I Went to Syria to See Biblical Devastation in a Land of Political Tragedy

JINDIRES, Syria — She has no memory of the earthquake that broke her back and swallowed her daughters. Khaira Al Halbouni only knows what her husband told her afterward. In the middle of the night the building shook. He grabbed one daughter, Bisan, and their son, Ali. Take Mayas, their younger daughter, and run, he shouted.

Instinctively, she reached for her head scarf. Then, nothing.

The first thing Khaira remembers is waking up in a pile of rubble. She saw a small ray of light, then a pair of boots. She screamed. She looked for her daughter. Almost 30 hours had elapsed.

The boots belonged to rescue workers and neighbors looking for survivors. Eventually they pulled her out. Her spine was fractured, her arm broken, her cheekbone shattered. But she was alive. They took her to the hospital. The hospital was overwhelmed and undertook a grim triage: She was most likely suffering from internal bleeding and could not be saved. She was left to die.

Her daughter was alive too, buried in rubble.

Khaira Al Halbouni lies on a bed inside a temporary shelter in Jindires, Syria.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Her husband, Muhammad, had endured his own ordeal. He had lost his lower right leg in shelling in a Damascus suburb called Harasta, earlier in his country’s civil war. When the building shook, he realized that it would be faster and safer to try to reach the roof from their top floor apartment than try to hobble to the ground floor. Just as they mounted the stairs, the right wall of the stairwell crashed down onto Bisan, killing her instantly. A piece of steel rebar pierced her skull.

“My sister fell in the hole!” Ali cried, beseeching his father to go back. “Pick my sister up from the hole!”

Muhammad swept Ali up the stairs. The building crumpled beneath them. Miraculously, neither was badly hurt.

The Halbouni family was among hundreds of thousands across southern Turkey and northern Syria shattered by the earthquakes this month. The back-to-back temblors delivered catastrophe on a biblical scale, flattening cities and turning countless homes into piles of stone, steel and dust. At least 48,000 people have died. The first quake struck at an especially cruel hour, in the early morning as people slept. Whole families perished in their beds as their homes crumbled around them.

Muhammad Al Halbouni shows a picture of his daughters Bisan, 8, and Mayas, 6, before they died in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey this month. Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Here in northern Syria, this calamity comes almost 12 years into one of the most brutal and intractable conflicts of the 21st century. Syria’s war began as a civilian uprising like many others across the Arab world in the early 2010s, amid demands of political freedom. Then, things spiraled: The government of Bashar al-Assad cracked down, the protest movement became an armed rebellion and the conflict became a proxy battleground for regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Later, Islamic militants spilled over from neighboring Iraq and took over vast portions of northern Syria, drawing the United States in deeper. Russia stepped up its support of Assad, prosecuting a merciless bombing campaign. The war also drew in Syria’s largest neighbor, Turkey, which is now home to about 3.6 million displaced Syrians. At various points Israel, France and Britain have joined the fight. Syria was, for a time, a central concern of much of the world.

The human toll of the war is staggering. More than 300,000 civilians have been killed, according to the United Nations. Multiple investigations have concluded that Assad’s forces dropped barrel bombs on civilians, doused neighborhoods with chemical weapons and deliberately destroyed hospitals. Almost 100,000 have disappeared, mostly at the hands of Assad’s pitiless intelligence services, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. More than 13 million people, more than half of the Syrian population, have fled their homes. Today some 90 percent of Syrians live in poverty. Assad, with the help of Russia, has beat back the armed opposition and forced the conflict into a deadening stalemate.

Syrians have been displaced by war — and now again by earthquakes.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

With the fighting largely abated and the various parties dug in, governments in the West have become quietly cynical about Syria, resigned to the status quo, Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told me in an interview.

“Syria has for quite a while now been a problem that we prefer to have contained rather than do our very best to try and resolve,” he said.

With Assad firmly entrenched with Russia’s backing, regional powers that had once been implacably opposed to his rule are increasingly willing to mend fences. Even die-hards are coming around: One of the first planeloads of aid to arrive in government controlled areas after the earthquake came from Saudi Arabia, Al Arabiya reported. Just a few years ago this would have been unthinkable.

Syria presents one of the most complex diplomatic thickets in the world, and the task of untangling that thicket has grown vastly more difficult with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Turkey is a key actor here — a NATO member that nevertheless has growing ties with Russia and seems increasingly willing to normalize relations with Assad.

And most of the world, with Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the growing conflict between China and the United States, has simply moved on and mostly stopped paying attention to the war in Syria, if they ever did.

“The world hasn’t forgotten us,” one Syrian refugee in Turkey told me in the aftermath of the earthquake. “They don’t know we exist.”

Ali, 5, is the son of Muhammad and Khaira Al Halbouni.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

This is a remarkable turn of events given how the Syrian war shaped the world in which we now live. The war fed the growth of the most fearsome terrorist group of our time, the Islamic State, a death cult that beheaded nonbelievers and drew American troops into Syria. The Islamic State planned or inspired terror attacks in Egypt, across Europe and as far away as the Philippines, spawning chaos and scrambling domestic politics across the globe.

The conflict sent waves of terrified people seeking refuge in Europe, accelerating the rise of far-right and anti-immigrant politicians across the continent, and indeed, the world. One could make the case that Donald Trump’s presidency would not have been possible without the war in Syria and the climate of fear that it helped create.

Looking back, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict now looks like an ominous escalation toward a confrontation with the United States and the West more broadly, building toward its invasion of Ukraine one year ago.

If we live in a world made by the Syrian civil war, it is a world that has all but abandoned the Syrian people. Muhammad Al Halbouni’s family lived it, first fleeing from their ancestral home near Damascus in 2018, hoping to keep the children safe from the bombs that had already taken his leg. First they went to Idlib Province, where they stayed with relatives for a while, then moved around until finally settling in Jindires. Here, Muhammad found an unfinished apartment building and began building a new home for his family, cinder block by cinder block, with his own hands.

They settled into a relatively peaceful life and found work doing odd jobs. Eventually he saved up enough to buy a truck, which he used to earn money transporting goods. He finished the top-floor apartment. With this part of Syria under the control of the Turkish military and Syrian rebels, it was a period of calm.

Then came the earthquake.

Muhammad frantically searched for his wife and daughter, and once he found them, alive under the rubble, had to wait more than 24 hours for rescuers to help free them. Khaira and Mayas were rushed to the hospital. Khaira defied the doctor’s grim prognosis and would survive.

Syrians wait to receive aid. Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

In the chaos of the hospital Muhammad had lost sight of Mayas. His crutches propelled him from ward to ward, frantically searching for her. No one knew where she was.

The doctors told him to look outside. And that is where Muhammad found the body of his second daughter. She had been pulled from the rubble alive, but now she was dead.

As he told me his story, sitting on the floor of a canvas tent in a schoolyard that has become a shelter for dozens of families, Muhammad wept. He scrolled through his phone showing me pictures of the two girls — in matching pink T-shirts, smiling astride a toy motorcycle, posing in front of a sculpture of a camel.

“When we wake up the first thing that we think of is where are they? And then we realize that they are dead,” Muhammad said.

Ali keeps asking after his sisters. Had they gone to be with their grandmother, he asked his father? He is a watchful, sweet-faced boy with a nasty gash stitched closed above his right eye. He sticks nearby his parents.

Every tent in this schoolyard contains a tragedy and a miracle. One man told me his wife had died in the earthquake, but he was proud that he had been able to rescue an infant.

The humanitarian needs here are dire. “The situation before the earthquakes was absolutely horrific, and across Syria,” said Joe English, a spokesman for Unicef. “We kind of forget it because it’s been 12 years, but humanitarian needs in Syria were at the highest they’ve ever been in the past year.”

Given the chaos and suffering this conflict has unleashed, it would be foolish to continue to ignore Syria in the aftermath of the earthquake. The grim status quo that had prevailed is already breaking down. Turkey, the most important regional player, is struggling with its own recovery from the quake, and its people have grown increasingly intolerant of the presence of millions of displaced Syrians who are trapped there by the war. The number of Syrians attempting to reach Europe had already spiked in 2022, and with the earthquake devastating Turkey, more are sure to try to flee across the treacherous Mediterranean Sea.

Assad is pressing his advantage, most likely seeing the catastrophe as a way to normalize relations with his neighbors and reinforce their perception that he has vanquished the rebellion. The war in Syria has already destabilized and reordered our world in countless ways. In these dangerous and unpredictable times, the worst of it could be yet to come.

Today, the city of Jindires is a ruin. But already, its people, the assemblage of natives and displaced people, bonded in their suffering, have begun to rebuild. Along the main street, between piles of rubble, shops have reopened: a cafe with a battered espresso machine, a restaurant with glistening chickens twirling on a rotisserie, a hardware store. The brickyards have reopened. Masons were hard at work, slapping mortar to cinder blocks, new walls for new homes. The Syrian people, somehow, find the courage to go on.

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