The lost and helpless flee from Hell to the hills

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The Independent Online
THE CHOICE is between two types of Hell - the one where you lie in sodden blankets in a muddy field or forest floor in the rain, or the one where you find any shelter on the pavements of the cities and sleep among the ruins where the rats are flourishing and the dead still lie in their thousands.

The lost people of this devastated 200-mile, industrialised corridor of north-western Turkey have made their choice. They are going into the hills in increasing numbers. Terrified and traumatised to the point where they can barely feel any grief for those who have died, they have only one thought - to get away from these obscene places they once called home.

As each hour passes, what were once bustling towns are being emptied as more than250,000 people accept that life there is no longer possible. So great is the damage that four major towns - Yalova, Golcuk, Ismit and Adapazari - may have to be razed. Not a single house in a chain of communities stretching from Istanbul to Adapazari is safeto occupy.

Within days, the heavily armed soldiers of the Turkish army, who seem largely to spend their time smoking cigarettes and lounging, will have only the rats to protect.

Yesterday it again rained without stopping. Those still remaining here covered themselves in black bin-liners and sheets, and either wandered like black and white ghosts, or tried to sleep wherever they could.

To walk along Izmit Street in Adapazari is to enter a kind of wasteland without logic and almost beyond description. Nine days ago it was a mile- long, tree-lined boulevard full of smart shops, offices, hotels, cafes and apartment buildings. Today it is too dangerous for even the bulldozers to enter.

Hundreds of buildings totter at obscene angles, like lines of gigantic dominoes that did not quite fall when pushed. Yet hundreds of people still wandered through this monstrous caricature of urban architecture, as if in a dream.

Some young men took incredible risks to climb up to the fifth floor of an apartment block to salvage items of furniture. Whole families stood for hours explaining to passers-by, or men with cameras, that a particular flat was theirs. Or who had died inside. Or who they thought were still inside.

Harife Kaya, a pretty 30-year-old, even managed to give a vivid description of who lived where, who survived and why, and who died and why.

She had happened to be sleeping in a back bedroom on the fourth floor with her three youngest daughters when they earthquake struck. That was why she lived and her 10-year-old daughter, Murf, and her sister, Fatima, 39, were crushed as thousands of tons of masonry sliced down through the front of the building. Eighteen people died in this one block. Mrs Kaya knew one woman who got up to use the toilet and saw the entire front of the house slide down. She lost four members of her family in a split second.

You could fill 10 reporters' notebooks with stories like this. In Adapazari you tap on any shoulder and you hear a tale of horror.

A smartly dressed man standing in the centre of the street, regarding it almost in awe, told us in perfect English that he was Ahmet Hacoiglu, a senior master at Mithatpafa High School and he had spent four days trying to track down the 40 pupils in his senior English class. He knew that 17 of them were killed, 18 were alive - though some seriously injured - and five were missing. Two of them, brothers, were still inside one of the crushed structures before us. "They were the very best of the school," he said. "Turkey has lost some valuable young people. The school collapsed. It is totally destroyed. Just like everything else here."

The chaotic hospital, where the wards have been extended into the open air, had the air and frenzy of a battlefield casualty station. In every possible inch of space lay men, women and children, some with injuries beyond the scope of anything but specialist surgeons. Only a single, ancient helicopter was available to fly urgent cases to Ankara. Not a single military helicopter - and the Turks have scores of large transport machines - has been seen.

There has been much talk of traumatised children and the intense care they will need. When I looked into the tent marked "psychiatry unit", I saw only two middle-aged auxiliary nurses, smoking and looking bored. I asked if there was a doctor. They said there was but they had not seen him.

Down the road, a queue nearly half a mile long waited for boxes of food donated by a local company. The lorry was emptied long before those at the end of the queue reached it.

All over the city sinister-looking vehicles with large tanks pumped foul-smelling disinfectant gas into the air.

An Israeli doctor told me they had one suspected case of para-typhoid. No "real" typhoid. No cholera. That was the only good news of the day. Then he casually said he thought many people were showing signs of extreme mental illness. "It's not like being crazy. But a lot of them, especially the older men, are beginning to hallucinate and lose touch with reality. Maybe it is a temporary thing."

Later, up in the hills, we saw the clear signs of the great exodus - and the sudden appearance of the first real aid to the fleeing thousands. The first of the proper refugee camps, with row after of row of white, wig-wam style tents, has been established. The entire area has also been flooded with quicklime, giving it the appearance of a snow-covered field. Within hours about 5,000 people had arrived and claimed what may be their home for months.

But in other places, on every hillside, forest and valley, we found the small encampments of those who had decided to fend for themselves. There are now hundreds of these, spread out over a 40-mile arc above the Sea of Marmara.

Sodden blankets, plastic sheets, even pages from newspapers, have been used as protection from the wind and rain. Barefoot children play in mud a foot deep, babies lie in blankets on the bare earth. The women try to cook soup on open fires while the men go down to the towns and the local farms to forage for food. The very air, fetid from open latrine pits and rubbish, smells of despair.

We asked the same question every time: is there any centre where you can go to get help and instructions or some transport to tent cities? Every time, the answer was the same - a shrug or a shake of the head.

Further up into the hills lie the graveyards. Two new ones have been created since yesterday, and all day and night convoys of lorries are rolling up to dump bodies in unmarked graves. It is the one skill that the Turkish government has proved itself good at - it knows know how to clear its dead.

We noticed there was not a single search team in any of the towns. Thebulldozers are now scooping up everything and dumping their loads into the trucks. Inside the mess there are undoubtedly corpses, bound for the bottom of the sea.

The dead are being taken care of. The living will have to wait a lot longer.