ANTAKYA — Aysha Moarri, 45, is sobbing while caressing a white, quilted body bag on the back of a lorry.
“How are you leaving me behind? You were the only reason that I stayed alive… How can I breathe now?”
Her daughter is inside. Next to her are the bodies of five other members of their family.
It’s another cold bright afternoon at the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing between southern Turkey and opposition-held north-western Syria.
Syrian refugee families who have lost loved ones in the earthquake that struck southern Turkey last week are gathered there to help repatriate their bodies.
Around us the heavy smell of death hangs in the air. Aysha, her husband Nouman, and their four-year-old granddaughter Elma, were the only survivors after the six-story block of flats they were living in collapsed.
Aysha and Nouman lost two daughters, one son, and two granddaughters, and were still searching for their son-in-law.
The family fled the civil war in Syria eight years ago, hoping for a fresh start, and took refuge in the southern Turkish city of Antakya. The city is now in ruins, with more than half of its buildings damaged.
The name of each Syrian victim brought to Bab Al-Hawa is written with a blue pen on the body bags, to ensure they can be identified once back home.
“Take good care of each other. Shirin, my dear, take care of your brother and sister and my beloved grandchildren,” said Aysha as she kisses her daughter’s body through the white cloth.
Her fingers linger on the lorry as it begins to pull away, clearly not wanting to let go. Her husband breaks into tears at the sight of the truck crossing the border.
“Goodbye my dears… You will all go home… You will be together,” Nouman said, waving a bandaged hand.
That morning, five more lorries arrive at the border carrying the bodies of Syrians recovered from under the rubble. Some are just wrapped in blankets, rather than body bags.
Among the wreckage of the Moarri family’s flat back in Antakya, two glass pomegranates sit perfectly intact on a shelf. A painting still hangs above the table. The rest of the room has collapsed.
Wearing a high-visibility vest, Ali, who was engaged to Aysha’s middle daughter, Viam, carries on searching through the rubble.
He shows us where he found Viam’s body. They had been in love for four years but it was only a week before the earthquake that he had persuaded her father to accept their engagement.
“That night we were still texting each other on WhatsApp till late. We weren’t able to sleep,” he said.
At around 04:00 he received a text message from Viam: “Are you awake? I had a weird nightmare,” she wrote. They were in the middle of a video call when the earth started to shake.
“I had just been telling her that she shouldn’t think about that bad dream. And then we told each other we loved each other. She was sitting on her bed and laughing quietly,” Ali recalls, trying hard not to break into tears.
“I saw her trying to run, but her phone was plugged into the wall and it slowed her down. Then the picture froze. The screen went black.
A fitness trainer who has combat training experience with the armed opposition in Syria, Ali was able to protect himself by crawling under the table in his room.
“When the earthquake ended, I ran out. Our whole neighborhood was devastated.
“I can’t remember how I walked to the street where she [Viam] wasliving. It took me twice as long as all the roads were blocked.
When he got to the block of flats, a makeshift rescue operation organized by neighbors was already under way. He called friends to join them. Hours went by and no official aid came.
Ali said he and his friends are from areas of Syria that have been frequently bombed by Syrian government forces during the war, so they have had some training and experience in search and rescue already. Syrians have to help Syrians, he added.
Part of the large area of northwestern Syria affected by the earthquake is under the control of the Syrian government. Another part — where the Moarri family is from — is held by armed groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
The coordination of the rescue and aid operations has therefore been highly complex, involving multiple parties to the conflict, the countries supporting them and international humanitarian organizations.
Ali feels resentful towards the international community, saying powerful countries are playing out larger conflicts in Syria and that the Syrian people are suffering as a result.
“All the world came to help Turkey, and thank God that Turkey is a strong country itself. But how about Syria?
“I don’t want to talk about politics but from a humanitarian point of view, we don’t have electricity, or clean water, not even homes.”
He added: “Our houses have been devastated by the war, and now the earthquake. Of course, we accept what comes from God. But I should tell the world: enough.”
After eight days of searching, Ali found the body of his beloved Viam. She was hugging her brother Mohammed when she died.
Now, with a group of 15 fellow Syrians, Ali is working to find other Syrian families. Fine concrete dust covers them. It is everywhere here — making our eyes gritty, and our hair grey.
During the first 10 days after the earthquake more than 2,306 bodies were sent over the border into Syria, according to Turkish authorities.
Turkish border police tell us that it has been a massive operation for them, and a challenging one to coordinate. Sometimes they are ready to send the bodies, but the other side is not ready to receive them. Sometimes, it is the opposite.
As we prepare to leave, we see a man cuddling the body of his three-week-old baby wrapped in a small blanket. He is asking for help to take her body back to their home in an opposition-held part of Idlib province.
He had dug his daughter out of the rubble, then brought her across the border to Turkey for medical treatment. But she did not survive.
The Moarri family finally recovered the last person they were looking for—the body of their son-in-law—10 days after the earthquake.
I ask Ali why the Syrian refugees are sending their family’s bodies to Syria. “It is our home. It is where we still hope and believe that one day we will go back to. We want our loved ones to wait for us there.” BBC