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Quake-stricken Iranians vent anger at former president

© AFP / by Siavosh Ghazi | An Iranian quake victim is transported on a hospital bed to receive treatment at a field hospital in the town of Sar-e Pol-e Zahab on November 14, 2017

SAR-E POL-E ZAHAB (IRAN) (AFP) - 

It was an earthquake that destroyed their homes and shattered their dreams, but in western Iran's Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, survivors have directed their anger against the government.

"Look, everything is destroyed! The government could at least cancel our home loans," said Mortaza Akbari, a resident of the working-class district of Shahid Shiroudi.

Many in his building lost everything in the 7.3-magnitude quake that struck a mountainous region near the Iraq border late Sunday, killing more than 400 people.

Akbari's apartment block, built as part of a social housing scheme set up by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was meant to be able to withstand a magnitude 8.0 quake.

But now, it is disembowelled.

"There are only poor people and workers here," Akbari said. "I came here in distress, it is not a place to live."

The Maskan-e Mehr social housing buildings, symbols of ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad's populism, sprang up all over Iran during his rule from 2005 to 2013.

For many disadvantaged Iranians, they were the promise of decent, affordable housing.

But in Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, those who signed up have lost the little they had.

"I spent the whole of a loan the government provided to encourage young people to marry and buy furniture or other property, but now I have nothing left," said Akbari.

At least 280 people were killed on Sunday in Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, a town of some 85,000 people.

While the structure and ceiling of the Maskan-e Mehr buildings resisted, the facades collapsed.

Survivors picked through what looked like a war zone Tuesday as they tried to extract their belongings.

From the third floor of one apartment, two men pulled a carpet and dropped it through a gaping space where the outer wall once stood.

"I was living on the fourth floor," said Ali Biabani, a labourer in his 50s. "I am the owner, I took pains to save money for this apartment, it was for the poor."

- 'We were happy' -

"What can we do now?" he asked. "At first, I paid 170 million rials (about $4,000, 3,400 euros) and I have been paying bills (of around $70) each month for three years."

"We were happy, because we had escaped poverty," he said.

But he added: "Look yourself, no one can live in there anymore."

Reza Moradi, another labourer, is in a similar situation.

"I still owe another 144 monthly payments", each of them counting for about a fifth of his wage, he said.

One million social housing units available for purchase were built in outlying areas or in new towns across Iran under the Maskan-e Mehr scheme.

The project was slammed by Ahmadinejad's political opponents, who blamed him for inflation that hit 40 percent during his second term.

Current President Hassan Rouhani, who visited the town on Tuesday, launched a tirade against his predecessor, saying he wanted see why some government housing had suffered major damage.

"The culprits must be found and presented to the population," he said.

Some apartment blocks built by private investors resisted the quake.

But in the town that suffered the worst damage, government apartment blocks were not the only ones to be hit.

Many buildings and standalone houses were totally destroyed, evidence that anti-quake building regulations are poorly respected in the country.

"I've lost everything," said Lida Esmaili, in her 30s, sitting with her little girl on the floor between two rows of gutted buildings.

"Some of my things were destroyed in the earthquake and the rest when they were thrown from the third floor," she said.

by Siavosh Ghazi

© 2017 AFP