Earthquake In Turkey: Sounds of fury rise from wreckage of a town that became a charnel house

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The Independent Online
HOW COME we never heard about the massacre at Yalova? Slaughter, bloodbath, call it what you will; but Tuesday's earthquake has turned this attractive little Turkish port into a charnel house that eclipses anything nature did elsewhere in Anatolia.

Dead arms hang from broken balconies, heads are visible in crushed concrete, corpses are heaped in the rubble under filthy sheets. There could be as many as 10,000 dead in Yalova alone. Who would have thought it possible to cram so many dead into so small a town?

If Izmit can count 40 or 50 fatalities in every crushed house, Yalova can boast 200 - even 400 - dead in single apartment blocks, square miles of ruins and dust in which sewage and human decomposition are combined with equal ferocity.

It's face-mask time in Yalova;green surgical masks, white plastic masks, handkerchiefs, old scarves, anything to prevent the dead infecting our mouths and throats. Only the relatives breath this horrid vapour - it's difficult to scream of pain and revenge through a cloth. And so it was that Gunur Bilgin - pieces of her mother and four brothers all tugged out of the filth in front of her - picked up a hunk of cement and shattered it on the ground, the shards ricocheting at our feet. "God damn the filthy people who built this house," she screamed. "The mercy of God be upon us. Look at this cement. It's shit, it never protected us. And look at this `iron' rod. You call this `iron'?"

No, we could not. It was only a few centimetres thin, a pathetic support for the walls that fell in on each other like paper on Tuesday and destroyed almost all the Bilgin family alongside, one should add, 123 other people.

Somewhere beneath us were their steadily putrefying remains. Twelve miles beneath us - exactly beneath our feet, according to the geologists - lay the Anatolian fault line. And somewhere in Yalova was the mayor, who didn't appear very keen to visit his people on this oven-like summer's day. Could he be on the run from the government's critics, who are demanding to know why the people are still digging out their own dead three days after the catastrophe? Or could it be because he is connected to a construction company called Mesa, which the people claim built many of these death- trap homes well over a decade ago?

Anyone who turned up in Yalova with a claim to have constructed these awful places would be lynched. And the survivors, bloody and limping and shouting with rage, are probably ready for a good hanging.

Even down the road in the suburb of Aydin, the middle classes were prepared to scream for revenge.

"I was in my home with my aunt and all her children just a week ago and her home was built by a company called Atacan whose family is related to our local MP," a young businessman said to me - hissed to me might be a better word - in fluent English. "And now their home is flat and they are dead and when the German aid people came here and saw this, they could not believe how the house had been built."

Aydin is a place of parks and clubs and holiday homes, of red roses in flourishing gardens and speed bumps and uniformed housing estate guards. Yet just by the sea - aback a restaurant that lay beside a small fishing river - an entire row of 70 homes had simply collapsed on their bourgeois residents. On the top floors, sun-shades lay askew beside overturned barbecue spits and cocktail cabinets.

On the layers of lower floors - each no more than four feet in height - lay the dead. The bodies of a woman and two men, obscenely tangled beneath a blue-and-white striped sheet, the arm of a man dangling from a stained carpet, the black-haired head of a woman poking from a mattress.

Beneath the lowest floor, the people of Yalova had dug a hole in the earth and begun to mine their way beneath the hundreds of tons of concrete, using wooden pit props as supports, a miniature shaft which - when I ventured a foot or two inside - gave forth a cold draught that smelt of old corpses. The men had burrowed far beyond, with a courage that comes close to the unspeakable. They said they could sometimes hear the concrete cracking above them.

On the other side of this great tomb stood Mergul Kotil, who would not allow her horror and potential grief to damage her carefully grammatical English. "My mother, Cemile, is in there," she said very quietly. "She has been there for 70 hours now, it's the third day today. You see there?" And here she pointed at a mere crack in the concrete slabs.

"That was the second floor and in between were the stairs, and that ..." And here her hand moved a few inches upwards. "Well, that is the third floor. We have found three people dead so far and a woman holding her child tight in her arms - they were dead - and her husband was dead beside her."

How old was her mother, I asked - in the present tense, because I had noticed how carefully Cemile kept her dead mother alive in her words. "She is 72," she said.

And then came a shouting man. "We need dogs here. We need dogs to find the 240 people buried in this block," he wailed. "They won't listen to us but they will listen to your newspaper. Write it, write it - we need dogs in Aydin."

I gave him my promise, though I knew that the dogs were already exhausting themselves in the fetid cracks of Yalova's downtown ruins. So were the volunteers from the Slovenian Red Cross and a squad of Austrian soldiers who were squeezing into the stinking pot-holes below the rubble with their alsatians.

I watched them crawl into these awful crevasses - "not a place to use your imagination" as one of their number put it; on Wednesday, they tugged out a living seven-year-old boy, Sercan Keskin, and yesterday, they heard a young girl call to them from an entombed basement: Sercan's 15-year old sister Sevcan. She had a strong voice and a Turk shouted that the Austrians were coming for her and that she must stay alive and be patient. And so a young soldier in his military uniform scrambled back into the darkness and stench to reassure her.

What was the meaning of that clunker of a hymn we used to sing at school? "He who would valiant be, 'gainst all disaster?" But I suppose the bravest of the brave were the survivors of Yalova who sweated on for the third boiling day and sweltering night with their brawn and muscles against the concrete and twisted iron to dig out the living - almost all of whom turned out to be dead.

In the centre of the town,amid the buildings that had slumped lazily against supermarkets near the river, and the apartment blocks that tottered over the high street and the mountains of destroyed homes, a man with a pickaxe shouted: "We can't go on - he's dead down there." And a woman in black shrieked at him: "Don't say that. This is untrue. He is alive." And the man with the pickaxe returned to hack at the cement.

The women and children, their homes turned into death traps, now live in the streets, in their gardens or yards or among the flowering lawns that line the waterfront opposite the stately grey frigates and cruisers of the Turkish fleet; such mighty, useless military power to gaze upon from the middens and soiled grass among which the tens of thousands now survive. And talking of the living, how can we count the dead? If there are 10,000 corpses amid the muck of Yalova - and the mayor of Golcuk, the naval port near Izmit, gives the same figure for his town - and if there are almost the same number in Izmit and its suburbs, perhaps more, and if we add the dead of Istanbul and the dozens of villages around the Sea of Marmara, I suppose we are now talking of up to 40,000 dead. Which would make it the greatest tragedy in modern Turkish history, the fiercest earthquake here of this terrible century.

And its martyr city is likely to be a town called Yalova.

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