Some of the debris is gone, but an emptiness remains

(Al Jazeera)

Northwest Syria - The massive earthquakes that destroyed swaths of northwest Syria and southern Turkey last year have left their mark on the regions that they hit.

Northwest Syria, in particular, suffered a great deal, being the last rebel-held bastion in Syria and already cut off even before the natural disaster made everything so much worse.

At the time, Al Jazeera was on the ground, speaking to survivors and reporting on the efforts by rescuers to save what lives they could from under the rubble.

A year later, Al Jazeera returned to speak to three people we met last year, to see how their lives have changed since that momentous day.

Losing loved ones to an earthquake, does that wound heal?

Atarib, northwest Syria - Mahmoud Omar al-Ormi sits with his seven-year-old son Ahmad in his lap, mirroring an image that was taken nearly exactly one year ago in the same spot when Al Jazeera first spoke to the two.

They had walked over the place where their house stood until 4:17am on February 6, 2023, when the first of two massive earthquakes ripped through northwest Syria and brought it tumbling down into a pile of rubble.

"Till this day, the image of my wife and children never leaves me," said al-Ormi, who lost his wife and four of his six children under the home that fell in the magnitude 7.6 earthquake.

Al-Ormi and Ahmad were rescued from under the rubble half an hour after their house collapsed, while his two-year-old daughter Shareefa was rescued eight hours later.

He had to wait until the day after the earthquake for rescue teams to retrieve the bodies of his pregnant wife and two other sons, 15-year-old Omar and 14-year-old Shaaban, as well as his daughters 13-year-old Amina and 18-month-old Shahrazad.

The earthquake killed 2,172 people and injured more than 2,950 in northwest Syria, according to the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets.

Al-Ormi had previously told Al Jazeera that he visited his family's graves every night, shouting out to them to reply to him and weeping when they didn't.

"I still visit their graves every weekend because those I lost were dearer to me than my own life," said Al-Ormi.

The tent where al-Ormi and his children lived after their house collapsed was not comfortable and they eventually moved to a house, but he still fears the aftershocks that occur from time to time.

"Every time there is an aftershock, I run quickly to grab my children and take them out of the house, fearing any harm to them," al-Ormi said.

With time, al-Omri found it harder and harder to work and take care of his children and he decided to seek a partner who could give his children the maternal care they had lost.

"It was difficult for me to live with another woman other than my late wife, but I needed a wife to share my life and help me raise my children," said al-Ormi.

"I thank God that my new wife is a very good and understanding person who always tries to compensate for the loss we experienced. She even goes with us to visit my family's graves."

'I wish it were a nightmare'

Jandares, northwest Syria - The Aleppo countryside had the highest casualties from the earthquake, with more than 513 deaths and in excess of 813 injuries, according to the White Helmets.

"Since then, my children are scared of earthquakes every time they go to sleep," said mother-of-10 Samaher Rashid whose house collapsed in Jandares.

Now, they live in a camp near the Syria-Turkey border.

For Samaher, this past year has been terrible, especially living in a flimsy tent that offers no protection from the elements.

"I can never forget my children and I crying from how cold it was in the tent. Even walking to the camp bathroom meant wading through mud that sucked our feet in," Samaher added.

She had previously told Al Jazeera that when her children went to sleep, she would break down and cry, wondering how she would find a home again to avoid the cold surrounding their tent.

"I still cry at night, alone, over what happened to us and how, even if I could move us to a house, my kids are now scared of living in one," said Samaher.

"Sometimes, I visit my married daughter in Idlib, and my children refuse to sleep at her place because she lives on the third floor."

"All I wish for now is that this year turns out to be just a nightmare that will end soon."

Hope in God

Azmarin, northwest Syria - After losing her eldest son and breaking her leg when their house collapsed in the earthquake, Moufida Ghanem spent six months living in a camp for the earthquake-displaced with her son Ali, 17.

Now, they have a house to live in, something the 41-year-old widow - she lost her husband seven years ago - had told Al Jazeera last year that she was determined to do: to be both mother and father to her children.

"I had promised myself to heal and work hard for a good life for my son, compensating him for the loss of his older brother," said Moufida.

Ali stands with his arm around his mother
Moufida and Ali in their home [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Moufida is resilient but she cannot forget her lost son.

"Every time I pass by the rubble of my old house, I remember my son and wonder how he spent his last moments. Did he cry or scream? Did he have time to utter the final prayer or not?".

Life is expensive in northwest Syria, and Moufida is still trying to find a solid job to have some security for her and Ali.

"At this time, healthy and strong men struggle to live due to the scarcity of job opportunities and the high cost of living. How about me, complaining about the pain in my broken foot?" she said.

"My hope in God is great that he will not disappoint me, and the coming days will be better," Moufida added.

Moufida Ghanem and her son Ali in their tent
Moufida Ghanem and her son Ali in their tent last year [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera