The Turkish Earthquakes: `We looked at Mother Nature - and she snarled'

The most fearsome sight I have ever witnessed was from a ridge overlooking the beautiful Sea of Marmara in northern Turkey. Through a pair of military binoculars I saw something that reminded me of a comic book that had frightened me as a child with its series of garish frames showing a giant striding along a valley, crushing tiny villages beneath his massive feet, laughing as he went along his way.

A thousand feet below me on that awful dawn of 23 August, I saw the cartoon images of that 1950's comic-strip turned into reality on a scale beyond human comprehension. Tiny villages, large towns, even small cities lay smashed and broken along a valley floor stretching as far as the eye could see.

The crushing of these once thriving, densely populated communities looked rather like footprints. But they were not. The terrible power that had destroyed them came not from above, but from 12 miles below. In the hot stillness of the night - at exactly 3am - the earth had suffered a kind of muscle spasm, no more than a flicker and countless thousands had died in under a second.

All that week I walked, almost in a daze, through this surreal and terrible landscape where every structure, from 10-storey office blocks to tiny peasants' cottages, seemed to have been sucked down from below so that they either smashed themselves into powder, or remained intact and slanted at angles that seemed to defy gravity. No metaphor was big enough to describe this. But I compared it to a gigantic jigsaw puzzle completed by a maniac, where every single piece had been battered into the wrong slot.

I had come fresh from the ruins of Kosovo and thought I was inured to violent death and widescale destruction. But this was a challenge to sanity itself, and each day, as I wandered through one community after another, my lungs coated with the stench of rotting corpses and my brain receiving images that no human being should be asked to cope with, I found myself whimpering like a child who has wandered into an abattoir.

Each day, as darkness fell, it was worse. This was a land without power, without water, without roads, without shelter of any kind. And the Turkish government, which has for decades poured billions into building up a huge army and naval fleet, was - like all deeply corrupted states - totally paralysed when it came to protecting its own people. There were no body bags to bury the dead. The much-vaunted army was nowhere to be seen for more than a week; hospitals collapsed through lack of surgeons, operating theatres and drugs. And government officials lied. How they lied.

They promised that every body would be carefully examined, fingerprinted and photographed, before burial in marked graves. And on the very day the prime minister said this, in English, on television, I saw the bodies of hundreds of men, women and children being piled, like so much garbage, on to dustcarts and buses, taken up into the hills and thrown into nameless pits.

We foreign journalists filed our stories about this callousness and ineptitude, but in the end we were forced to admit that if the same scale of earthquake had occurred along a 100-mile swathe between Birmingham and London we, too, would have been unable to cope. Nothing could have coped with this.

The violence and destructiveness of wars, terrible though they are, have a certain kind of logic to them. We can trace the causes back to the source. We can understand our own capacity for savagery. But what we witnessed along the shores of that bright, shining sea in August was beyond logic, beyond understanding.

I have many images of my seven days in Turkey. Some of them are still waking me up in the dead hours of the night. Two will stay with me for the rest of my days.

The first came in the eerie darkness of a street in the town of Adapazari, where hundreds of buildings had been toppled like dominoes, where crushed and bleeding bodies could be seen squashed between huge slabs of concrete, and where only the rats and starving dogs had the energy to roam. I had become lost in a side street and was approached, as if in a dream, by a child, a boy aged about five, whose face had been turned chalk white by concrete dust. He was in shock, but he seemed to be smiling.

He held up his hand to me, nodding happily and talking quite cheerfully in Turkish as I led him out to the main street and into a casualty station. To my everlasting shame I walked away the moment I saw he was safe. I made no attempt to find out his name, where he had spent many days, or where his family were. I can still see his ghost-like face coming towards me out of that street of nightmares.

The second image was of an encounter with a dapper, American-educated secondary schoolteacher whose words said everything about human helplessness in the face of great natural catastrophes.

"It is as if the earth itself turned against us," he said. "As if we had looked into the face of Mother Nature and saw that her smile was not a smile at all. It was a snarl."

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?