Youssef Qramo fled conflict in Syria for safety in neighbouring Turkey but after the deadly earthquake which devastated parts of both countries, he and thousands of fellow Syrians are returning to their homes in the war zone – at least for now.
Taking advantage of an offer from Turkish authorities to spend up to six months in rebel-held northwest Syria without losing the chance to return to Turkey, many are rushing back to check on relatives who also suffered in the February 6 quake.
“I haven’t seen my family for four years, as I live alone in Turkey,” Qramo said after crossing into Syria. “The situation in Turkey is miserable in the areas where the earthquake hit.”
Officials gave no figures for the number of people entering at the Bab Hamam crossing, but at another crossing, Bab al Hawa, they said 4,600 Syrians had crossed since the initiative was announced on Wednesday.
Qramo, who had been living in the city of Gaziantep, said people were staying in tents in the cold and rain. As well as the harsh winter weather, Syrians had faced hostility, he said.
Even before the earthquake, the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey had encountered growing resentment from Turks struggling with a rising cost of living and sometimes blaming the influx from Syria for their economic woes.
In Gaziantep, Qramo said police had moved Syrians out of a mosque where they were sheltering to make way for Turkish families. Several Turks in other quake-hit towns and cities have accused Syrians of robbing damaged shops and homes.
“The situation is very tough for Syrians,” he said.
Mansour Hamoud, who was living in the Turkish port city of Iskenderun, said he had been sleeping in a park after his home was destroyed.
“I decided to come back and live in my country. Dead or alive, I prefer to be with my family,” he said.
Around 4 million people live in northwest Turkey under the control of fighters backed by Turkey and opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The United Nations say most of them were dependent on aid even before the latest disaster.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck before dawn 11 days ago, killing more than 38,000 people in Turkey and 5,800 in Syria. It has left millions homeless and sparked a huge relief effort, although aid has been slower to reach Syria.
Anas Haj Qadro, who was in the Turkish city of Antakya when the earthquake struck, said he had decided to live with his family in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province until some normality returned to the city.
“There is a lot of destruction and the situation is very difficult in Antakya,” he said. “For about an hour, it felt like doomsday.”