Syrians missing in Turkey a year after the earthquake

A mass grave for unidentified victims of the earthquake in Adıyaman, southern Turkey - February 10, 2023 (Halk TV)

A mass grave for unidentified victims of the earthquake in Adıyaman, southern Turkey - February 10, 2023 (Halk TV)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud

A year after the anniversary of the earthquake that struck southern Turkey and four Syrian governorates in February 2023, the fate of Syrian families remains unknown, and their relatives are trying in vain to reach their bodies, leaving behind clear effects and consequences to this day, amidst the absence of official statistics on their numbers.

The total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey in February 2023 reached about 3.5 million, with approximately 1,750,000 of them living in the southern Turkish cities affected by the earthquake, constituting 47% of the refugees under the Turkish temporary protection law.

In the early hours of February 6, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake hit the state of Kahramanmaraş, followed by another 7.6 magnitude earthquake in the same province that afternoon, along with thousands of aftershocks, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people.

The chance of clinging to hope for finding the missing varies from one family to another, but the desire to see them and the many attempts were common among families. The unknown fate “kills them inside over time.”

No clear statistics

Testimonies by Syrians met by Enab Baladi prove that they have not reached the graves or bodies of their family members. Hundreds of graves without markers identifying their owners are scattered; they are marked with wooden stakes that have only numbers inscribed.

The numbers and statistics about the death toll of Syrian refugees in Turkey’s earthquake vary. The most recent statistics issued by the former Turkish Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, on March 4, 2023, indicated that 4,267 Syrians died as a result of the earthquake, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) in its report on March 28, 2023, stated that 5,439 Syrian refugees died in Turkey because of the earthquake, and 4,191 in the opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria, while 394 people died in areas under the control of the Syrian government.

Mazen Alloush, director of the media office at Bab al-Hawa border crossing, told Enab Baladi that the Turkish Ministry of Health vehicles delivered 1,600 bodies of Syrians who were killed in Turkey due to the earthquake to the crossing, in order to hand over the bodies to their relatives residing in northern Syria.

The Turkish Anadolu Agency reported on Tuesday, February 6, during the commemoration of the first anniversary of the earthquake, that 53,537 people had died, without specifying the number of Syrians, while another 107,213 were injured.

The earthquake disaster and the many search operations for the missing led to the creation of WhatsApp groups by Syrian young people, to help families find the missing in earthquake areas, by collecting information and data and sharing it with rescue teams working on the ground, and requesting help to extract families from beneath the rubble.

Turkey hosts 3,181,222 Syrian refugees under the temporary protection law, according to the latest statistics issued by the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management.

Escape from reality

Miral Khalil, a Syrian refugee residing in the city of Antakya in Hatay, told Enab Baladi that she lost her mother, her husband, and both of their two children after the earthquake when their building collapsed. She was able to escape with her eight-year-old daughter and her twelve-year-old stepdaughter a few hours later by removing the debris and stones from above their bodies, which became close to the ground, allowing them to exit through a small hole.

Miral’s building was not only affected by the collapse but a fire broke out inside the building due to an unknown cause, leading to the disfiguration of bodies affected by the fire, making it difficult to identify her family members and find them as the features were absent or the bodies almost entirely turned to ash, marking the sleeping places of the individuals as she described.

Miral, who is from the Sheikh Daher area in Latakia, tried after escaping the rubble to bring rescue teams to her husband whom she could hear calling. However, she was unsuccessful and lost his body after his death, only to find his grave six months later through a DNA analysis performed by her stepdaughter in the month of the disaster, matching a body buried in a cemetery in the Narlıca area in Antakya.

DNA, which is related to an individual’s genetic makeup, can be taken from any cell in the human body that carries genetic traits, whether from a skin graft, hair, muscle, or nail.

Miral informed Enab Baladi that, a full year later, she still has not found her mother’s body, despite submitting the required analysis in the hospitals of Antakya and reviewing the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), several times, the last of which was about three months before she left Turkey.

Her decision to leave Turkey for Norway with her daughter came after what she witnessed and experienced during the earthquake, especially not receiving any news or information confirming her mother’s death or survival. Escaping reality to a place outside Turkey free from haunting memories was the best option, according to her words.

AFAD issued after days from the earthquake a statement including the procedures for identifying and burying the earthquake victims. It is to conduct the examination of the deceased in front of the buildings where the bodies are found, without sending them to neighboring regions and handing them over to the health officer or judicial control, accompanied by a report guaranteeing their transfer to the hospital.

In cases where it is impossible to identify the deceased through relatives or acquaintances, after failing to identify by forensic examination such as DNA, blood samples, etc., within the first five days of extracting the body from the rubble, the body is buried and the report between the public prosecutor and the civil administrative authority records the grave’s location in the death report.

The search continues

Fatima Mohammed, a young Syrian woman from the city of Antakya in Hatay province, was in the city of Konya with her sister on February 6, 2023. The earthquake happened, and as a result, she lost her husband, whom she confirmed was at home and had communicated through a phone call during the night on the same day of the earthquake.

Upon arriving in Antakya, Turkey, four days after the earthquake, Fatima attempted to find her husband Hussam among the rubble, the streets, and the bodies scattered around the destroyed buildings, with no success in finding any information to lead her to his whereabouts, whether alive or dead, despite enlisting the help of his family and rescue teams in the area to the building site.

The scale of the scene and the large numbers of people trapped under the rubble forced the search teams to try helping those whose voices they could hear because their chances of survival were stronger, and there was no time to search in silent buildings except for short periods to move on to other buildings and continue search operations.

The last attempt to search for bodies or survivors from Fatima’s husband’s building was about ten days after the disaster, as she told Enab Baladi.

The Turkish police contacted Fatima, who is from Homs, several times after they submitted bones of a deceased person extracted from the building, but the DNA test results showed that they belonged to someone else. This was done after her mother-in-law conducted the test to increase the chances of locating her son’s grave among the mass graves for unidentified individuals or finding him in Turkish hospitals.

Fatima concluded her talk with Enab Baladi by saying that she would not lose hope and that she will continue searching for her husband, whom the authorities have classified among the deceased, despite not finding his body among the mass graves of the unidentified victims.


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