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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."