Shocked Iran quake victims search for hope
In just 11 minutes, the time between two earthquakes that struck on Saturday, northwestern Iran was transformed.
Close to 600 villages nestled in ravines through the mountainous countryside crumbled. Sixty per cent of them, according to the governor of East Azerbiaijan province, were damaged or completely destroyed.
The people here lead a simple life. They are farmers, mostly ethnic Turks. Their homes were modest, single-storey structures with few rooms.
But as Javad Behjat told us, sitting on a chest in the remains of his family home, the residents of Dehdeghan were happy.
"Before the quake, this village looked like the others. People here are good people. We helped each other,” said Behjat.
“It’s true we lead a simple life, but we were satisfied."
He survived because he was in Tehran at the time. Unable to communicate with the family in Dehdeghan, he returned to the village to be confronted with devastation. An avenue of destruction paved the way to his brother’s house. His neighbour was dead, so was his uncle's wife.
The young and old are caked in dust their skin brown from the sun. They have been working for five days digging in the rubble with whatever they can find, shovels or picks and often their bare hands
Another villager, Reyhani, lost his sister.
"If we had [had] help, she would have survived," he said standing on top of her broken home.
Near the place where he had pulled her body from the rubble, the sound of axes and shovels clanging on broken bricks and rocks punctuated the scene of devastation.
Occasionally, the wails of women, dressed in colourful chadors, are also heard from their place of mourning under the shade of nearby trees.
There were once 100 people here living here in Dehdeghan. There are now ten left.
"Such is the makeup of such small communities, it doesn’t matter if you are related – we are all family,” Behjat said.
Not far away, bulldozers are already clearing land under Iranian government plans to construct 20,000 houses in the next two and half months.
Entire villages will be moved to safer places, although the governor of East Azerbaijan province has assured land owners they will not be moving far.
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, has ordered rebuilding to begin at once. The speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, visited the areas on Tuesday, stressing the need for everyone to work together to make the rebuilding campaign happen.
The government has also offered loans for rebuilding, damage payments and said it will set up essential services such as gas and electricity, free of charge.
In these villages, where families have been tied to the land for generations, people are happy with the government plans, so long as they remain in the same villages, with their same neighbours.
But the government says it is too dangerous for them to remain in the same area. The villages are all surrounded by fields and mountains, accessible only by dirt roads.
In another village, Daman Abad, people continue to show warmth and kindness despite the tragedy.
They are not angry at the presence of media. While they want people to understand the hardship that has befallen them, but they do not want to be pitied.
"It's nobody’s fault," said one man. "What can we do about it?"
And what to do is the question.
Their lives are in limbo - 16,000 people are homeless in tents across the countryside. They can't move far, to places with more facilities such as Tabriz or Ahar. They still have farms and livestock to tend to.
One young soldier, still dressed in his uniform, sat atop his motorcycle which had been rescued from the ruins. He was visibly shaking and could barely speak.
He said he had to leave to recommence his military training, but would rather stay.
"My family is all in the hospital … my brothers. I don’t know what to do if I go. I can’t concentrate, speak," he said.
"I am alone here."
Around him are the women of the village, standing beside a cot with the few possessions they have managed to rescue. They plead in Turkish, their ethnic language, for someone to hear them.
Most of the time, their faces are blank.
They are still in shock, but it's not just them - so is the rest of East Azerbaijian.