VARZAQAN, Iran // Iran today wrapped up its rescue operations in hundreds of villages flattened by twin earthquakes yesterday in its northwest, as officials gave a toll of 227 dead and 1,380 injured in the disaster.
“Search and rescue operations have ended and we are now working to ensure survivors’ needs in terms of shelter and food,” Interior Minister Moustafa Mohammad-Najjar told state television.
The first of the earthquakes on Saturday registered a strong 6.4 on the moment magnitude scale, according to the US Geological Survey, which monitors seismic activity worldwide.
The second, almost as strong at 6.3 on the scale, rumbled through just 11 minutes later. Many smaller aftershocks followed.
While the biggest city in the region, Tabriz, and nearby towns escaped with only relatively minor damage, scores of outlying villages made of more flimsy mud and concrete bricks were decimated.
Mohammad-Najjar said around half the 600 villages located in the zone were damaged. Up to a dozen were completely razed.
He said that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had given orders on Sunday for home reconstruction to begin immediately because of the harsh winter the mountainous region will experience at the end of the year.
The region declared two days of mourning for the disaster.
An estimated 16,000 people remained homeless by the quakes or too afraid to return to cracked homes they feared unstable.
Iran’s Red Crescent distributed thousands of tents and supplies of food and water to get them through the days ahead.
It also said offers of help had been received from Turkey, Taiwan, Singapore and Germany, but they were turned down because Iran was able to cope with the disaster by itself.
The rapid end to the rescue operation highlighted the fact that in the villages residents knew each other well and knew where to look, and collapsed buildings were small.
But still there were many stories of tragedy.
Zeinab, a 13-year-old girl seen outside a Red Crescent tent in the village of Mirza Ali Kandi told how she watched her eight-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister die before her eyes.
“I was outside my home playing when it (the first quake) happened. I ran inside looking for my brother and found him under a big pile of rubble. I tried to get him out. And then I heard my sister cry out and I turned and she has a big stone in her head, and I ran out,” she said, sobbing.
“I wish it had been me, too, I wish I hadn’t run out,” she yelled, prompting her uncle to try to console her.
Others were more fortunate.
“I was working on my farm, on my tractor, and I felt the earth shake and I was thrown off the vehicle,” a 40-year-old farmer in one hamlet, Qanbar Mehdizade, said. His family, who had been working with him, survived.
AFP journalists in the zone saw many exhausted residents mourning their loved ones. Grieving women wailed over the bodies of the dead, many of whom were women and children.
“This village is a mass grave,” said Alireza Haidaree, an emergency worker who supervised a bulldozer working in the village of Baje Baj, where 33 of the 414 inhabitants died.
“There are so many other villages that have been completely destroyed,” he added.
Emergency workers from 14 provinces around Iran arrived to help overnight, drawing on services and resources built up through the country’s long experience in dealing with seismic instability.
Iran sits astride several major fault lines and is prone to frequent earthquakes, some of which have been devastating.
One of the deadliest in recent years was a 6.6-magnitude quake which struck the southeastern city of Bam in December 2003, killing 31,000 people -- about a quarter of the population -- and destroying the city’s ancient mud-built citadel.