A woman searches for a relative among corpses in Port-au-Prince

In The Comedians, Graham Greene called Haiti the nightmare republic. For the last few days, truth has been more nightmarish than fiction, with an estimated 140,000 killed in last week's earthquake, according to the Haitian government.

The international relief operation is struggling, and time is running out for the estimated three million Haitians affected by the disaster – either injured, homeless, or without food and water. With only miracle rescues now possible for those still trapped alive under the rubble, the risk of disease grows by the hour.

In a land notorious for voodoo, the dust-covered corpses lying prone in the early-morning haze took on an eerie aspect yesterday, only overshadowed by the sheer scale of the tragedy that has left so many dead – and dying – with medical supplies absent, and medical facilities obliterated.

And the stench – the retch-inducing waft of rotting corpses, with so many thousands still under the rubble – settled over the city, as dead as the heat marking the turn from dawn to morning.

Jean-Pierre (26) said he had been digging for survivors, without food or water, or much of a break, for two solid days. "We cannot keep going like this, we are trying to reach people, but they cannot last under the buildings."

Bodies lay in rows or piled beside the streets, some being stacked as roadblocks. On Friday, Haitians began to dig mass graves to bury their dead, which include several leading politicians and the country's leading Catholic cleric.