EARTHQUAKE IN JAPAN: EYEWITNESS: A war zone of a natural kind

There is a chill silence broken only by the sirens of rescue vehicles

A Tokyo-based Reuter correspondent, Abi Sekimitsu, a native of Kobe, returned to her devastated home town yesterday This is not my home town. This is a war zone. It is suddenly a scary, eerie place where pets forlornly search for their masters. Buildingsspill their shattered walls and insides on to the side of roads. Sirens sound in a darkness suddenly lit by leaping flames.

This is not my Kobe of elegance, bustle and memories. It is a Kobe of devastation which starts at the city limits. Houses in outer suburbs, most of them single wooden structures, have tumbled on one another like bowling pins.

One of the collapsed buildings is a huge Buddhist temple, called Saisukuji, where three monks died.

Closer to central Kobe, in the wealthy residential areas of Ashiya and Shukugawa, suburbs often called the Beverly Hills of Japan, the stone pillars of gates and garden walls are cracked.

The trademark plushness of Kobe's main shopping street, with its glittering malls, has been transformed into shabby, disfigured columns and broken glass. Along the Hankyu railway track, where thousands of residents ride to work each day, entire sections of elevated tracks are collapsed on parked cars, many of them luxury sedans.

Walking through the damage, there is a chill silence broken only by the sirens of rescue vehicles.

The only lights are the headlights of cars and trucks caught in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam both ways, as people seek to leave the city or to get into it to see if their homes still stand.

What is usually a bustling neon-lit journey is transformed into a sad journey between rows of ghastly wrecks of apartments and shops spilling on to the road on both sides. Patrolling police plead with drivers to make way for emergency aid convoys carrying medical supplies.

One convoy was led by a dozen Japan army trucks, each towing a water tank. The surface of the road is cracked every 10 metres, and all traffic lights are out of order. In a city park, about 20 people in blankets huddle around a fire. They are just some of the 70,000 people turned into refugees by the devastation.

In the most potent symbol of the scarring of Kobe, a large, ugly crack runs down the white facade of the Sogo department store, flagship of the city's most elegant shopping district opposite the town's main railway station.

The whole city, my Kobe, has the look of a hundred Leaning Towers of Pisa or a pile of collapsing dominoes.

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