Survivors seek solace in drugs and prostitution as reconstruction work goes neglected
Robert Tait in Bam, Iran
Thursday May 11, 2006
It was once an oasis famous for its dates and ancient Persian heritage. Now, amid a desolate landscape of rubble and wrecked buildings, Bam is a byword for drug abuse and an Aids problem that threatens to become an epidemic.
The devastating earthquake that struck the city on Boxing Day 2003 killed an estimated 40,000 people and left thousands homeless, prompting a huge international rescue effort. More than two years later, relief has dwindled and rebuilding is going slowly, aid officials say, hampered by an indolence bred by alarming rates of addiction.
Depressed by multiple bereavements, many survivors turned to opium, which is traditionally respectable and widely available in a city on the drug transit route from Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than half of adult men and 15% of women have been classed as addicts. Addiction has been reported among children as young as 11. The trend has been compounded by the influx of building workers, many of them long-time users of heroin and other injected drugs. Their habits have spread among the locals, leading to a dangerous proliferation of needles. "Drug addiction is severely impairing reconstruction," said a Unicef official, speaking anonymously. "Drugs have taken a big toll on people's motivation."
Despite the availability of state grants for rebuilding homes, most people are housed in cramped pre-fabs inside sprawling camps, which have been condemned by aid workers as breeding grounds for drugs, illicit sex and crime. The once-imposing 1,800-year-old citadel, a symbol of Persian power from the pre-Islamic Sassanid dynasty, is little more than a sad pile of rubble, although a reconstruction plan exists.
Health officials are also alarmed by the threat of HIV/Aids from a nascent sex industry, promoted by the presence of outside workers separated from their families and the dire financial straits of some widowed women. So far, 20 Aids cases have been recorded.
"We are trying to stop an epidemic. Bam has the potential for the number of HIV/Aids cases to rise dramatically," said Ali Reza Tajlili, the state-run family planning association's representative in Bam. "There is a very high demand for sex outside the family framework, and it is taking place among people with very little awareness about Aids," he said.
The scale of the problem is evident in Black House, a rundown area where addicts meet each night to smoke or inject heroin for 12p a shot. Muhammad Ali Barzegar, 29, a builder from Tehran, had been an addict for five years and recently became hooked on tamjizak, a more powerful substance.
Asked about the dangers of Aids, he said: "Those using needles don't care if they are shared or dirty. They just see a needle and want to get high. My life is already destroyed. There have been times when I had money to buy food for my family but bought drugs instead. Anyone reaching this stage should only wish for death."
Even if Aids is curbed, it will do little to alleviate the impact of addiction, particularly among children. Many with addicted parents are malnourished. Toys distributed by relief agencies have been sold by adults to feed their habit. Social workers have reported carers trying to sell orphaned relatives. Many youngsters no longer attend school.
"After the earthquake, opium was being handed out to save the souls of survivors," said Amir Muhammad Payam, an expert who wrote a Unicef-backed report on Bam's crisis. "There's an expression in Bam saying, 'God provides the daily bread of the addict'."
But it has provided no salvation for Tahereh Tabar, 32, who lost two children and had another left with brain damage by the earthquake. "I took opium when I was still traumatised and it made me feel better," she said, sitting with her son, Javad, 20, a fellow addict, in the tiny metal cabin she now calls home. "But now it has destroyed our lives."