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An Iranian homecoming after 26 years away

 Ali Arouzi, an Iranian-born NBC News producer, describes going back to Iran to cover the earthquake that killed an estimated 41,000 people a month ago after more than two decades out of the country.
An aerial view of destroyed houses in Bam taken on Dec. 30. At least 41,000 people were killed in the earthquake.Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP
/ Source: NBC News

It was the sort of homecoming I could never have expected. It had been 26 years since I'd fled Iran, the country of my birth. Now there it was below me -- a large part of it devastated, laid to waste by a major earthquake.

Only a month ago -- before dawn on Friday, Dec. 26 -- the town of Bam was all but razed by the quake that measured 6.7 on the Richter scale. The estimated death toll from the quake reached 41,000 by mid-January. 

There I was an Iranian, who had left the country when I was 4 years old, returning for the first time to utter devastation.

At the time of the earthquake, most of Bam's inhabitants were fast asleep in their beds. After the tremor, houses lay collapsed in heaps of rubble. Entire generations of families were wiped out.

Survivors huddled together in front of fires - mere fragments of families - next to the debris that was left of their former homes, enduring the freezing night time temperatures of Nnrthern Iran.

Nothing, could have prepared me for the sights in Bam. As I arrived, I was greeted by a sea of black body-bags spread over the airport tarmac. 

A Red Crescent aid worker pointed out a row of 16 body bags placed next to each other. "This," he said, "was four generations of one family." The body bag had temporarily been put there so families could come and identify their loved ones.

Behind them stood the remains of the badly shaken airport terminal -- still used as a shelter despite the danger of aftershocks.

A group of aid workers offered to take me with them into the shattered city -- the epicenter of the earthquake.  I was, perhaps, the first foreign journalist to get there from outside the country.

Jolted from London to Iran
Earlier that day I had arrived for work at the NBC London Bureau expecting nothing more than a regular kind of news day. Maybe even a "slow" one given it was just a day after Christmas when Britain celebrates the "Boxing Day" holiday.

When the news of the earthquake in Bam broke, I called our news desk in New York to tell them I had recently obtained an Iranian passport. Unlike other "foreigners" I didn't need to wait for a visa. I could get the next plane out. I was on my way.

I was immediately overwhelmed with mixed feelings -- excitement, apprehension and fear.

Excitement, because that this was my first major foreign assignment on a big story. Apprehension because I realized arriving at the scene of a major earthquake zone was going to be a harrowing experience. And finally fear. I was going "home" to a country that I'd been forced to flee, run by a regime that was totally alien, and perhaps hostile, to me.

I was born in Tehran in 1974. But, like so many others, had to flee with my family five years later when Islamic revolutionaries deposed the Shah. We fled to Paris, then London.

Last year my father decided to return home with my mother. She was ill and wanted to be close to her own family. I had never been back -- until now.

Arrival in a strange land
At the start of my journey, I initially arrived at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport. I was welcomed by a scene of chaos -- aid workers and relatives of the victims desperately trying to get to Bam.

One 22-year-old woman named Mozhdeh (in Persian, her name means "Good News") told me, "I have lost all my family. My parents, my grandmother and two sisters are under the rubble."

Getting off the plane and breathing in Iranian air for the first time in two decades was surreal. Although I had come home, I did not feel at home. As I looked around the airport it seemed to be stuck in a time warp from the 1970's.

My mind was deluged with an array of questions: would people know that I am Iranian, would they accept me as an Iranian, would I be treated with distrust or animosity, and would I even like it here.

My first personal contact was with a customs officer who asked me why I had been away for 26 years. I told her I had been busy. She didn't laugh.

The scene at the airport was a chaotic one; there were many relatives of the victims desperately trying to get to Bam or as close to as they could.

There were also hundreds of Red Crescent aid workers waiting to get on to severely delayed flights laid on especially for them to get to Bam.

Despite extensive negotiations and armed with my knowledge of Persian I was told that my ticket was invalid and that all flights heading to Bam or the other nearest airport in Kerman would only be taking aid workers.

Finally, a sympathetic woman from one of the domestic airlines managed to convince one of the organizers of the aid flights that it was very important that foreign journalists reached Bam; and secured a seat on the plane for me.

As the ageing Russian Tupolev trundled towards the skies -- filled with Red Crescent aid workers, most of whom were young men who had never been on a plane before - my nervous fellow passengers all began to pray simultaneously. Meanwhile the cabin crew, ignoring the steep climb for altitude and the worshippers, started to hand out food.

Bam earthquake effects all
New and old, public and private, the buildings of Bam had one thing in common: their disregard for anti-earthquake regulations.

Even the swankiest homes collapsed: the governor was the only senior official to survive. Two hospitals were destroyed.

Prisoners fled a wrecked jail on the edge of the town. One man, forewarned by a subterranean rumbling, had spent the night in his car. He survived but lost about 40 relatives.

The Iranian Red Crescent was hindered by the concentration of its stores and people in the quake-prone north and not being able to get supplies to the site. As a result, thousands of survivors in Bam spent two freezing nights without the tents they had been promised.

Most "rescue" operations were in fact exhumations by the bereaved, using their bare hands after the earthquake turned fragile buildings made of straw and mud into tombs.

Walking around and talking to people, it became evident that the Iranians were unable to co-ordinate the emergency teams that were dispatched from 26-odd countries, including the United States, the Islamic republic's bitter enemy.

Would-be rescuers were stuck at Bam's tiny airport; no one was on hand to guide them to those parts of the town where they would be of most help.

A Swiss aid worker told me that he knew of three rescue team from three different countries who had all searched the same building due to a lack of coordination.

Kindness of strangers
The huge relief operation involved many of my countrymen and women -- some had come from as far a field as Tabriz, 1000 miles from Bam. The army, Islamic volunteer groups, and local rescue teams showed enormous good will, moral fortitude, and generosity.

I was constantly relying on the kindness of strangers for everything from transportation, to food and water. Despite their own grief, most people showed an incredible degree of kindness. I don't know whether this was a sincere and indubitable display of their character, or a genetically determined characteristic in all of us at a time of widespread destruction and distress.

Two British aid workers asked me to join them in a helicopter tour of Bam. We boarded an outdated and exhausted-looking Iranian Army helicopter and flew over the remains of this ancient town.

Once it had been home to 80,000 people. Now it was reduced to what looked like a field of broken dried mud and brick. The quake had flattened most of the city, including its prime landmark, a majestic, 2,500-year-old hilltop warren of domes and alleyways known as the Bam Citadel.

Throughout the city there was a multitude of people beating their heads and chests in grief, asking why their loved ones had perished and how they wished they could join them.

Outcome, hopefully a lessening of distrust of the West
As an Iranian, I hope that there's a chance some good will come out of this catastrophe: a lessening, perhaps, of the Islamic Republic's distrust of the West. 

For the most part, people were happy to have American aid teams there. But there were voices of dissent amongst them who felt they had been sold out by their government; they did not understand why they had let the arch-enemy in to look after them.

Iran’s head of state, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei visited Bam, but he did not mention the mainly western countries that had rushed to Iran's aid, let alone thank the rescuers in person.

For me, it was a strange trip. I had gone back to a land that did not feel like home, but was home. I witnessed a country that had decayed over the last 25 odd years yet its people had remained resilient and proud.

And after having been amidst the carnage of Bam, I could only feel fortuitous to have a family to go back to.