PART V: Dialogue among civilizations, but not among ourselves

26 December 2003: 1.56 a.m. Bam.

An enormous earthquake, registering 6.6 on the Richter scale, hit Bam, the 2,000-year-old city in south-eastern Iran. No one understood the scale of the destruction but the media were calling for help from doctors. Although I’d given up medicine I realized I needed to be there. I don’t know what compelled me to pick up the phone and call the Red Crescent—the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross—and volunteer but I did it without a second thought. The earthquake hit the city early in the morning on Friday 26 December 2003; I was on the only plane leaving for Bam at 8 that same evening.

Dust, rubble, a city in ruins. The middle of the night. The temperature: 10 degrees below zero. No water, no electricity, no roads. Sitting in the back of a van, listening. Someone seems to be moaning. The cold wind blowing in your face, piercing your skin with a thousand icy needles. Turning your eyes this way and that, staring into the darkness. Every once in a while, a fire in a corner: the palm trees aflame. Palm smoke is poisonous but the people here have no choice: they are freezing in the bleak December air. The driver is asked to stop. My team and I move towards the fire, trying to see if we can help and if we can get a little warmth from the flames. Three people huddle around the glow. A woman lies on the ground. There are no blankets to cover her. Bleeding profusely, she has not even the strength to moan.

I sit beside her with my first-aid kit. Her femur is broken and she has lost at least a litre of blood. Her companions have tried to bandage the wound with a dirty rag. I have no light, no torches, nothing. I try to find a vein. I put in an IV. I take out a band-aid, write RED on it and stick it on her forehead. Everyone helps to move her into the van. Then we drive to the airport where a crisis headquarters has been set up. We have been told to do triage: to categorize patients into six colour-coded categories: WHITE, all right; GREEN, treatment on the spot, no need to transfer; YELLOW, transfer but low risk of death; RED high risk if the patient is not taken care of urgently; BLUE, no hope, this patient is going to die, don’t bother; and ‘BLACK’, the patient is dead, ignore.

The chief of the Red Crescent apparently doesn’t know that there is a seventh colour, too. The seventh colour that has no name. You are the seventh colour; you who have come to this city without roofs, where you don’t have time to even comfort a dying patient. You are the seventh colour, as you are changed forever. You are the living dead. Mix the six colours and you have a seventh, the colour that defines you, you who are walking the deserts in the middle of the night, hoping to hear a cry, a shout, something.

The sun rises gradually and throws thousands of golden lances over the city without roofs. You see a house without three of its walls, and without a roof. Only one wall is left standing and on it a clock, a clock that still shows the time, ticking . . .

As the sun rises so do the cries. As if the dark and the cold of the night had numbed the grief and the sorrow. The sun should have risen sooner so that the young man could cry over the enormous grave which now holds his wife and two toddlers. The grave that was once his ‘home’.

People try pushing aside the rubble, to uncover the lifeless bodies of their loved ones or to hear a moan that would mean a life saved.

The van that took us to the city was gone. I begin walking the city, alley to alley, block to block. People are sitting on the ground, pale from fear and sorrow. I wish I had earplugs to block the unbearable sound of that silence. But I didn’t, and couldn’t. I had to be attentive to every movement, every sound. I was the seventh colour, waiting for a cry in the desert.

An old man calls out. ‘Please help, my son is under these ruins.’

‘Sorry, father. I am a doctor. I can’t remove that huge mound. And I don’t think your son is alive.’

‘Please . . . I know he is . . .’

I begin to help him. It will take ages. It’s a waste of time. But I work until a group with their dogs arrives and lends a hand.

I begin to walk again. Sometimes I can help, open an airway, fix a dislocated joint, label people with colours. Someone’s there, his liver’s torn apart, he’s scarcely breathing but there’s a spark of life.

‘RED, doctor?’ the nurse accompanying me asks.

‘BLUE’, I say. There is no pulse.

‘I want to try. Let me put an IV line into him.’

‘Do whatever you want.’

She brings the first-aid kit.

‘Stop. It’s BLACK now,’ I say.

Everyone in the girls’ university dorm is dead. Dozens of students. My knees are giving way. No more moans. No one left to save.

Then I hear someone crying. I run towards the sound. It’s coming from under some bricks. I push them aside frantically, the nurse helps, too. A head appears. It’s a woman, she’s alive. It’s an hour before we can take her out. She’s pregnant. Her husband and brother are buried under the rubble but she knows they are dead. This unborn child, too, belongs to the seventh colour, in that city without roofs, schools, water, electricity, telephone, streets, dorms, banks, supermarkets, pharmacies. The child is still alive, ablaze with the seven colours.

The earthquake in Bam claims 50,000 lives.

I’m been able to save only a dozen.