Syrian brothers orphaned by February earthquake struggle to understand the tragedy

Abdulhalim and Mahmoud were pulled from the rubble but lost their parents and brother in the disaster

Syrian brothers orphaned in February earthquake struggling to understand the tragedy

Syrian brothers orphaned in February earthquake struggling to understand the tragedy
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In a rebel-held area near Aleppo, Syrian refugee Ahmad Bakkar takes his two grandsons a few times a week to visit the graveyard where their parents are buried.

They died, along with their other son, Moath, in the earthquake that hit the area six months ago

The youngest boy, Mahmoud, who is in preschool, searches for a way into his father's grave.

“He thinks his dad is living inside,” says Mr Bakkar.

The other brother, Abdulhalim, who will be in the fourth grade next year, takes his grade book with him, to show to his dead parents.

The two are among many orphaned survivors of the February 6 earthquake that devastated parts of Turkey and Syria.

Their mother, Marah, was Mr Bakkar's only daughter.

Of the 50,000 people who died in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, 13 per cent were in Syria. The impoverished areas in the north-west of the country took the heaviest brunt.

Most of the three million people in the north-west are refugees living outside the control of President Bashar Al Assad. The majority fled their homes after they were recaptured by the Syrian military and pro-Iranian militias in the civil war over the last decade.

Mr Bakkar's family, including Marah and her husband, escaped a 2013 attack by the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah on the central town of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon.

They eventually settled in the city of Jindiris, part of the Turkish zone of influence in north-west Syria.

“Qusayr was being hit with a thousand bombs a day,” says Mr Bakkar, a retired government worker.

Marah found work in Jindiris as a kindergarten teacher. Her husband, Bilal, was disabled.

“She loved her work and had ambitions to become more than a teacher. But her fate turned out this way,” says Mr Bakkar.

She died with Bilal and Moath when the four-storey building where they lived collapsed on February 6. Mr Bakkar was outside Jindiris when the earthquake hit just before dawn.

After he returned Mahmoud was found alive in the rubble under the body of his father, struggling to breathe. Abdulhalim, who had been on the roof of the building when the earthquake struck, escaped mostly unscathed.

Mass graves avoided

Moath was missing until Mr Bakkar eventually identified his body at a nearby hospital, just before the boy was due to be buried in a mass grave.

Like many in Idlib, Mr Bakkar is unemployed.

Mahmoud and Abdulhalim are being supported by charities and their two uncles who do not have a steady income.

“These grandchildren have become everything in my life.

“God willing, we will be able to continue putting them through school,” Mr Bakkar says.

Like most people who had fled to the north-west, Mr Bakkar and his extended family lived in a refugee camp before moving into housing, most of which was hastily built by private real estate developers in the past 10 years to accommodate the large numbers of incomers.

Mr Bakkar's building was not affected by the earthquake, but the block where his daughter Marah and her family lived collapsed immediately.

Marah's mother, Aida, was watching rescue workers digging through the rubble when a woman brought Abdulhalim to her, with “nothing except a wound in his head”, while Mahmoud was taken to hospital.

Although she was devastated by Marah's death, Aida says she is grateful her daughter did not end up in one of the mass graves of unidentified victims of the disaster.

“Al Hamdulillah [thanks to God],” she says.

“This is what God wanted,” Aida adds. “She was very loving. I used to confide in her,”

“We saw her [body]. We said goodbye. But I wish I got to have more time with her.”

Updated: August 07, 2023, 5:14 PM