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Tim Al-Sioufi: ‘During the earthquake I relived Syria’s Ghouta massacre’

March 29, 2023 at 9:30 pm

A view of damage from Atarib district of Syria, affected by Kahramanmaras-centered earthquakes, on February 21, 2022 [Muhammed Said – Anadolu Agency]

In 2020, Tim Al-Sioufi heard a notification come through on his mobile phone. He checked the screen; there were two Whatsapp messages from an unknown number, so he tapped on the green bar. It opened out into a video, and a message: “This is your deceased father; make prayers for him.”

Tim stared at the play symbol for hours. His father, a former political prisoner, had disappeared eight years earlier whilst on his way home from Damascus, and Tim had waited so long to discover his fate. Yet, here it was right in front of him, and he could not bring himself to look at it.

A photographer, film maker and podcast presenter, Tim played his role in the Syrian revolution by documenting the Syrian uprising, first with his mobile phone, then with a camera, selling photographs of the unspeakable horrors of war to international news agencies across the world.

For a young man in his early twenties, Tim has already seen a lot. He says that his soul is actually 80-years-old. Back home, he captured the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta and has been caught in the crossfire of shooting by rival factions whilst filming a peaceful demonstration in the city of Ain Tarma, a suburb of Damascus.

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Then, in 2017, militant group Jaysh Al-Islam printed pictures of Tim and one of his brothers and hung them around the city of Douma after Tim posted a poem by Amal Dunqul on Facebook. Beneath the images, a caption accused them of infidelity and called for their expulsion.

Tim has won several accolades for his work, including Amnesty International’s award for best short documentary for his film, “Douma Underground”, which captured the barrel bombs as they fell on the city. Yet he is stuck in limbo, living in exile and unsure where to turn.

A moment of respite followed three failed attempts to get into Turkiye. On 9 September, 2019, Tim and his wife entered from northern Syria and found an apartment to live in. It was normal life – a window overlooking a busy road, traffic lights and lines of traffic.

But on 6 February 2023, Tim’s world came crashing down again. Twin earthquakes hit southern Turkey and northern Syria killing over 46,000 people and bringing to the floor thousands of apartment blocks, schools and bridges. As their home started to shake, Tim ran for his life still in his underwear, his wife barefoot and eight months pregnant.

“During the earthquake, I relived the Syrian Ghouta massacre,” Tim says. “The fear on the faces of the people during the earthquake, the sound of the children crying, all at the same time. Hundreds of people were gathered in the mosques and the smell of the mass of people took me back.”

Tim and his son after the second earthquake in Gaziantep, on 6 February, Gaziantep, Turkey [Tim Al-Sioufi]

Tim and his son after the second earthquake in Gaziantep, on 6 February, Gaziantep, Turkey [Tim Al-Sioufi]

There are over 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkiye, many of them in the southern part of the country where the earthquake hit. Like Tim, they have fled unspeakable horrors of war – massacres and extrajudicial killings – and now face an even more uncertain future.

Turkish authorities have arbitrarily arrested and deported hundreds of Syrian refugees and boys, by forcing them to sign forms which say they want to return voluntarily. Many report suffering racism in Turkiye, which has worsened after the earthquake.

Turkish authorities have prohibited anyone from entering the apartment Tim and his wife were living in due to structural damage caused by the quake, so the couple and their children are staying with relatives in Gaziantep. “Their apartment is also cracked,” he tells us, “But not as badly.”

Tim and his family have no official ID. His was confiscated by the regime whilst he was still in Syria and, before they left for Turkiye, his wife tried several times to retrieve hers from their family home in Damascus, but failed to do so because of the 2013 siege on eastern Ghouta.

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The couple live under temporary protection in Gaziantep and say they are not allowed to leave the city. A worse fate would be being deported to Syria, says Tim: “I am certain they will kill me if I’m forced to return.”

Two years ago, Tim summoned up the courage to open the video he was sent from the unknown Whatsapp number. As he watched, he saw his father and one of his close friends being stabbed to death by members of the Syrian regime. He knows it was the government from their uniform, worn by an army brigade related to Bashar Al-Assad’s brother.

“When I watched the video I had a panic attack,” Tim recalls, his voice breaking. “For weeks, I felt the same pain as if someone had stabbed me, but the doctors I spoke to said it was just psychological.”


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.