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Terry DeVine column: Fargo native covers quake devastation

A Fargo native covering the devastating earthquake that killed nearly 30,000 in Bam, Iran, says it was quite a sight to watch two American relief teams set up tents with large U.S.

A Fargo native covering the devastating earthquake that killed nearly 30,000 in Bam, Iran, says it was quite a sight to watch two American relief teams set up tents with large U.S. flags painted on them.

Washington cut diplomatic ties with Tehran shortly after Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, but Roxana Saberi, reporting for a British-owned international news agency, says humanitarian efforts took precedence over political considerations in this case.

"Members of the elite Revolutionary Guard greeted the two American relief teams with flowers and gifts," says Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota and graduate of Fargo North High School and Concordia College. "Many Iranians, including some Basiji women, stressed to me they want Americans to know they have no problem with American people. They asked me to tell a woman doctor from Boston that they were very thankful for the help of all the international teams, including the Americans."

Saberi, who speaks the Farsi language, had been home for only a short time at Christmas to visit her parents, Reza and Akiko Saberi, when she was recalled to Tehran to cover the earthquake in Bam, in the southeastern part of Iran, close to Pakistan.

The former television reporter for KVLY-TV in Fargo and a Houston TV station, says she arrived in Bam three days after the earthquake destroyed the city.

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She saw human suffering she says she hopes never to see again. She immediately began filing news reports for Feature Story News, a Washington-based news agency, which also has offices in London, Beijing and New York, as well as Tehran.

Seeing the children was difficult, says Saberi. "I visited a center where children were staying -- they were either separated temporarily from their parents, who were recovering in hospitals, or they had been orphaned. Many had lost both parents and were waiting or hoping for relatives to come for them.

"One boy told me how he was awakened by the earthquake to see his mom suffocating from dirt that had fallen in her mouth and a steel beam that had fallen on her nose. The boy looked to the other side and saw only his father's elbow peeking out from under the rubble. His father died; his mother was taken to a hospital.

"I also saw a baby who a nurse said was born the day of the quake -- pulled from her dead mother's womb. The nurse said perhaps this baby was a sign of hope for the future. No one seemed to know the baby's name."

Saberi says many of the people she interviewed cried over their losses, wondering why such a terrible thing had happened to them. "But many also said although they believed this was the work of God, they were not angry at Khoda." She says many simply hoped the international communities would not forget about them.

There was a large contingent of media from all over the world covering the disaster, says Saberi, who noted that most of the survivors wanted to talk, either to have someone listen to their grief or to make sure the world knew about the hardships. She says the outpouring of support from all over the world in the first days after the quake was astounding.

"There is still an Iranian and (diminishing) international presence in Bam, but the earthquake victims there still need financial and material help," says Saberi, who filed several radio stories each day from Bam and television feeds from Tehran. Several of them were aired by National Public Radio.

Saberi says she ate very little while in Bam because "I didn't feel quite right about taking the relief food that was being handed out to earthquake victims."

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There was only one hotel still operating and it served a one-course dinner, only in the evening. Saberi says its walls were cracked and the phones didn't work, but it did have electricity and running water. She spent one night in Kerman, a city left unscathed about two hours northwest of Bam.

"I heard stories from survivors about how they had lost 100 relatives and family members, about how their babies were trembling at night in the tents they had been given," says Saberi. "...(They) wondered how long they'd have to eat canned food and when they could move back into their homes, which lay in piles of rubble behind their tents. These stories are what helped me realize how these people lost so much in just a few seconds."

In covering perhaps the biggest story of her career, Saberi says she didn't realize how shocking it was until she stopped to reflect.

"I was so busy during the first few moments trying to talk to people, get the shots I needed, and make my deadlines that, looking back on it, at first I had forgotten the humanistic part of being a journalist," says Saberi. "After a few hours, however, I started to realize that just because I am behind a camera I am not and should not be immune to what's happening on the other side."

Saberi has been in Iran almost a year now. During that time, she says she's seen how hard it is for many Iranians to make a living -- many hold two or three jobs just to scrape by. "Many work for years to buy a house, a car, to get married and to raise children," she says. "To see these things slip out of one's hands in a brief moment must be devastating."

The cleanup continues in Bam.

Readers can reach Terry DeVine at (701) 241-5515 or tdevine@forumcomm.com

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