Earthquake In Turkey: A modern city turned into a scene from the Middle Ages

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I MUST have been there an hour, standing between collapsed apartment blocks, shops and offices all slumped into each other. Maybe 10 bodies, wafer-thin and bone-crunched, had been slithered out from the muck when I asked one of the local policemen a question that had been on my mind. Could one blame God?

All these innocents, 146 in the square mile around me in the Istanbul suburb of Avcilar, all pancaked to death in perhaps five seconds yesterday morning. But the policeman - and the Turks are tough people, I was learning amid this terrible place - gave me a smile. "Not God," he said. "Builders."

And of course, every earthquake - including Turkey's latest catastrophe with a death toll that threatens to rise to 3,000 out in the great industrial city of Izmit - becomes political within hours of death.

Professor Simav Bargu, one of the city's most prominent geologists, summed it up amid the arc lights with devastating brevity. "There is a problem with the cement," he said. "And there is the problem with the diameter of the iron rods in these houses. They are, shall we say, not a useful diameter."

And a blond woman standing behind him with tears in her eyes cried out: "These people want to rent their buildings to 50 people for as much money as possible - and why should they care how they build them?"

Even in the dusk, and amid the dust clouds of trucks and buses and the drills of rescue workers, it was clear that the earthquake - deprem in Turkish and measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale - culled life in milliseconds. On Demir Sokak street, several of the houses had just slid lazily together amid the aftershocks and slumped on to their knees, pulverising the bottom two storeys and all who were in them. Several apartment blocks lent against each other.

"This morning we heard some people, maybe two people, crying down there," the policeman said and pointed to a tiny hole in the rubble. "Then the crying stopped and we now cannot believe they are alive."

Down the long Karayolu boulevard, every 20th house just collapsed yesterday morning and the wreckage amid the lights last night told of Istanbul's new bourgeoisie. Expensive curtains clung to horizontal windows, satellite dishes to rows of flattened balconies. Everywhere we went, we heard the same hopeless story. "There were eight people down there. We got three out, the rest were dead, four of them children and one woman." Another building and the rescue workers, including Turkish troops, policemen and young men with thin moustaches and gaunt faces, were looking for 15 people. Beneath a crane, I came across a soldier who said that he thought he was standing beside "25 or 30 people", stacked below him in the sandwiched concrete.

They had no chance, of course. If the buildings did not collapse sideways in despair, they banged down on to the lower floors and killed all within. Oddly, the living demanded more compassion than the dead. For the survivors of yesterday's act of God - I wasn't the only one to question a deity's purpose amid the ruins - were too fearful of the aftershocks to re-enter their cramped homes. Rather than walk into the darkened and tottering apartment blocks, they chose to sleep in the streets, not just hundreds or thousands but tens of thousands, all across Istanbul - a population of terror whose faces were illuminated by countless oil lamps in fields, on pavements, on traffic islands, on wasteland and garbage tips. Blankets covered may of them. Others used sheets to make tents.

There was the smell of kebabs. Families clung together, awaiting further tremors. Some brought their animals: dogs, cats, goats, sheep - a crazed zoo lit up by the headlights of cars on motorways and boulevards.

Even outside the greatest Istanbul hotels, the families sought shelter in the open, sometimes even spreading on to the roadways. It was not a city in panic - there is still some electricity, telephone lines are being restored and soldiers are everywhere. But it is a great European metropolis turned, just briefly, into an image of the Middle Ages. In just a few small streets, a Turkish policeman said he had counted 125 dead. But with a strange optimism, he said that even if they found twice that number amid the powdered cement, it had to be less tragic than the horrors being uncovered in the industrial city of Izmit.

On the edge of Avcilar, another cop jumped into my taxi and ordered the driver to follow a busload of German doctors which was racing through the streets with a convoy of army trucks. At the top of one road, we came to a halt where a six-storey building had burst open upon itself at the first tremor and crashed across the street. There were cars underneath it, some of them still smouldering, and parts of people. At one side, a family were eating silently from tin plates, sheets stretched over their heads for protection from the dust. Life amid death, and it went on with curious normality. Beside them a man, woman and child watched in silence as a civil defence volunteer tore at the rubble with his hands.

And just a few metres away, in a snack shop that had escaped God's wrath, they were serving more kebabs and lots of Pepsi.