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Syrian Refugees Who Died in Earthquake Are Returned Home

Millions fled the war in Syria for the safety of neighboring Turkey. “We want them to be buried among their family,” said a man waiting for the body of a young relative coming from Turkey.

A man on the Syrian side of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing carries the body of a relative killed in Turkey. [Aaref Watad | Agence France-Presse | Getty Images]

In the first days after Monday’s earthquake, no humanitarian aid was entering northwestern Syria. Only victims’ bodies.

They arrived in the back of a van, wrapped in body bags, blue tarps or colorful family blankets. Their names were scrawled on pieces of paper for bereaved family members waiting in the bitter cold to receive them on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.

The dead had once fled the airstrikes and collapsed buildings during a civil war back home to live in safety in Turkey. This week they were pulled from the rubble of their new homes and repatriated through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between the two countries.

On Tuesday there were 85 Syrian bodies. On Wednesday, dozens more followed.

“Those who didn’t die in Syria, died in Turkey,” said Ahmad al-Yousef, 37, as he waited Tuesday night on the Syrian side of Bab al-Hawa with his aunt to receive the body of a cousin’s 13-year-old daughter. The body of the girl, Yara Ibnayat, had been unearthed from the ruins of their home in Turkey that day. Both of her parents and a brother were still under the rubble.

“Those who died, we want them to come back,” said Mr. al-Yousef, who lives in a tent camp near the Syrian town of Sarmada on the border. “We want them to be buried among their family.”

His cousin and his family fled their small village in Syria’s Hama Province in 2013 when shelling and airstrikes intensified, moving to another part of Syria closer to the border with Turkey. Soon after, they crossed over to Turkey because Yara’s father could not find work in Syria.

Now, she was returning.

Over 12 years of a civil war that has still not ended, nearly four million Syrians fled to the relative safety of neighboring Turkey. Millions more sought refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Europe.

The Bab al-Hawa crossing is the only one approved by the United Nations for transporting international aid into opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria, where there was an overwhelming humanitarian need even before the earthquake struck. It is also used by other aid groups.

No humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria had been able to get through the crossing in the first couple days after Monday’s earthquake, in part because the surrounding roads were damaged and aid groups in Turkey had also been affected by the quake.

A truck at the border crossing carries the body of a person killed by the earthquake in Turkey. [Aaref Watad | Agence France-Presse | Getty Images]

On Wednesday morning, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Damascus said that roads to the border crossing were open and that the first aid convoy to Syria from Turkey was expected to arrive in the coming hours.

By Wednesday night, it still appeared that no aid had made it into Syria.

“Right now all we are doing is receiving the bodies of our people who died in Turkey so that they can be buried back in their homeland,” said Mazen Alloush, the head of the Bab al-Hawa media office.

All through Tuesday and Wednesday, people from across northwestern Syria converged at Bab al-Hawa after receiving word from relatives in Turkey that the body of a loved one was being returned to Syria. They came in S.U.V.s and pickup trucks to collect their dead and transport them to their final resting place.

Muslim funeral prayers were being held constantly across northwestern Syria, sometimes in the shadow of mounds of rubble as rescue workers continued a desperate search and recovery operation.

On Tuesday afternoon a crowd of men had formed at the crossing in the bitter cold. They all stood apart, faces drawn. No one spoke.

Syrian rebel fighters trying to identify the bodies of Syrians killed in Turkey upon their arrival at the border crossing late on Tuesday. [Muhammad Haj Kadour | Agence France-Presse | Getty Images]

When the van pulled up, the men surged forward, running, and crowded around the back of the vehicle. A border worker began calling out the names of the dead.

“Ahlam,” he called out.

“Go identify your sister’s body,” one man in the crowd urged another.

But Ahlam’s brother could not bear to see her like that.

“I can’t,” the man said. “I have a memory of my sister’s face in my mind. I don’t want that mental image of her face to be changed.”

His companion was forced to identify Ahlam instead, and they carried her body to their S.U.V. and left to go bury her.

Ever since Syrians began fleeing the war to neighboring countries, many have been returned upon their deaths through border crossings like Bab al-Hawa to be buried in their hometowns, according to the wishes of the dead or their families.

Customarily, the Turkish Health Ministry sends the bodies in a hearse to the border crossing and hands them over to the administration on the Syrian side, Mr. Alloush said. They then take them in a van to the waiting family members.

For nearly two hours Mr. al-Yousef and his aunt waited at the crossing, experiencing a wave of disappointment each time new bodies arrived and their young relative was not among them.

Vehicles holding the bodies of those killed in Turkey arrive at the border crossing in Syria. [Muhammad Haj Kadour | Agence France-Presse | Getty Images]

Occasionally they retreated to sitting inside their vehicle to stay warm in the frigid night weather.

“Burying the dead is the most important thing,” Mr. al-Yousef said. “We need to honor the dead.”

They planned to bury Yara in a village cemetery near where her grandmother, Mr. al-Yousef’s aunt, lives. There, as in nearly every cemetery in northern Syria, a handful of grave plots are always dug and ready for the next dead, in a part of the country where death often came from the skies — and not from underground.

“Every cemetery always has 10 graves ready,” Mr. al-Yousef said.

But around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, a border crossing official announced that no more bodies would come that night.

Mr. al-Yousef and his aunt drove home, through villages and towns where other people’s family members were still lying under the rubble waiting to be rescued or recovered.

They planned to return the next day.

On Wednesday, they were informed that Yara’s body would be delayed in its return to Syria: They would wait to recover her parent’s bodies and that of her brother and return them together.


(c) 2023, The New York Times


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