The Turkish Earthquake: Izmit's dogs howled, as the army slumbered on

Despite plenty of warnings, the authorities were completely unprepared when disaster struck
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The Independent Online

At around 3 o'clock in the morning of Saturday August 14, Kanieh Topal woke in her three-storeyapartment block in the western suburbs of Izmit to hear a strange sound. "All the dogs were howling,"she said. "They didn't bark, they howled - like this." And Mrs Topal made a high, ululating sound like awoman in mourning. "The dogs made the same sound on Sunday and again in the early morning onMonday. Then the cat sat on the floor, gripping the carpet with her claws." On the other side of the road,her neighbour Kadir Akgul remembers the dogs on the Monday night, howling "not like dogs butwolves".

At around 3 o'clock in the morning of Saturday August 14, Kanieh Topal woke in her three-storeyapartment block in the western suburbs of Izmit to hear a strange sound. "All the dogs were howling,"she said. "They didn't bark, they howled - like this." And Mrs Topal made a high, ululating sound like awoman in mourning. "The dogs made the same sound on Sunday and again in the early morning onMonday. Then the cat sat on the floor, gripping the carpet with her claws." On the other side of the road,her neighbour Kadir Akgul remembers the dogs on the Monday night, howling "not like dogs butwolves".

Nature, it seems, was trying to warn the people of Izmit and Yalova and Golcuk and Istanbul and athousand other towns and villages across 450 miles of Turkey.Twelve miles beneath them, the greattectonic plates of the north Anatolian rock fault had begun to move again. On Monday, they say inYalova, the birds went silent but began to fly from tree to tree, never resting on a branch for more than afew seconds.

At 3 o'clock on Tuesday morning - exactly 24 hours after the dogs had given the people of Izmit theirfinal warning - the 12-mile deep fissure cracked, snapping open the earth's crust and visiting desolationon the sleeping humans above. In the space of 45 to 90 seconds - some buildings took longer to collapsethan others - well over 100,000 apartment blocks, hotels, hospitals, shops, factories and private housesthundered to the ground in what one survivor described as an "atomic" explosion. Some describe its effectas "evil" - the cracks veining the walls of luxury homes, the shrieks of people ripped apart betweenelevators, walls and balconies, the blood washing out beneath sandwiched floors - others as a final,terrible spiritual experience.

The Turkish journalist Fehmi Koru was in the Bosphorus resort of Yalova when the world stopped and,in what must be one of the finest pieces of reportage on the catastrophe, recalled the calamity in biblicalterms: "What I saw during and after the earthquake was reminiscent of the events of the Day of Judgementdescribed by the holy books of the divinely inspired religions.Every man and woman was by himself, allalone, helpless; many were wandering aimlessly around, unable to help others in need. The day after iseven more grotesque: the people, caught unaware in the middle of the night, were trapped inside theirhomes and could not move; the people lucky enough to be alive and well were standing in front of theirloved ones' abodes - they were helpless too."

As the sun dawned a dark crimson through the dust that hung for miles above north-western Turkey, itwas clear that its people had suffered the equivalent of a small-scale nuclear holocaust. In the comingdays, all those scenes that atomic war handbooks had provided for - physical devastation, the breakdownof government services, mass graves and potential epidemics - turned into nightmare reality.

Natural catastrophe would overwhelm any nation. But Turkey had been forewarned 108 times thiscentury, with earthquakes that slaughtered 65,000 people since records began in 1902. But if it wasforewarned, it most assuredly was not forearmed. The government simply never bothered to prepare for adisaster on this scale. It was the construction companies and bribery of the late Seventies and earlyEighties - so the Turkish press and satellite television reporters supposedly discovered - that had doomedthe people. Every time neighbours pulled at shards of concrete, the material broke off in their hands.Concrete is made from sand and cement. The less cement and the more sand you use, the cheaper. Ineffect, many of the doomed were living in houses made from sand.

And when property speculators added four or five more floors to their original investments withoutpermission, there wasn't a whimper from the authorities. It didn't take long before the survivors reacted.In Cinarcik, they attacked the head offices of the Eksioglu construction company with stones and clubs.One of the country's best-known contractors, Veli Gocer - 550 out of 600 of whose "luxury" apartmentblocks are said to have collapsed in Cinarcik and Yalova alone - reportedly fled to Germany within hoursof the earthquake.

In Yalova, survivors claimed that some of the doomed buildings had been put up by a relative of YasarOkuyan, a local MP who also happens to be minister of labour and social security in the government ofBulent Ecevit - the allegedly incorruptible prime minister whose propensity for writing indifferent poetryapparently makes him an intellectual. The Turkish administration reacted in classic Middle East style: byfiring the usual suspects and telling the government television station to shut up.

The governors of Sakarya, Kocaeli and Yalova were dismissed and the deputy prime minister,Husamettin Ozkan, travelled to the burning oil refinery at Izmit to prevent rival groups of officials fromfighting over the best way to put out the

infernos that were destroying 30 per cent of Turkey's refining capacity. Officials of the Turkish Radio andTelevision Corporation were then admonished for daring to report that the government could not copewith the disaster.

But beneath all this - visible to anyone who drove the coast road from Izmit to Istanbul or crossed theBosphorus to Yalova - lay one of the country's most powerful, most expensive, most revered institutions:the Turkish navy. Its frigates, destroyers, gunboats and submarines gleamed across the Bay of Marmara,ready to defend the country from every aggressor. Along the highways a day later - far too late - we sawconvoys of military trucks and armoured vehicles as that most powerful symbol of all, the army,lumbered out of its barracks.

True, some commandos managed to fight their way into the rubble in Istanbul, and the military sufferedits own martyrs: hundreds of young sailors and some of the navy's most senior commanders died atGolcuk harbour as junior officers desperately put their submarines to sea in case the collapsing quaysidesunk them. And of course, the army - as the real government and power in Turkey - is uncriticisable,unassailable, beyond reproach.

The generals and brigadiers, it seems, could destroy a thousand Kurdish villages and fight a cruel andbloody war against insurgents - but they hadn't thought of organising a single specialised earthquakerescue brigade to help their own people in one of the most earthquake-prone regions on the globe. Theycould occupy northern Cyprus, threaten Syria, bomb northern Iraq and help Nato to assault Yugoslavia;they could ally themselves to Israel and arrange the kidnapping of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, inAfrica and give him a show trial - but they couldn't even put out the oil fire at Izmit or send specialisedteams within hours to rescue the thousands of trapped Turkish people in their death-trap homes.

So what is the Turkish military - with its 501 combat aircraft, its 4,205 battle tanks, its 3,649 armouredpersonnel carriers, its 38 attack helicopters, its 15 submarines, five destroyers and 16 frigates - actuallyfor? Why could it not act as fast as the military teams that arrived from the Swiss, French and Austrianarmies? The Turkish army's annual budget is around £4.5bn - twice the estimated total cost ofdestroyed houses in last week's earthquake. In 12 years, the army has spent the very same amount it willtake to rebuild north-western Turkey in the next 15 years.

We in the west helped this preposterous situation to come about.Instead of training our Nato partner incivil defence and human rights, we sold off our central European Nato junk cheap to Turkey in OperationCascade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We wanted to keep Turkey as one of our policemen in theMiddle East. And the Turkish army merrily went along with this scenario.

Turks, while they do not believe in revolution, while Ataturk remains one of the titans of the century, area shrewd, tough people who watched their soldiers turn up late, untrained and unco-ordinated in theirmoment of tragedy. Can the army go on being loved the way it was before? Last week's earthquakestruck at the heart of Turkey's proudest, most pampered institution, a fact which is unlikely ever to beforgotten. For while the dogs howled in Izmit, the army slept on, ready to defend Turkey againsteverything except its worst enemy.

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