No place to call home, again: A Syrian filmmaker documents the devastation and trauma after Turkey's earthquake
When two massive earthquakes rocked Turkey and Syria on February 6, decimating towns within minutes, Turkey-based Syrian filmmaker AlBaraa Haddad was in Istanbul, while his family was in Antakya, southern Turkey, near the epicentre of the earthquake.
His first instinct after hearing news of the quake was to go to Antakya, a city he and his family had called home for the past 12 years, after fleeing from the Syrian Civil War like so many Syrian refugees.
What he saw when he arrived in Antakya a day and a half later was “like a scene from a horror movie” – a bustling city of 1.7 million people was turned into ruins, and eerily silent and empty.
"Resentment and racism against Syrians were already high in Turkey before the earthquakes, but have increased even more in the past two weeks, with anti-Syrian slogans such as 'We don't want Syrians,' 'Immigrants should be deported,' and 'No longer welcome' trending on Twitter following the earthquakes"
“It was absolute darkness and absolute quiet, but you could only hear the voices of people from under the rubble, trying to scream and saying that they are there, but there was actually no one to help at that moment,” AlBaraa told The New Arab.
Two weeks later, the figures surrounding one of the largest natural catastrophes the region has seen in decades, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the “biggest disaster in the last century,” are hard to fathom.
The death toll is currently at over 50,000, but the real number remains unknown and is likely to be many thousands more due to the high number of unregistered Syrian refugees in Turkey, whose deaths may never be registered and their whereabouts undetected.
Neighbouring Syria, Turkey is the country with the most Syrian refugees in the world, counting over 3.6 million Syrians, who arrived progressively since the Civil War erupted in 2011.
Many of them reside not far from the Syrian border, in southern Turkey. Gaziantep for instance, which was badly hit by the earthquakes, has nearly half a million Syrian residents, a quarter of the population.
Resentment and racism against Syrians were already high in Turkey before the earthquakes, but have increased even more in the past two weeks, with anti-Syrian slogans such as “We don't want Syrians,” “Immigrants should be deported,” and “No longer welcome” trending on Twitter following the earthquakes.
Syrians in Turkey face an unfathomably uphill battle: to rise against discrimination, to grieve their deceased friends and relatives, and – somehow – to find the strength to make a new home, as their status as displaced people painfully carries on.
“I barely feel that I have something to call home after 12 years of being displaced, immigrating, being a refugee basically,” AlBaraa said.
“This was just too much. It was just too much for all of us. For people who tried to build something in their city, or even in other cities the earthquakes have affected… it was a really huge trauma, even more, affecting than the first one [from the war], because the first one is kind of understandable, and they [Syrian families] tried to get over everything that happened. But now, it's just a huge mess.”
The Syrian conflict had a huge impact on AlBaraa’s work, it was during then that he started off as a documentary photographer, contributing to international outlets and NGOs, before eventually joining his family in Turkey, where he now works as a cinematographer and documentary filmmaker.
When he was in post-earthquake Antakya, AlBaraa filmed the city in his trademark black-and-white cinematic style. He posted the videos on his Instagram page and they quickly went viral, gathering thousands of likes as many were moved by Haddad’s artistic and intimate videos of people’s personal belongings found amidst the rubble.
“I tried to tell things in the pictures I posted, but it was just an urgent call for people to come and help. And yes, many people came recently. This is something actually I appreciate,” AlBaraa said.
But AlBaraa – who has over a decade’s experience documenting war and conflict – said that filming these images in Antakya was some of the hardest he’s ever had to capture and that he felt a tremendous amount of guilt doing so.
“At first, I could not even carry my camera with me,” he said. “It's something that maybe not anyone would agree with…. but I would feel guilty for shooting with a camera in this situation because I'm not an outsider.
"I'm someone who is very connected to this place. So I just tried to focus on those moments where there is something that is moving in the scene, but there is no one… there are only materials, the objects that these people left. Their photos, their memories… I tried just to record that for 10 seconds for each scene just to tell a story and to make people see that we should not forget basically.”
AlBaraa’s first instinct in Antakya was of course to find and save his family, not to film or document what happened – although the latter did help in raising awareness and inciting others to help or donate.
Most of his family survived, and he is now trying to relocate them to Istanbul, but a few of his relatives were never found in Antakya and are now assumed to be dead under the rubble. But AlBaraa said that the suffering caused to Syrian families by these compounding disasters has meant that even those who survived now feel dead inside.
“The first time I saw my family's faces I just couldn't really understand…” he said. “It was the first time in my whole life. They saw war. They saw bombing. They saw many things, but this is something else. Their faces are dead actually, but they are alive somehow.”
As the impact and consequences of the earthquakes on the humanitarian situation in the region remain to be fully grasped, help and support to those who need it most, like Syrian refugees, remains essential, and AlBaraa hopes it will not go away even when international media attention dissipates.
“It's not a trend. It's something that happened,” he said about their latest displacement. “This is an ongoing disaster, ongoing trauma. So even the help that is being provided now should be provided for the long term to all these affected families because they will need time to start over again and to figure out how to restart.
"I think everyone is afraid to forget, but I don't think anyone should forget, or can forget.”
Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab. His stories focus on social movements, migration issues, and the arts & culture of the SWANA region. He has contributed to The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Independent, and more.
Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie