- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

BAM, Iran — One by one, thousands of dead faces popped up on three computer screens, most of them horrifically disfigured.

As a memorial to the tens of thousands of Iranians who perished in the earthquake that hit Bam last Friday, the slideshow playing in its main graveyard would be shocking enough.

But the crowd, jostling in silence for a better view, had not gathered to remember its dead, but to find them.

“I’m looking for my husband, I haven’t seen him since the city collapsed,” said Razieh Sabeti, 47, staring at the flickering photos of the dead, each marked with the number of their grave.

Three miraculous rescues pierced the gloom in the devastated city of Bam yesterday.

Relief workers pulled a young man and a child alive from the ruins six days after the quake flattened the medieval town 625 miles southeast of Tehran. State television said a pregnant woman also was rescued later in the day.

But Mrs. Sabeti’s hopes faded as she stared at the computer screen. Her husband traveled to Bam from an outlying village, looking for work, the day before the earthquake, she explained.

“I am sure he is dead,” she said. “But if that is true, I hope he is here. Then, I will find his grave.”

According to the government’s latest estimate, the earthquake will claim at least 30,000 lives and possibly as many as 50,000; or a quarter of the population of Bam and the surrounding villages.

Several thousand of the victims buried in Bam’s main cemetery were buried in mass graves within hours of the quake and were not photographed.

Many of the dead faces that were photographed and numbered are unrecognizably damaged.

The most disfigured were covered with cloths for the camera. Their flickering death images revealed only a brief glimpse of hair or a small patch of skin, making it almost impossible to determine their age or sex.

Near the car, at the cemetery’s entrance, three black-turbaned mullahs slumped, exhausted.

They had been burying bodies for three days and nights with almost no sleep, praying over one then moving to the next.

Several thousand victims of the earthquake still were formally unburied, according to the government. But most are lying deep in the powdery rubble of the city.

Across Bam’s vast desert graveyard, hundreds of people were searching for the graves of people they had loved.

Some had seen their relatives buried and had marked the graves with rocks, branches or tin cans.

Others searched blindly, traipsing over thousands of small mounds and past a dozen long, sandy ridges marking where hundreds of corpses lay tangled together.

Crawling on his hands and knees, 13-year-old Hussein sniffed the sand. The twig that he had marked his parents’ grave with had been removed, making the grave impossible to distinguish from dozens of others nearby.

So, he was attempting to pick up his dead mother’s former scent.

“I know my mother’s smell so well, I am sure I will recognize it,” he said.

Hachimeh Ghamari, 25, and three of her few living relatives had not even that desperate hope, as they searched for some unknown sign of her mother’s grave among the thousands of identical mounds.

“She was not registered: I have looked at the photographs for days,” she said.

Mrs. Ghamari lost 15 close relatives in the quake, including her 5-year-old son, her husband, both her parents, her three brothers and their children. In all, she lost two hundred relatives.

Other mourners were hastening to mark the graves permanently.

Mixing cement with a long handled shovel, Rezah Ravidabadi, 27, was preparing a surface for a row of seven graves. When the cement was spread, he would write on it the names of his sister, her husband and their five small children.

Alongside him, his cousin was building a single small wall around the graves with bricks from the house that collapsed on the family.

“Only when their grave is beautiful, can we mourn them,” said Mr. Ravidabadi. “We will work until it is done.”

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