Bab al-Hawa, Syria – Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Turkey who survived last week’s earthquakes are returning to their war-torn homeland after once again losing everything.
Turkish authorities have announced the opening of border crossings for Syrians after the February 6 quakes, which killed tens of thousands of people.
Mohamad al-Sawad, 69, is a refugee from Halfaya in the northern Syrian countryside. He has been living in the town of Belen for 11 years near the city of Iskenderun in Turkey’s Hatay province.
Al Jazeera spoke to him as he entered Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing after he was left stranded in Turkey following the deadly temblor.
“On the day of the earthquake, … the building began to shake violently, and the electricity was cut off, which made us struggle a lot to reach the door of the house because of the darkness,” al-Sawad said.
He stayed for two days sleeping in the cold and rain with his family on farmland near Belen. After that, he and about 3,000 other people moved to one of the shelters Turkish authorities opened for survivors who have lost their homes.
“I entered Syria today, where I can live with relatives and console my friends who lost family members in the earthquake,” al-Sawad said.
More than 1,790 Syrians have returned home from Turkey as of Wednesday, according to border officials.
“At Bab al-Hawa, we are facilitating the entry of our Syrian people coming from Turkey … by giving them papers proving the date of their entry and recording the time of their scheduled return,” said Mazen Alloush, director of public relations and media at the border crossing.
The only Syrian refugees allowed to enter are those with “temporary protection” cards from the 10 Turkish provinces devastated by the earthquakes – Gaziantep, Hatay, Sanliurfa, Adana, Kahramanmaraş, Diyarbakir, Kilis, Adiyaman, Osmaniye and Malatya.
“This is the first time in two years that the crossing has been opened from the Turkish side for the entry of Syrian refugees,” Alloush said.
The only Syrians using the Bab al-Hawa crossing before it was officially reopened were refugees killed in the quake, and they came in a steady stream of bodies.
According to Turkey’s Directorate of Immigration, 460,150 Syrian refugees were registered as living in the southern city of Gaziantep and 354,000 refugees in the city of Hatay as of February 1.
It remains unclear for returning Syrians what they can expect back home. After the magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 earthquakes struck northern Syria and neighbouring Turkey, the United Nations has acknowledged an international failure to help Syrian quake victims.
The quake hit rebel-held northwestern Syria hard. The more than four million people who live there have faced government air and artillery attacks for years.
Many Syrians in the region have been displaced more than once by the Syrian war, and many live in crowded tent settlements.
The UN’s humanitarian affairs chief, Martin Griffiths has visited the Turkish-Syrian border and acknowledged that Syrians had been “looking for international help that hasn’t arrived”.
‘At least I have a house’
Um Yaser is a refugee from the town of Kafranbel in the southern countryside of Idlib province. She had lived in the Turkish city of Antakya with her son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren for more than nine years after escaping Syria’s civil war.
She said her house and belongings have been destroyed in the quakes along with much of the rest of Antakya.
“Until this moment, I cannot believe what happened. In less than two minutes, Antakya became complete destruction,” Um Yaser told Al Jazeera. “We became homeless, without shelter. We move every day to a place to protect my grandchildren from the cold and rain.”
Um Yaser said she decided to return to Syria as soon as she heard of the Turkish government’s decision to open the crossings for Syrian refugees because one of her sons lives in the town of Dana in northern Idlib.
“I know the situation in Idlib is not safe and the earthquake has led to great losses, but at least I have a house here to shelter me and my grandchildren,” she said after arriving in Syria.
The death toll from the earthquakes approached 42,000 on Thursday with more than 36,000 people killed in Turkey and about 5,800 in Syria.
‘Impossible to describe’
Mahmoud al-Issa, who is from the town of Darkush in Idlib, said he entered Turkey a month ago to take his wife to a hospital in Antakya for cancer treatments.
“It is impossible to describe our situation during the earthquake,” al-Issa said. “the only thing we wanted at the time was to find a way to communicate and check on my family and children in Syria.”
“Today, we return to our town, but I do not know how we will continue to treat my wife or how I will provide her with medicine, which is not available in our area,” he said.