ISLAHIYE, Turkey — It is hard to escape your thoughts in a hospital bed, although Najwa Ibish was trying. Nearly a week after the earthquake, she wanted to get up and get out. But memories of her husband’s death came in waves, swelling up from nowhere, pulling her back under each time.
In Syria, they were sweethearts. As refugees in Turkey, they built a life away from danger. Hassan, 37, was the breadwinner, Najwa, 27, was the homemaker. It all fell apart in the darkness of Feb. 6, as the earth seemed to roar and the walls and roof came tumbling down on top of them. Najwa remembers waking up to find Hassan’s body wrapped around her. In death, he had saved her and their youngest child, Majid, still asleep in her arms.
Curled under a fleece blanket Friday, her eyes dark from fatigue, Najwa was at a loss. “It’s been five days,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s hard to believe it.”
Monday’s earthquakes have killed 28,000 people, a number almost impossible to comprehend. As the immediate shock fades, the scale of the human tragedy is only starting to come into view. No one knows how many bodies the rubble still holds. And many survivors don’t know the whole truth about what they’ve lost.
As Najwa mourns her husband, her family hasn’t had the heart to tell her about her middle son, 10-year-old Mohamed.
When the earth started shaking in their mountain town of Islahiye, her eldest son, 12-year-old Mounir, jumped from a window and sprinted through the streets to spread the news to Najwa’s father and brothers, who rushed to the scene. But in the darkness, and without rescue vehicles, her relatives were powerless to lift the cinder blocks from what remained of the bedroom. As day broke, they saw Hassan’s body crushed next to Najwa; when they managed to reach her hand through a hole in the rubble, she was inconsolable.
“She was sure that she wouldn’t make it. She was hysterical, she kept crying out that Hassan and her sons were dead,” recalled her cousin, Mustafa Sheikh. “She wanted us to leave her there. She wanted the stones to bury her too.”
It took hours for the rescue vehicles to arrive. Knowing they had to keep Najwa conscious, her relatives sat with her in shifts, rubbing her hand and trying to distract her — with jokes, with stories of Syria, with talk of the food they would cook together when she got out of there.
Sometimes she’d laugh weakly, other times she grew agitated. She asked again and again for her children. But then a voice interrupted them, somewhere deeper in the rubble. It was Mohamed, and he was telling them his back hurt.
The extensiveness of the destruction meant there was not enough excavation equipment to go around. In both Turkey and Syria, people have died when crude equipment dislodged concrete and rubble on survivors. Without proper tools, it took hours to rescue Najwa first, and then Mohamed.
Najwa’s leg was badly wounded, and she was rushed to the hospital. Mohamed came out smiling. “We think he must have been in shock,” said his uncle, Mustafa Ibish. “You couldn’t tell then that anything was wrong.”
It soon became clear there was something wrong with the child, but they didn’t want to worry Najwa. Though she had been in the hospital for days, no nurse or doctor had taken the time to wash Hassan’s blood from her hair. She asked her brother, Omar, to cut it off for her. Her anxiety was growing as her damaged leg began to turn black. Omar took Mohamed to the hospital without telling her, and he was passed from doctor to doctor before the family got a diagnosis: it was kidney failure.
By Friday, he was on life support. Doctors say he has severe brain damage and they do not expect him to recover. From her hospital bed, Najwa asks for him often, but no one has told her. No one knows how.
It is a dilemma facing countless families in communities across southern Turkey and northern Syria, as relatives try to protect grieving loved ones from further pain.
In the Syrian town of Jinderis, The Washington Post interviewed two fathers who had lost sons under the rubble. Both were still looking for the words to tell their daughters.
In Islahiye, Najwa’s other two sons have not seen their mother since she left for the hospital, 55 miles away in Gaziantep. When Mounir asked relatives where his father is, they told him that he was on a business trip. Now the boy is quiet and has stopped asking.
“We’re just trying to surround them with relatives all the time, we’re trying to treat them like little kings, but it’s not easy,” Mustafa said. With their homes damaged, the family is living together under a tarpaulin. They have pleaded with Turkish authorities for a simple tent, but are still waiting.
Few others have received one in their mostly Syrian neighborhood. “They don’t give them to people like us,” said one man.
By Saturday, there was no update on Najwa or Mohamed’s condition. With the walls of their house missing, the bedroom where Hassan saved Najwa is exposed among the ruins. So is a brown and orange blanket that Mohamed was clutching when he first cried out from the rubble, when they all thought he had been saved.
Haifa Ibrahim contributed to this report.