So many bodies, so much horror in the dust of Turkey's nightmare

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The Independent Online
THE BODIES come to the mortuary in strawberry yoghurt trucks or lorries bearing the words "Fresh Fish". Sometimes, the evil-smelling load actually turns up in a refrigerated container vehicle with an illustration of a large crimson strawberry on the side, topped - of course - with whipped cream. But when they open the rear doors, even the man in the little glass box with the handwritten ledger of names reels from the contents. Turkey's earthquake is giving up its victims in the cruellest way.

Sometimes they come intact, with a piece of paper tied to a toe; just as often, they are delivered in pieces in a sack. It is 30C in the shade and our gauze face-masks are useless against such putrefaction. When we approach the cold storage rooms, my Turkish translator retches and turns away. They received 600 bodies on Thursday and another 400 by dawn yesterday - a mere fraction of the more than 40,000 now believed dead.

The man in the glass box tells me he has maybe half the names. And when I walk into cold storage bay Number One, I can see why. Some of the dead come in black plastic rubbish sacks, some in military body bags, others in bright yellow rubber sacks that are laid on the damp, concrete floor. The refrigeration roars into the high-ceilinged chambers from an equally roaring generator.

But across the room are the other dead, still tied inside the blankets and sheets from which they were pulled from their homes. There are corpses partly uncovered, a naked shoulder, a leg that ends in gristle, a cadaver without a head, a man without hands, a body so small it could be covered with a handkerchief.

Amid such horror, you have to remind yourself that these heaps are the innocent, the good, the vulnerable; men, women and children who should never have died - who were found, often, tight in each other's ruined arms. When families are found together, they are laid beside each other, the corpses close together, covered in that thick, benevolent brown dust that marks the earthquake victims of Turkey. Bureaucracy amid the nightmare. In Turkey, you need a death certificate to bury a body. And to get a death certificate, you need official identification. And for that, you have to visit the mortuary.

Needless to say, it can't last. Take the case of Yelmaz Bekmezce, who was on holiday from Germany when the earthquake destroyed his uncle's family in Yalova. When Yelmaz reached their house, it was a rumple of broken cement. He and his relatives identified his uncle's son and his wife and one of their two daughters. But the elder daughter, 18-year-old Nese Bolen, could not be found.

I came across Yelmaz, swaying with revulsion, his hand clamping a mask to his nose, 200 metres from cold storage room Number 4. "I am sorry to say that many of the bodies are terribly disfigured," he mumbled. "And I think that probably someone else thought Nese was their daughter and took her away and buried her."

Like everything else in Turkey now, there is a make-shift, gimcrack, desperate routine that surrounds the dead. In Istanbul, they now lay out the victims on an ice rink. In Yalova, the hospital mortuary long ago overflowed, so they have op- ened the cold storage rooms in the Agricultural Research Centre and - for lack of hearses - commandeered the fruit and yoghurt and fish trucks. Thus to a place dedicated to fruition and life and progress come the dead who were killed in rotten houses that were the fruit of corruption and quick profits.

"I took a bit of cement from my aunt's destroyed house," Omer Baykir said. "And later I rubbed it with my fingers and it turned to dust in my hand. So why do you ask me how these people died?" They haven't yet found Omer's aunt or her sister or her sister's husband, although they did pull their 18-year-old daughter, Oya, out of the tiny, foot-high crack that was left of the first floor. Alive.

Down at the French military base, you would think that it was all panache. French soldiers do not fear death, I seem to recall. A Turkish flag flutters on a mast above a (slightly) smaller French flag, and tall, crew-cut men who might have been at home in Sidi Bel Abbes are ready day or night to enter the sepulchral ruins. And when Captain Aubert Pascal of the French army's Civil Rescue Unit tells me that it is not the job of his men to retrieve the dead, it sounds like pure Beau Geste. But spare a few seconds for Captain Pascal, the unit's communications operations officer. In two days, his comrades have saved nine lives. Among them, a baby of three months. And a boy of 10, a girl of 16. A man of 26 was trapped by his hand and the French had to cut it off to free him.

And the dead? "We have found 60 or 70 - but it is not our job to worry about the dead. You must remember this. It is the living we are interested in, saving lives. And can you imagine what it feels like to grip a trapped human being's hand under all that concrete - and to pull him out - and then to be embraced by the man you've saved and by his family?"

A journalist, Fehmi Koru, put it more eloquently after he was saved in Yalova. "There is no civil society in Turkey to assume responsibility in times of need," he wrote. "No volunteers, no stockpiled necessities, no trained dogs. Nothing whatsoever."

Across in Cinarcik, they have taken matters into their own hands. It's a pretty seaside town with fishing boats and sloping streets and outside kebab restaurants and a hot spring bursting from the volcanic rocks deep beneath the sea. And on Tuesday, Cinarcik's blessing turned out to be its curse. When the earthquake struck, it levelled two blocks of apartments in the hills - killing at least 15 - and another four in the centre of the town. And after the initial shock, the people went to the offices of the construction company that built many of the town's apartment blocks and attacked it with clubs and stones, breaking windows, hacking at the front doors, more or less unhindered by an equally enraged local police force.

In the gardens and parks and squares and traffic islands and along the pebbled sea-shore, the people of Cinarcik and Yalova and Aydin now sleep beneath the stars. The luckiest man was the old boy who lived in a wooden shack amid Yalova's high-rise apartments and drank an entire bottle of raki on Monday night, slept through the monstrous anger of crashing buildings and only woke up when he was disturbed by a mechanical digger. The unluckiest are the survivors who suspect the truth; that their country did not save them nor would again.

When I asked a rescue worker what political effect all this death would have, he looked around at the mountains of ruins and said, with deep contempt, just one word: "Nothing". At 1.35 yesterday afternoon, another earthquakeshook the wreckage - 4.6 on the Richter scale - and, aboard my boat embarking from the quay, I fancied that I saw the waters shudder.

Full reports, pages 10 and 11

Leading article, Review, page 3