The February 6 earthquakes in Turkey killed many Syrian refugees. Some families wanted their deceased relatives to be buried back in Syria. At the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, bodies pass through on their way home. Julia Dumont reports for InfoMigrants.
Vans arrive at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing every ten minutes like clockwork. It works like this: a van stops at the gate, men come down and move bodies wrapped in body bags to the trailer of a small white truck. When the entirety of the trailer’s floor is covered with bodies, the truck crosses the border. A few minutes later, it comes back empty, and the operation starts again.
These somber transfers from one country to another are organized by the Turkish city of Reyhanli, which manages the border crossing checkpoint. The bodies coming into neighboring Syria are those of Syrians who had moved to Turkey, fleeing the war. The homes of those men, women and children collapsed on them when two powerful earthquakes struck Turkey and Northern Syria, trapping them into eternal sleep.
Authorities hastily put a protocol in place after the disaster, asking families to bring bodies of their relatives to this part of the border. The city of Reyhanli then delivers a death certificate that must be sent to the family members receiving the body on the other side of the border, in Syria.
The Syrian valley covered in olive trees visible from the border crossing is not under Bashar al-Assad’s control. The northwestern Idlib region is controlled by opposition groups supported by Turkey. After the earthquakes, Ankara struck a deal with these armed groups for the repatriation of Syrian bodies.
'Let me go with her'
In the late hours of Tuesday, February 14, in front of the border crossing, an old woman draped in a long black dress and a white, patterned veil holds in her arms the body of a small child wrapped in a white cover. The body is placed in an oversized body bag. Two men fold the bag several times and wrap it with strings to hold the body tight.
"Let me go with her," the woman weeps. The girl in the bag is her granddaughter, Dima. She was barely 18 months old. She and her parents died when their building collapsed, in the Cumhuriyatce neighborhood in the Antakya city center. Their bodies are lying next to each other in the truck trailer headed to Syria.
A number of family members surround Dima’s grandmother. Filled with a rage that is shared by many who have survived these earthquakes, they recount how rescue operations to find survivors unfolded. Their fury is directed at the slowness of rescue teams who only arrived days after the disaster, at the sloppy search efforts, and the excavators that damaged bodies when digging through the rubble.
'I rose the Koran and saw Dima'
According to a family member in a black leather jacket, rescue teams started search efforts in their building only a week after the earthquakes. Dima’s father was found on February 13 and her mother the next day, in the early afternoon. Unable to find the granddaughter, he says the rescue team gave up their search. In the pile of rubble moved by the excavator, the man says he chanced upon his granddaughter, under a big Koran. "When I rose it, I saw Dima’s face, lying in the middle of the rubble," he recounts with anger.
The next day, at nightfall, Dima and her parents’ bodies arrived in Obin, their home village, north of Latakia. Their relatives buried them in the darkness of the night.
1,500 bodies have been repatriated like Dima and her parents through Bab al-Hawa since February 6, the medical office head of the border crossing told InfoMigrants.
Syria travel authorization
At the border crossing, Dima’ grandmother watches the truck carrying the body of her relatives drive away. She yearns to follow, but a young man holds her by the shoulders, preventing her from crossing through the gate. If she entered Syria, the old woman could lose her temporary protection in Turkey.
A few hours later, she could have entered the country with no consequences. On February 13, Turkish authorities said Syrians under temporary protection living in the 10 affected Turkish regions (Gaziantep, Hatay, Sanliurfa, Adana, Kahramanmaras, Diyarbakir, Kilis, Adiyaman, Osmaniye and Malatya) were allowed to cross and remain in Syria for up to six months before returning to Turkey without jeopardizing their permit. The measure came into effect the morning after InfoMigrants met with Dima’s grandmother at the border.
Syrian victims whose bodies are repatriated are a minority. Most of them are buried in the city they lived in, with Turkish victims. More than 41,000 people were killed by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
Syrians buried in Turkey
In Antakya, Mustapha told InfoMigrants he buried five of his relatives in a city cemetery where his neighbor said there were available plots. Turkish neighbors also helped Azzat and her family bury a relative in the Nurdagi cemetery overseeing the destroyed city, near Gaziantep.
A sizeable Syrian community used to live in İslahiye, south of Nurdagi, before the earthquake. At least 1,600 Turks and Syrians were buried there after February 6, Yusuf Evis, regional coordinator of religious affairs, told InfoMigrants. His office by the cemetery’s entry is cut out of a container. He says each body, regardless of nationality, is sent to the hospital which produces death certificates. "We take care of cleaning the body, prayer and burial," he adds.
Night falls on the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa. A group of young men gets ready to leave after laying down new bodies. Among the men moving around is Firas, a 29-year-old Syrian, who found refuge in Belgium but whose family stayed in Antakya. When he heard about the earthquakes, he took the first plane to get here. "When I arrived, I learned all my family was dead. I brought them here so that they could be buried in Syria," he blurts out, looking down at the ground. "For now, I help carrying the bodies, but I will return to Belgium after that," he says, turning away, "I have nothing to do here anymore."