge task this would be, for people who themselves have nowhere to live. And yet without the attraction of the historic citadel, and indeed the date industry, there will be no livelihoods for the citizens.
When we came to the Red Cross/Red Crescent aid compound, I began to feel somewhat more heartened. I met some of the Iranian Red Crescent team who led the relief work, and heard their volunteers describe the task they faced – while we in the UK enjoyed Christmas – finding survivors under the rubble, recovering and burying the bodies, distributing tens of thousands of tents and blankets, flying in many thousands of tonnes of food and water.
I talked with our own British Red Cross logistics team who described the immense international relief effort, which saw 2,000 flights in little over a week descending upon a tiny airport used to receiving only two small passenger planes a day. The job of the logistics team was to manage the arrival and unloading of these flights and, most importantly, to help ensure that the supplies were immediately distributed to those most in need.
I also met Red Cross volunteers and staff from a dozen countries – America, Spain, Norway, Finland, Japan, and many more, together with representatives from countless NGOs – all working together around the clock, seven days a week, to keep the supply pipeline working, the hospital running and local tented health centres and camps covered. It was an impressive story of international cooperation, hard work and extraordinary dedication. I felt proud to be involved in a small way with this worldwide Movement and encouraged that, here at least, differences of creed and culture were forgotten.
But now an even bigger task faces the Iranian Government, ourselves and the international community as a whole. For, somehow, Bam has to be rebuilt. The rubble is being cleared, the tents are being replaced (though much too slowly, as the heat of Summer approaches) by pre-fabricated huts; the qanats are being gradually repaired and one or two shops have re-opened. There is a plan, we were told, that will provide loans to help local people to rebuild their homes – but how will they repay? There are schemes to get trade re-started, and to provide work for the survivors – but how will this be achieved in time to avoid further serious breakdown in the economic structure of the area?
For the Red Cross/Red Crescent, the emergency relief task is almost accomplished. In coordination with the Iranian Government and other national and international agencies, to which the British Government has contributed, we are now planning our next steps. We must ensure we meet immediate humanitarian needs, as well as assisting victims of the disaster re-build their lives and livelihoods in the medium term. We have to restock the Iranian Red Crescent warehouses, now virtually empty after their massive efforts, and to replenish our own Disaster Fund with the money we need to enable us to be there when the next disaster strikes, as it did in Bam.
As I left the Red Cross compound, I met a midwife with a tiny baby she had delivered in the Red Cross hospital that morning. Through an interpreter, we talked about the future, and about her hopes for this little girl. She said she was coping, despite having lost both her children in the earthquake. Life goes on, in Bam as in towns and cities here, and, somehow, people recover. But in Bam they are facing an almost overwhelming challenge: we must not forget them, and we must not let them down.
Perhaps this sad city can become a symbol of a deep sorrow we have shared, and a foundation for better relations between peoples who often have more in common than the rhetoric of international relations would sometimes have us believe.