How a wedding in Syria's Al Hol camp ended in tragedy

Children were among four killed in a wedding party fire that left the bride and many guests in hospital

In a hospital ward in eastern Syria, two newlyweds struggle to take their eyes off each other. Yet their eye contact is not the gaze of an infatuated couple; they are grimacing.

It is just hours since a fire tore through their wedding reception, killing four and critically burning more than 20 others. Exhausted and in pain, they have not yet come to terms with their tragedy.

Stuck amid the human detritus of what remains of ISIS’s caliphate in Al Hol camp, Muhanad Al Kurdi proposed to his cousin Aida Mohammed two months ago.

Inter-familial marriages are common in Deir Ezzor, where they are from, and after three years in Al Hol people have long stopped putting their lives on hold in the hope things will return to normal.

Weddings and births in the camp are common, and for a few hours on Saturday, the young lovers were transported from the nightmare of incarceration in a prison camp, where members of ISIS largely roam free.

There are thousands of people like Muhanad and Aida in Al Hol with no discernible ties to ISIS. Many were caught in the dragnet and sent to the camp along with captured militants and their families as the campaign against the group ensued.

The couple exchanged vows on Saturday afternoon and their extended families were brought together for a small celebration inside a tent. For a brief moment, they said they were able to forget they were fenced into a corner of the desert, with little prospect of returning home.

An NGO woman looks over a young child burned in a fire during a wedding at Al Hol camp. Luke Pierce for The National
An NGO woman looks over a young child burned in a fire during a wedding at Al Hol camp. Luke Pierce for The National

Yet the dream turned to disaster as dozens of people from both sides of the family packed into the tent to exchange pleasantries after the ceremony. Women cheered the new bride and groom, young children darted around the tent floor. Then a kerosene heater was knocked over.

“In five seconds, the tent was alight,” says Mr Al Kurdi, the 20-year-old groom who nurses a burnt arm in a sling.

On his feet, he is relatively unscathed, although his 20-year-old bride lies in agony, her new husband unable even to hold her hand. Her eyes are still lined with her bridal make-up, but what remains of her wedding dress is singed to her arms and legs.

The mother of the groom, Zahra Al Kurdi had stepped outside just before the flames. “I had a bad feeling about going into the tent," she says.

The 45-year-old flounders; briefly forgetting the bride’s name as she recalls the trauma. Three years after fleeing war, five of her children have been critically burned on what should have been a proud day.

“We run away from starvation and death and still we face it here in the camp,” she says.

Aida Saleh Al Askari stands over a young boy injured in the flames after a kerosene heater was knocked over at a wedding in Al Hol Camp. Luke Pierce for The National
Aida Saleh Al Askari stands over a young boy injured in the flames after a kerosene heater was knocked over at a wedding in Al Hol Camp. Luke Pierce for The National

Aida Saleh Al Askari, 40, a cousin of the bride, remembers reaching across the flames in an attempt to pull one child out.

“Some of the kids were stuck in the tent, they were yelling 'Pull me out! Pull me out!'. I pulled one out, and the burning tent stuck to my leg."

She moves to the next bed to comfort a young girl called Heba, who cries for her mother. The 6-year old’s scalded hands are wrapped in white bandages. She waves the oversize mittens, delirious with pain. Her face is covered in blisters.

Ambulances rushed more than 20 people from the wedding to hospitals in nearby Hasakeh. Two people, including a 2-year-old child were pronounced dead on the spot and two more children have since died in hospital from their burns.

The fire was extinguished before it could spread to other tents, but for one family the devastation was already wrought.

Fires – both accidental and arson – happen every week in Al Hol. Murders and beheadings, at the hands of those still loyal to ISIS, have increased in frequency too.

Yet a frail security situation in Deir Ezzor means families like Muhanad and Hiba's have nowhere to go, and so they are stuck in a place where both the humanitarian and security situation is deteriorating every day.

International pressure has forced dozens of nations to take back several thousand of the foreign women and children held in a high-security part of the camp known as the Annex, but there are no such demands for the Syrians and more than 30,000 are stuck here with little hope of release.

Now, after desperate pleas to let them go home, a young bride and groom have found their only means of escaping their incarceration was an even deeper tragedy.

Updated: March 1, 2021 01:15 PM

SHARE

Editor's Picks
NEWSLETTERS
Sign up to:

* Please select one