A hand of hope in the mass graves of concrete and steel

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The Independent Online
THE PUNISHMENT of God fell upon Sencer Temiz just after midday yesterday. Or that is what the bearded old man in the green cap and braces would have us believe as we stood beside the sandwiched wreckage of the Hotel Gulistan.

We could see Mr Temiz's two arms protruding from beneath a heap of concrete - we dare not think of the weight on his chest from the five-storey building that crushed him - and the young man with the drill kept feeling his pulse. But old Mustafa al-Dirmaz insisted that God was punishing Turkey because its people were no longer Muslims.

That is when the drill stopped. "He's just died," the young man shouted. "There's no more pulse." There were up to a hundred men in the workers' hotel when it collapsed in Tuesday morning's earthquake. Only 10 had been dragged out. We were standing beside a mass grave, just those two dead hands to remind us of what lay within the wads of concrete and steel.

In fact, we were standing beside dozens of mass graves, row after row of flattened homes and shops and apartment blocks and hotels and - yes - hospitals. And I had only to walk a few yards to see another ruined figure - a mockery of the human being who had lived only 36 hours before - being tugged from the cruel burial chambers.

From one apartment block, they brought forth a woman with half a head and no legs, wrapping her remains in the dignity of a dirty yellow blanket and heaving it into a cheap wooden coffin with a cry of "Allah".

At a clinic near the motorway, I found a middle-aged man with tears that cleaned a day of caked dust from his face, pulling desperately at a foot. His neighbours had somehow propped up a wall of prestressed concrete with two iron radiators and were using a crowbar to hack at the rubble behind the foot. They worked in silence in the midday heat as the man looked round at us and then turned back and gently stroked the foot.

It was half an hour before he could ease the body from the muck. It was his daughter, white with death, her legs punched through by roof beams, the blood no less terrible for being dry. Selin Silvan was 13 and her father kissed her briefly before shrouding her in another of those filthy sheets which have become part of the ritual of death-by-earthquake.

Three soldiers carried Selin's body away on a stretcher and the men put their arms round Mr Silvan and then he lit a cigarette and nodded in our direction as if to say that he had finished his duty as a father. But he had not. There was another daughter in the same crumpled building.

After a while in Izmit, you look for something political to take your mind off the dead, someone to be angry with. Nature - or God, if the old man with the green hat was to be believed - had punched his way across this grimy, polluted city, stepping on a house here, kicking another to pieces, stamping on a hospital, a boarding house and a block of flats and crushing his heel into the insect-sized creatures inside Officially, the dead rose from a thousand to 2,000 in just a few hours. But in the corridors of Izmit's crowded hospital - a place of terrible pain and fearful wounds - they were talking catastrophe; of 10,000, even 20,000.

So why not blame the government, as so many of the sweating men did as they clambered over the detritus of so many lives? A few soldiers heaved at the corpses and the government hospital staff were running a casualty clearing station that looked like the Somme, screaming men and soaked bandages and, in a tent erected outside, a growing crowd of blood-covered children. But on most of those mass tombs, only neighbours and friends and relatives of the dead and missing scrabbled with their hands in the dirt. You could be cared for if you survived. But to survive, you had to be found. And to be found, you could not necessarily expect the government to help.

Exhausted behind a BP petrol station - about the only structure that had survived intact in that part of town - was a group of Austrian Red Cross volunteers whose massive labrador and alsatian dogs had already sniffed out 17 souls yesterday morning, the great, exhausted beasts lying in the street as their keepers poured bowls of cold water over their fur.

Raphael Eisikovic still had the energy to discuss the finer points of survival. If your house collapses on top of you, you have got to hope that the floors above are caught on the iron balconies and tipped askew. If they come straight down, you are dead.

"It's difficult when people come to us and say they've heard a voice in the rubble and we have to tell them our dogs are tired," Mr Eisikovic said. "I've been to floods, famines and this is my first earthquake - but it's difficult to find the algorithm."

thought a lot about that word algorithm as the heat grew during the day. I remembered his use of the word when a young man was hauled into the government hospital with a grotesquely swollen head and eyes that seemed to have been partially pushed out of their sockets, and when a little boy was carried in with blood draining from his body onto his canvas stretcher. Like everyone else, like the rescuers and the men with the coffins and the silly old fool in the green hat, Mr Eisikovic was trying to graft meaning - any kind of semantics would do - onto natural catastrophe.

It was not hard to find one kind of message. Most of the buildings that fell down were built in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when the Turkish economy was in decline, when apartments were jerry-built. "In the old days, people would ask for official permission to build a three- storey house," an angry man told me not far from the toppled minaret of the Mimar Sinan mosque (so God must be punishing God, I remember thinking).

"Then the people just added four more floors onto the first three - without permission. And our local government did nothing about it." A little bit of graft, I asked myself, a spot of local corruption to smooth the way to easy profits - and, two decades later, to sudden death?

The Ottomans ordered their citizens to build only in wood - to avoid the very earthquake victims which modern houses claim - and in Izmit, I discovered that the very few old wooden buildings that had survived the years were still standing undamaged, their delicate wooden tracery still visible around the windows, their fragile balconies quite untouched.

For geologist Simav Bargu, a professor I had come across on the day of the quake and had cajoled into coming with me to Izmit, it was no surprise. Earthquakes are Professor Bargu's profession - it was he who discovered the fault in the Gulf of Izmit that had just murdered all these thousands of people - and all day he would prowl the ruins with a mixture of compassion and professional fascination.

He would note how a building died, which way it fell, how old it was, whether its fire escape remained standing like a skeleton beside the space where a house once stood, whether the height added to the number of dead - it usually did - whether victims had a better chance on the top floor or the bottom. Answer: it is better to be at the top and ride down onto your less fortunate neighbours. For the professor, the North Anatolian Fault was an old acquaintance, one that seemed more alive than the survivors. It was creeping westwards year after year, he told me, and was inevitably going to grind beneath Turkey's industrial cities.

"Energy comes from inside the earth and its power is driven by the same power that blows open volcanoes - gas. The Earth's tectonic plates are like football pitches, moving all the time but at different speeds, some horizontal, some vertical." And he handed me a sheet of computerised seismic profiles and geological sections, a series of cut-away maps with veined rock that I looked at intently beside another house of entombment. And it took a minute or two before I realised that I was looking at the mass- murderer itself, the inside of the great killer-quake.

"This talk of God's punishment is rubbish," Professor Bargu said. "It has to do with how we build our houses." And we looked across at an awful, tiny bundle being lifted from a hole in a flat concrete roof. The professor watched it for a moment as it was carefully handed down from the roof. "Why?" he asked. "What would God punish a baby for?"