How do you get on with normal life in a city that could turn to rubble in less than a minute?

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The Independent Culture
In August, the novelist Maureen Freely was visiting her family in Turkey when an earthquake devastated the city in which she grew up. Last week, she returned to Istanbul to report on the aftermath. What she didn't know was that a second major earthquake was about to strike

I grew up in Istanbul. My parents, my brother, my sister and her family still live and work here. I was here with my partner and two of my children on 17 August, when the first earthquake hit. It measured 7.4 on the Richter scale. When I left for England that Friday the city was still in chaos, reeling from shock at the size of the tragedy. But no one knew yet quite how big it was.

When I got back to England, people said: "How lucky you are to get home safe." But I didn't feel lucky. Because as far as I am concerned, home is here. I wanted to get on the next plane and come right back. That night, and every night for the next six weeks, after I finished the dishes I spent two hours on the Internet reading the Turkish papers, and hours on the phone trying to find out what my friends were doing, and how I might be able to help.

I returned to Turkey on 5 November. And I was in Istanbul at 6.50pm last Friday when the second earthquake, this one measuring 7.2, hit.

My sister, who was caught on the third floor of a badly damaged building and nearly died during the August earthquake, continues to work in a school building close to the part of Istanbul that was worst affected. She, too, was looking for a way to help. Her concern was that people would forget about Istanbul after the TV cameras had left, and that half a million homeless people would be left in the lurch.

The school where she is headteacher, the Istanbul International Community School, has set up a charity, and I was hoping to help organise the English end. According to Heidi Hess and Carol Zakula, the two teachers who got it started, the aim of the charity is to do something for the children of Golcuk, so that they "can get on with their lives".

But how do you get on with normal life in a city you know could turn to rubble without any advance notice, in less than a minute? There cannot be anyone in Istanbul who does not ask this question, every waking moment of the day. There are no final answers, only stopgap solutions. Some people cope with their fears by keeping bottles of water under their beds, mobile phones under their pillows, and their shoes and coats next to the door. Others avoid places they have decided are not worth the risk - underground cinemas, shore roads built on landfill, lifts, public buildings that are deemed structurally sound but "just have too many cracks in them".

In the three months since the August earthquake, there have been thousands of aftershocks. Most are over almost before they begin; one of the things you hear most often these days is, "Did you feel that too, or was it just in my mind?" The first thing people do after the longer, bigger ones - there have been two of these, one measuring 5 and the other measuring 5.7, since I returned to Istanbul nine days ago - is to get on their phones to find out whether their loved ones are safe. The next thing they do is ask, "How was it for you?" Everyone has become good at describing the different ways the earth has moved for them. Sometimes, in some places, it's an up-and-down motion. In other places, houses rock from side to side. A few seem to turn on their axes. The sound of cracking walls and banging furniture is sometimes the noise people remember most vividly. For others, it is the roaring of the earth.

Before the August earthquake, it was rare to meet a person who could tell you where the Anatolian fault-lines were. But now even children can name them all. Everyone knows which parts of the city are on bedrock, which parts are on clay, why wood is better than concrete, and why, if you live in a concrete high-rise, it is not necessarily a blessing to have a flat on the ground floor. One of the most common horrors after the August earthquake was the block of flats that looked as if it had survived intact - until you noticed that it was shorter than you remembered it. In the engineers' manual that is sitting on my sister's coffee-table, this phenomenon is known as "collapse of the lower floors". Other hazards include "foundation failure" (the building falls on its side), "connection failure" (the main supports crumble, because no one bothered to join up the rods of reinforced concrete), partial collapse (part of the building slides away, but the other half looks untouched), liquefaction (the ground turns to jelly), subsidence (the ground level suddenly drops, often by several metres), lateral displacement (part of the wall moves several metres, and the rest stays where it is), and vertical displacement (a gash opens up in the earth).

I saw all of the above last week when I went to see Golcuk. Even before the second earthquake, it was a vision of the apocalypse. Golcuk sits on the shore at the far end of the Gulf of Izmit, only 80 miles from the epicentre of the August earthquake. Before the earthquake, it had a population of about 80,000; a large naval base was the city's main employer. Forty- five per cent of its houses were destroyed. It lost a large chunk of its shoreline, too, following massive subsidence that coincided with a tidal wave. Now its public swimming-pool and its amusement park sit in two-and-a-half metres of water. it is not just the buildings that have lost their stability. One survivor, a computer engineer named Gurkhan Alpekin, had such a bad panic attack when he went to take a shower at a friend's house after six days of rescue work, that he could not go into the bathroom for two-and-a-half hours. "It was the first time I'd been inside a house," he said.

To me, Golcuk looked like Berlin after the war - vast fields of rubble, dotted with slanting, frontless, half-collapsed buildings, demolition teams as far as the eye could see, the scrap merchants trailing behind them. It took a few hours before I noticed the Internet cafe that was open for business in a half-collapsed building; the pharmacy and the banks that were operating out of prefabs next to the statue of Ataturk in the main square; the ladies' hairdresser that had reopened in a tent.

My greatest shock came after a meeting with Mehmet Ellibes, the assistant mayor. After dealing with crises involving tentless families, condemned buildings, missing children, intransigent officials, absent prefab shipments and blocked demolition teams, he got up from his desk and said, "Enough about the earthquake. Allow me you to invite you to a good fish lunch."

A fish restaurant? In Golcuk? But there it was, in a half-open circular terrace on the ground floor of the post office building. They've given it to the fishmongers and butchers and greengrocers, and let them turn it into a restaurant. It's all very simple - you choose your food from the stalls, and sit on the sort of satin-covered chair you'd expect to see only at a municipal reception - while they cook your meal up on a little grill.

"We're all working so hard," Ellibes explained. "People said they needed a place to relax." But even for this energetic man, with his yellow checked suit and his jokes and mobile phone, and his plans for a new earthquake- proof city, relaxation can be dangerous, because it can mean talking about yourself. It was, he admitted each time he successfully arrested a wave of tears, harder to bear the loss of so many friends and relatives now that the weather had turned cold.

But he had been very lucky in the earthquake, he told us. His building was on the shore, only a few metres away from the place where the sea had stopped after the tidal wave and the subsidence. It had lost only two floors. They had lost all their belongings, and now lived in a tent, but they had been blessed because no one in his immediate family had died. He thought their new house would not be on the sea, because his 12- and 14-year-old daughters did not trust the coastline any more, and would not go anywhere near it. His first aim was to find a place where they could be secure.

How can he ever hope to do so in the wake of this second devastating earthquake? That was the question that kept coming back to me as I walked through Duzce last Saturday. This was a tragedy that everyone already knew by heart. These were the same buckled streets and collapsed buildings, the same rescue teams looking for signs of life between the slabs of concrete, the same friends and families wailing, asking how much more they were going to have to bear.

But even in Kaynasli, the worst-hit village in the Duzce area, where almost every house still standing was gaping open, spilling pots, pans, blankets and pictures, you saw people conversing cheerfully with their friends as they went among the trucks full of food brought in by private citizens, trying to gather up enough food and water for dinner. One of them was a 19-year-old girl named Azize. She had almost died in the Golcuk quake. Then, after she lost her job, she had come here to live with her brother and his family. "Imagine! To get away from the earthquake!" She invited us to come over later, or next time we were passing by. "It's easy to find us," she said. "We're right next to the cemetery."

As I watched her walk off down the ravaged road with her brother and her nephew, I wondered where it was they got their strength of character, and their ability to pull together, and even keep laughing. This is the part that gets left out of most of the other stories you've read about Turkish earthquakes. This is the part that explains how the victims survive. But will they ever again enjoy a normal life?

IICS Earthquake Fund, NatWest, Bath, Stuckeys Branch, PO Box 1680, Bath BA1 3TJ, account 23712481, sort code 60-02-05, transaction code 85