An Unforgettable Day in Iran

Shortlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2023.

The coldness of the knife feels unfamiliar in my hand. Putting it against Hanno’s leg, just above the back of his knee, makes me feel sick. 

My breathing is rapid and deep; my hand is shaking violently. I tighten my grip around the handle, telling myself that I can do it.

M, my best friend and travel companion, watches from the top of the ditch  He’s been digging the other hotel guests out. Their muffled screams could be heard from many metres below. We’ve been using our bare hands. 

We’d arrived Christmas night at Akbar’s Guest House in Bam for the start of our 2003 two-week adventure across Iran. Today, 26th December, we planned a sunrise visit to the Arg-é Bam, the city’s ancient and recently restored citadel, before heading north across arid landscapes and lofty mountains to Tehran, Iran’s beating heart. Instead, before dawn, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake stuck. It’s now 1.26 p.m. and Bam is destroyed.

M had left suddenly after we were unable to shift the girder. He’d stumbled across the rubble to his backpack and returned holding the Swiss Army knife towards me. We faced each other both like tramps with our filthy faces and nightclothes.  

“No way!” I said. I took the knife anyway.  

I felt like an acrobat when he lowered me by my arms into the ditch again. He’s too big to fit and too heavy for me to lower without the risk of crushing Hanno, so I’m left with the task of cutting.  

The knife is covered in fine, white dust. But this is no ordinary dust.  It exploded into the air when the buildings collapsed. It contains the screams of thousands now trapped under the rubble.

Everything tastes and smells of it. It’s stuck in my nose and lungs.  It covers my skin, my clothes. It turns my bloodied hands a bluish grey, my face ghost-like. I can still see tiny particles swirling in the air. 

Hanno is lying motionless and face down on his hotel bed like he is sleeping. He’s partially buried by the rubble despite my efforts to clear it. His battered face and matted hair are barely visible. His mouth remains open after I forced my fingers inside to stop him from choking. It’s difficult to tell what he is wearing. It looks like a cream t-shirt and a pair of shorts which are cut off just above the knee, a perfect marker for my incision. It’s his lower left leg that worries me though.  It’s grey and lifeless, crushed by the girder which is going to kill him.

The bed’s metal headboard is resting against one of the few remaining walls of the hotel. It’s a miracle it’s still standing as aftershocks are frequent. They make the wall sway and groan, the ground shudder. Everything rattles then gets faster. It’s noisy and terrifying and I don’t know when they will stop.

I’m having to crouch between Hanno’s legs just below his crotch.  It’s too intimate; I want to apologise. It’s a tiny space, less than a foot wide, but it’s the only way I can get to his leg. I’ve been here just a few minutes and my feet are already sore from where they’ve been crushed by shards of glass and debris. My knees ache and are starting to cramp. It’s cold, but it doesn’t matter.  

I place my free hand on top of my right to stop it from shaking. It’s bruised and swollen after I bashed it on the girder when it refused to move. But I refuse to cry or give up, or to acknowledge my physical pains.

I grasp Hanno’s leg to stabilise myself before I begin cutting. His skin is sallow and cold.  He’s still breathing, I think. I know nothing about him other than his name. He whispered it to me through crusty lips. It’s a name, just like Bam, that I will never forget.  

His muscular physique makes me think he’s in his early twenties.  He looks so helpless as he lies there amongst the rubble. I see part of a dirty bed sheet under his thigh and a fresh urine stain on his shorts and thank God his mother cannot see him. All I want to do is stroke his hair and kiss his forehead and tell him that everything is going to be okay although I can’t. I’m stuck between his legs and there’s no certainty the wall will remain standing or he’ll survive my knife. 

Yet there’s one thing I can be certain of: he’ll be conscious throughout my amateur surgery.  He’ll scream out the pain with such ferocity his lungs will explode. 

I pull away the knife from his leg, but Hanno opens his right eye and mouths, “Cut.” 

About Ruth Millington

Ruth Millington is an award-winning writer, explorer, speaker and lawyer. Over the last 30 years, she has travelled solo to more than 100 countries and lived in China, Nepal, Thailand, Australia and San Francisco. She is the creator/host of the Extreme Holidays Podcast and has been honoured with multiple bravery awards for her rescue efforts in Iran’s 2003 Bam earthquake.