Syrian earthquake victims sent home from Turkey for funeral

Syrian earthquake victims sent home from Turkey for funeral

  • By Nafiseh Kohnavard
  • BBC News, Antakya, Turkey

1 hour ago

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Aysha Moarri says goodbye to her daughter Shirin at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing

Aysha Moarri, 45, sobs while stroking a white quilted body bag in the back of a truck.

“How are you leaving me? You were the only reason I stayed alive… How can I breathe now?”

Your daughter is inside. Next to her are the bodies of five other family members.

It’s another cold, bright afternoon at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between southern Turkey and opposition-held north-west Syria.

Syrian refugee families who lost loved ones in last week’s earthquake in southern Turkey are gathered there to help repatriate their bodies.

All around us the heavy smell of death hangs in the air.

Aysha, her husband Nouman and their four-year-old granddaughter Elma were the only survivors after the six-story apartment block they lived in collapsed.

Aysha and Nouman lost two daughters, a son and two granddaughters and still searched for their son-in-law.

Eight years ago, the family fled the civil war in Syria to the southern Turkish city of Antakya in hopes of a fresh start. The city is now in ruins, with more than half of its buildings damaged.

The name of each Syrian victim brought to Bab al-Hawa is written on the body bags with a blue pen to ensure they can be identified at home.

“Take good care of each other. Shirin, my dear, take care of your siblings and my beloved grandchildren,” says Aysha while kissing her daughter’s body through the white cloth.

Her fingers linger on the truck as it pulls away, clearly not wanting to let go.

Her husband bursts into tears at the sight of the truck crossing the border.

“Goodbye, my loves… You will all go home… You will be together,” says Nouman, waving a bandaged hand.

This morning, five more trucks arrive at the border with the bodies of Syrians recovered from under the rubble. Some are wrapped only in blankets instead of body bags.

Makeshift rescue operation

Under the rubble of the Moarri family’s flat back in Antakya, two glass pomegranates stand perfectly intact on a shelf. There is a painting hanging over the table. The rest of the room has collapsed.

Ali, who was engaged to Aysha’s middle daughter Viam, continues to search the rubble in a safety vest.

He shows us where he found Viam’s body. They had been in love for four years, but it was only a week before the earthquake that he had persuaded her father to accept their engagement.

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Ali dug up his fiancée Viam from the rubble of her collapsed apartment block in Antakya

“That evening we texted each other on WhatsApp until late at night. We couldn’t sleep,” he says.

At around 4:00 a.m., he received a text message from Viam: “Are you awake? I had a weird nightmare,” she wrote.

They were in the middle of a video call when the ground started shaking.

“I had just told her not to think about that bad dream. And then we said we love each other. She sat on her bed and laughed softly,” Ali recalled, trying not to burst into tears.

“I saw her try to run but her phone was plugged into the wall and slowed her down. Then the picture is frozen. The screen went black.”

Ali, a fitness trainer who has combat training experience with the armed opposition in Syria, was able to protect himself by crawling under the table in his room.

“When the earthquake was over, I ran out. Our whole neighborhood was devastated.

“I don’t remember going out on the street where she was [Viam] lived. It took me twice as long when all the roads were closed.”

When he arrived at the block of flats, a makeshift rescue operation organized by neighbors was already underway. He called friends to join them. Hours passed and no official help came.

Ali says he and his friends hail from areas of Syria that were frequently bombed by Syrian government forces during the war, so they already have some search and rescue training and experience. Syrians must help Syrians, he adds.

find Viam

Part of the large earthquake-hit area in north-western Syria is under the control of the Syrian government. Another part – where the Moarri family comes from – is held by armed groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

The coordination of the rescue and relief operations was therefore extremely complex and involved several parties to the conflict, the countries supporting them and international humanitarian organizations.

Ali angers the international community, saying powerful countries are fighting major conflicts in Syria and the Syrian people are suffering as a result.

“The whole world came to help Turkey and thank God Turkey itself is a strong country. But what about Syria?”

“I don’t want to talk about politics, but from a humanitarian point of view, we don’t have electricity, clean water, not even houses.”

He added: “Our homes have been destroyed by the war and now by the earthquake. Of course we accept what comes from God. But I should say to the world: enough.”

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Nouman is restrained by Ali to prevent him from following the truck carrying his daughter’s body

After eight days of searching, Ali found the body of his beloved Viam. She hugged her brother Mohammed as she died.

Now Ali is working with a group of 15 other Syrians to find other Syrian families.

Fine concrete dust covers them. It’s everywhere here – making our eyes gritty and our hair gray.

In the first 10 days after the earthquake, more than 2,306 bodies were sent across the border into Syria, according to Turkish authorities.

The Turkish Border Police tell us that it was a massive operation for them and a difficult one to coordinate. Sometimes they are willing to send the bodies, but the other side is not ready to receive them. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

As we prepare to leave, we see a man cuddling the body of his three-week-old baby, wrapped in a small blanket. He is asking for help to bring her body back to her home in an opposition-held part of Idlib province.

He had recovered his daughter from the rubble and then taken her across the border to Turkey for medical treatment. But she didn’t survive.

The Moarri family finally found the last person they were looking for, the body of their son-in-law, ten days after the earthquake.

I ask Ali why the Syrian refugees are sending the bodies of their families to Syria.

“It’s our home. We still hope and believe that one day we will return there. We want our loved ones to be waiting for us there.”