The van doors slam open. In front of the gates of the Bab Al Hawa border post, on the border with Syria, invocations go up. A group of men rush to the trunk, filled with black body bags. The sound of prayers is drowned out by their surgical masks, put on because of the smell. Some bodies taken from the rubble have been lifeless for several days.
Rim, the daughter of Moustafa Muhbat, his youngest, died from the first tremors. Around 4 a.m. on the night of February 6, a wall in the building fell on him. At least that’s what the doctors at the Antakya morgue told him. Her two other daughters are still trapped under the rubble of this city in the province of Hatay, which has been turned into fields of ruins since the 7.8 earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria. “I know very well what that means. I’m not afraid to say it: they may be dead,” said Moustafa Muhbat, lowering his cap over his eyes. His tears wiped away, he catches his breath, and goes back.
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Refugees in Turkey
The others, standing on the dumpster, send encouragement. There are five bodies left to put in a second van, the one that will sink behind the barriers of the Turkish border guards. On the back, a glazed inscription: “May God protect”.
The last farewell is made in the parking lot, and then they leave. These Syrian families who send their dead to the other side of the border cannot accompany them. Moustafa Muhbat took refuge in Turkey in 2011 because of the regime’s repression. The “Arab Spring” is far behind now, but the situation in Syria has only gotten worse since. Other Syrians followed in 2015, even more numerous. The vast majority went to Turkey – around 3.5 million Syrians live there – especially in the provinces affected by the earthquake: Sanliurfa, Kahramanmaras, Gaziantep and Hatay. This evening, they will return to Antakya, in front of their collapsed buildings. On the Syrian side, relatives must recover them and bury them without them.
“Returning to Syria is too dangerous”
Muhammed El-Hammoud, 30, came to lend a hand. His wife and children were stuck for a few hours under a tin roof. “But compared to them, it doesn’t matter, thank God,” he adds, pointing to a separate group. This family has its own van, it’s a bad sign: body bags occupy the entire vehicle. The women wait in a car, the men take a look at the bags piled on top of each other. All have red eyes. “Today we find ourselves blocked, summarizes Muhammed El-Hammoud. We have little news of our families remaining in Aleppo, Idlib or elsewhere. There are missing people, we cannot save them. And our dead in Turkey, we will never see their grave”.
Earthquake in Turkey and Syria: more than 22,300 dead, the UN calls for “a ceasefire” in Syria
In front of the border post, two women and three young boys are waiting for their turn to cross into Syria. One of them says she has nothing more to do in Turkey, her apartment is a pile of dust. The number of these returns is not known. Nothing indicates that they are massive. Muhammed El-Hammoud wants to stay: “Returning to Syria is too dangerous. And then I never really had a fixed job, so the earthquake is not going to change much at this level. »
Behind them, a convoy of trucks full of aid: food, blankets, clothes. On the cabin, flags of the IHH, a Turkish NGO, or the UNICEF logo. The Bab Al-Hawad corridor is the only crossing point in Syria guaranteed by the United Nations. The lack of aid in the early days weighed on Syria even more than in Turkey. For four days, the passage had not been authorized by the Syrian authorities. But since February 9, trucks have been able to pass. “Only the goods can go to the other side, we don’t have the right to go and help on our own because of the sanctions against Syria. It’s terrible and frustrating,” laments a local UN official. Once the 22 trucks of the day have been authorized to enter the Syrian side, the United Nations personnel turn around. They too set out again on the roads of Hatay, still lacerated by the earthquake.
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