Horror, brief happiness, then heartache in search for three sisters under rubble

World

We meet him at the Kilis border with his head hanging heavy and his eyes red from crying.

Mohamed Kenno, 21, has just come back from taking the bodies of his uncle and young cousin to relatives in Syria to be buried in their border town home, Azaz.

His family fled the Syrian civil war 10 years ago, only to find death in Kahramanmaras in southern Turkey.

His cousin, Fatih, drives through the border checkpoint in a black Volkswagen they are now using as a hearse. We move aside the blue plastic body bags and sit in the back seat where the corpses had been piled.

I ask him what the earthquake has done to his faith.

“It has made our faith stronger. We have smelt death and survived,” Mohamed says. “Everything is God’s will.”

They are heading back to the Azerbayçan boulevard where his extended family lived. It has been reduced to rubble on both sides. Some of his aunts, uncles and cousins have survived and others have not.

Mohamed takes us to the wreckage site of a building that was once the home of his uncle, aunt and four cousins. The parents were pulled out alive but their only son was found dead. A massive digger claws at the rubble searching for the three young sisters that remain.

The road where Mohamed's extended family lived has been demolished
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The road where Mohamed’s extended family lived has been ruined
Mohamed's family fled the Syrian civil war 10 years ago
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Mohamed says his faith has been strengthened

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Mohamed’s other cousins huddle around the fire on the neighbouring roof, preparing to spend the night there as the calls to prayer sound. Each time the digger stops, they lean over the edge and look for signs of life.

The two rescue workers pull out children’s textbooks from the crushed cement and call out the written names. There is a pained groan as they hear the name of the fourth sibling – the young boy they pulled out in the days prior.

A neighbour grabs our producer Vauldi’s headtorch and jumps in. Mohamed follows and starts yelling out the name of the three sisters.

“Fadeela…Sham…Tasneem.”

No response.

For what feels like the 100th time, the digger scratches at the seemingly endless mound of debris. Suddenly, a lifeless hand appears and the cousins’ hope is flattened.

They keep digging, expecting to find another corpse. But then the neighbour stops, turns and exclaims, with urgent elation: “She’s alive! She’s alive!”

Whistles and yells alert rescue teams across the street that there is still hope here and emergency workers flood the site.

Mohamed makes an ecstatic call to the family and punches the air with his fist.

The exclamations of Allahu Akbar – God is great – ring out as Sham, the youngest sister, is retrieved.

Sham was found alive
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Sham was found alive under the rubble

She is placed on a stretcher and passed through a human chain to an ambulance as people clap nearby. The body bag carrying her older sister follows.

But, sadly, this story does not have a happy ending.

Hours later, Sham died from her injuries in hospital and her grieving cousins were tasked with transporting the bodies of their young relatives back to the border once again.

In a single day, a child is found dead, another is found alive and one is still buried under the building.

Horror gave way to happiness and was quickly replaced by heartache.

That is the reality of this catastrophe.

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