Cemetery No. 901: The Tragedy that Hit the Haj Bakri Family


So far, thirty of my relatives have died. All of them are buried in an improvised cemetery, No. 901, which was given to us by a stranger, seven days after the earthquake that shocked the world

I awoke promptly to retrieve the dead from the mortuary. Here, you are not allowed to sleep for more than two hours. A Kia car, which is typically used to transport fruit, followed us. After putting the bodies inside, we drove to the new cemetery in Yayladagi, also known as cemetery No. 901, some 50 kilometers from Antakya. 

This is not an official cemetery. A righteous man donated a plot of agricultural land for it to be the final resting place of the Syrians who perished in the earthquake. It was the best news I had last week, as I did not know where to bury the bodies. 

For a week now, my duty has been to search through the rubble to find and retrieve bodies during the day and transport them to Yayladagi  at night.  Then I wake up at dawn to bury them in the cemetery. 

Ironically, I was trained to do that years ago. As a journalist in Syria, I had to learn how to retrieve a body from under the rubble.

I was in Istanbul when I heard about the earthquake that hit southern Turkey on February 6 at 4:17 am. I was not asleep, so I immediately tried to contact my friends and family. I kept up with the news coming out of the earthquake region, because of my job and the fact that I have many relatives and friends living in the south of the country.

I tried for an hour, but was unable to get in touch with anyone. Only when the media started reporting on the number of victims, which by then had risen into the thousands, I got a sense of the scope of the destruction and number of casualties. 

I quickly packed my things and, with my brother and cousin, left Istanbul for Antakya by car. We did not receive any updates from our friends and family. We were not aware that the city was completely out of service. There was  no electricity, water, or internet.

Around noon, we finally got in touch with a person who lived in Antakya. He did not know how our family was doing, but he was fine. The news about my family came in gradually. 

When we called my aunt’s family, no one answered.. But we knew that my uncle and his wife had emerged from under the rubble after some 8 hours. One relative in Antakya told us that his son and daughter-in-law were at home. But he had not heard from them. 

It usually takes about 16 hours to get from Istanbul to Antakya, but it took me much longer this time. The weather was very bad. The roads were covered with snow and we could not speed up. We wanted to retrieve those who remained under the rubble. We did not want more death.

Meanwhile, survivors in Antakya informed us that the city was completely destroyed. We could not imagine the scale of the destruction. We carried anything we could carry, as we travelled past Ankara. We had brought whatever we could to support us on the journey to Antakya. 

Ultimately, we arrived, even though the entire route was blocked by insane traffic. It felt like a new exodus from Aleppo. We met my uncle, his wife, my uncle’s daughter, and her husband, who sat in their car at a location far removed from the buildings. They had chosen to spend the coming days there. None of them was able to describe what had happened. No one could say a single word about what had happened.

We tried to reach our family’s residences in Antakya, but the roads were closed and the buildings demolished. So, we parked the car and proceeded by walking along the road. We strolled through Antakya, going from one family house to the next until we reached my aunt’s house. When we noticed my cousin’s car parked in front of the door, we realized the family had not left. We decided to give my cousin’s car number – 901 – to the graves in which we would bury them. 

When I first saw the wreckage, I could tell that there would be many more people underneath the debris than above it. When we reached a family’s house, we all screamed their names. Does anyone hear us? No answer. We called every one of our family’s members by name, hoping to get at least one response, but that was not to be the case. 

Our first night we spent in the car. The day prior to that I had not slept. We managed to sleep for about two hours, after such a very long journey. In the morning, we started working with our hands in every house. We were trying to open a hole to reach those buried beneath the rubble, since the rescue equipment had not arrived yet and existing rescue teams were first trying to evacuate buildings that had not been completely destroyed. Unfortunately, none of our family’s homes were like that. All of them were razed to the ground.

On the first day, we could not find any support. And we could not retrieve any bodies. At night, we met with the surviving family, the eldest of whom was my uncle, whose son, his wife, and grandchildren remained under the rubble. Only he and his wife got out. 

There were no words of condolence. My uncle did not cry. He stood up and addressed us, saying that we will work to retrieve all family members’ bodies. And we will bury them next to one another, facing our Syrian villages and regions, which are located not more than 30 kilometers away from Latakya.

My uncle continued by saying that we may visit them whenever we wanted, whether God wanted us to return to Syria one day or wanted for us to stay homeless and displaced. 

By then I still did not fully grasp the extent of the disaster. We all just nodded in agreement and said yes. 

By then we did not know that circumstances would prevent us from even realizing that dream. We thought it would take two or three days to pull out the bodies. Instead, it took us three days to find only the first body. 

It was the body of my 50-year-old man cousin, Abdul Salam Mahmoud, who must have suffered terribly while buried beneath the rubble, something he had previously experienced in Syria. At that time, we managed to get him out alive after a barrel bomb had destroyed his house in our village in the countryside of Latakia in 2013. 

I recall Mahmoud had lost the hearing in his right ear. Afraid that he would die under the rubble, he survived. Every time we met, he would tell us all about what had happened to him and how the barrel bomb had killed two of my cousins and injured others.

Mahmoud used to tell us about the efforts to rescue him from the rubble and how he had been transferred to the hospital. I apologized to Mahmoud for failing to save him from the rubble in Antakya this time. 

We eventually found his wife’s body, my cousin Khadija. We found both their bodies close to the door of the house. They had tried to flee for their lives, but failed. We transported Mahmoud and my cousin to a mortuary in Yayladagi hoping we could recover the remaining bodies from under the rubble the next day. 

On the second day, however, I received a call from a mortuary official requesting me to pick up the bodies straight away, because they are only allowed to stay for one day. We needed to get them out immediately. 

So, we changed our plan and decided to break up the day in three parts. In the morning, we would bury the bodies we had. In the afternoon, we headed to Antakya to retrieve what we could. And in the evening, we transferred what had been collected to the mortuary.

So far, the number of victims among my relatives is thirty. All of them lie buried in Cemetery No. 901 – a number forever engraved in the memory of our family. And if their names ever fade from their graves, we will know that they are all buried there, in an improvised cemetery, given to us by a stranger, seven days after the earthquake.

Original article from here.

لتصلكم نشرة درج الى بريدكم الالكتروني