They arrived in the back of a van, wrapped in body bags or family blankets. Their names were scrawled on pieces of paper for bereaved family members waiting in the bitter cold to receive them on the other side of the Turkish-Syrian border.
In the days after Monday’s earthquake, no humanitarian aid was entering northwestern Syria. Only victims’ bodies.
On Tuesday, the bodies of 85 Syrian refugees who had fled the airstrikes and collapsed buildings during a civil war back home to live in safety in Turkey were pulled from the rubble of their new homes and repatriated through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between the two countries. On Wednesday, more followed.
“Right now all we are doing is receiving the bodies of our people who died in Turkey so that they can be buried back in their homeland,” Mazen Alloush, the head of the Bab al-Hawa media office, said on Wednesday.
The crossing is the only one approved by the United Nations for transporting international aid into Syria. It is also used by other aid groups to meet the overwhelming humanitarian need in opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria, although on Tuesday there were mixed reports about whether the crossing was functioning, given damage to roads on both sides from the earthquake.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in Damascus on Wednesday that roads to the border crossing were open and that the first aid convoy to Syria from Turkey was expected to arrive in the coming hours. No humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria had been able to get through it in the wake of Monday’s earthquake, with the surrounding roads damaged and aid groups in Turkey also affected by the earthquake.
On Tuesday night, Ahmad Yousef, who lives in the Syrian town of Sarmada on the border, was waiting with his aunt at the crossing to receive the body of a cousin’s 13-year-old daughter. Her body had been unearthed from the rubble of their home in Turkey that day. Both of her parents and a brother were still under the rubble.
The family had fled their small village in Syria’s Hama Province in 2013 when shelling and airstrikes intensified. Now, the girl, who most likely hadn’t even remembered the Syria she had fled, was returning.
“Those who died, we want them to come back,” Mr. Yousef said. “We want them to be buried among their family.”