Earthquake in Turkey: Heavy rain adds to misery of survivors

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The Independent Online
IMAM MUSA MEMIS walked through the great swathe of freshly dug graves on the hills above the Sea of Marmara yesterday and asked Allah for his mercy. He was forced to break off his chanting prayer with the arrival of yet another lorry full of bodies. The Islamic cleric is used to burying people. But it is not every day that he has to bury 2,000 of them.

However, he's a tough, pragmatic man and as we stood in the rain he wasted little time on emotional displays for the dead. He simply looked down on the great string of ruined cities along the seashore and said: "The problems are not up here among these graves. These people have no more suffering. Down there the second part of this catastrophe is about to begin - unless Turkey, with the help of our friends, can stop it."

He was right, of course, but if the Turkish authorities are as incompetent in helping the living as they were in recovering their dead, this catastrophe could be far from over.

There are now four massive burial grounds on the hills behind the towns of Izmit and Golcuk. Further east around Adapazari there are at least 10 more.

Imam Memis has not counted the numbers of bodies he and five of his fellow clerics have buried. He thinks it is around 18,000. And each hour the giant refrigerated lorries lumber up through the muddy roads from the coast and begin to dump the corpses, wrapped in plain black or clear plastic zipper bags.

The torrential rain of the past two days has turned theburial fields into quagmires. Each little mound of dark earth only lasts an hour or two before being flattened. Each one is covered in a thick layer of quick lime.

The thousands of graves look rather like a grotesque tray of Christmas chocolate logs, covered in cream. But then you see the tiny mounds, those of the children, and you stop your mind from making morbid jokes.

Only a few of the graves are marked, usually with a plank of cheap wood on which a name is scrawled in marker pen; the vast majority bear no names. The Turkish authorities talk of photographing the corpses, taking fingerprints and comparing dental records. Everybody who has seen the procedure of the bodies being ripped from their impacted concrete tombs knows that this is a blatant lie.

In the 48 hours since the ruthless - and perhaps necessary - decision was made to bulldoze millions of tons of masonry into rubble, I have seen it happen repeatedly. Bodies are simply handed down, sprayed with disinfectant as they lie - usually shielded by only a line of canvas - dumped in bags and taken to trucks.

I have seen nobody with cameras or fingerprinting equipment. And most of these people have never been to a dentist in their lives.

So there they will lie, in fields that will be quickly overgrown. Nameless graves, untended by any relative, with only one thing in common - that the people entombed died together, all these thousands, in exactly the same instant, at three o'clock on a summer morning when the core of the Earth shifted a few metres, 12 miles beneath their beds.

As the cleric and I stood in the rain we had a magnificent, panoramic view of the narrow straits of the Sea of Marmara. We could admire one of this nation's great sources of pride - scores of grey warships, stretched out for miles, and scores more tied up in berths among the cranes of one of the biggest naval bases in Europe. All along this coast lie dozens of barrack complexes housing the soldiers who have spent years fighting a bitter internal war against the Kurds.

Yet not once, during the three days that I have been in this anguished land, have I seen a single soldier climbing over the rubble looking for survivors. Not once have I seen a single naval officer driving an ambulance or a supply truck, even through there are hundreds of such vehicles lined up inside the complex.

These dozens of fat, ancient cruisers and destroyers just a hundred metres out from the shore have full medical emergency quarters, operating theatres and doctors. Yet it appears not a single casualty has been taken inside the base.

As you walk through these towns that are now like images from a bad dream, and see the glazed, stunned eyes of men, women and children, you ask the inevitable question: How can a nation that spends billions of dollars on such military equipment ask the United Nations if they could please let them have 45,000 body bags in which to bury their citizens?

Instead, there are endless screaming frenzies in the various government departments. Each warring faction accuses the other of incompetence and corruption.

Their health minister objected to foreign medical supplies and teams of doctors being allowed to treat the thousands of injured. Airport staff demanded thousands of dollars of import duty on search and rescue equipment being brought in by volunteers. And, in the shoddiest piece of political buffoonery of all, their prime minister promised to build half-a-million homes "right away, immediately, starting tomorrow".

This was from a government that has not even begun to rebuild the thousands of homes destroyed in last year's earthquake, in the province of Adana, where more than a thousand died.

If this country's surprisingly feisty press is right, it was the same developers who built the cardboard houses in Adana who built most of them along the Sea of Marmara. The same government promised an inquiry and criminal prosecutions then. Nothing happened.

It is now clear that the houses which survived that catastrophe were simply tarted up, propped up, and rented to the same poverty-stricken people whose houses were destroyed.

As Imam Memis almost said, life is a matter for the living. What is happening along these 250 miles of despair and destruction involves more than just the chance of widespread disease and death through cold in the rapidly approaching winter months. In many ways it is far, far worse than the great refugee camps of Albania and Macedonia just a few months ago. There, the victims had powerful friends who promised to take them home - and did. Here, the victims are already home - it is the houses in which they and their families lived that have gone.

They have nowhere to go. They must simply sit in the ruins and hope that their government, with the help of Allah, will manage to do something it rarely does - keep a promise.

Yesterday, after seven days of anguish when the shrieks of the women and the cursing of their menfolk seemed to fill the air, there was a strange quietness in the shattered streets that are now little more than sinking mountains of concrete and garbage.

They were still there, these thousands of men, women and children. But they were silent, lying asleep in sodden chairs and couches and mattresses that they had risked their lives to salvage from their tottering apartment buildings, or queuing patiently for hours for the half-cold plates of rice and stale bread being doled out by scores of feeding centres.

Sometimes they wandered around in groups, weeping and embracing each other, but mostly they sat near where there homes had been, just watching as the bulldozers roar and buck over the rubble.

Occasionally there are audible groans as the workmen stop and call for the lime and the body bags. Then they watch, with tears now, as the bodies are quickly taken behind the screens and on to the trucks and up into the hills.

"It's as if they cannot bear to go away," said Ismet Iser, a local doctor whose wife and mother died while he was away attending a conference. "I think some of them feel that if they wait long enough somebody will come along and rebuild their house. But before that happens they will have to demolish this entire town, because nobody will never live in any of these houses again.

"As for me, when I have settled my affairs. I will leave this place and never return. My wife and my mother were found quickly, and I took them to our home town of Ankara. I have seen those terrible burial fields on the hills, and I would not let my family rot up there."

With that he strolled off, past the women in their couches and armchairs. Waiting for who knows what.

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