It was 4:17 a.m. on February 6th in Antakya, an ancient Turkish city near the Syrian border, when the earth tore open and people’s beds began to shake. On the third floor of an apartment in the Ekinci neighborhood, Anwar Saadeddin, a former brigadier general in the Syrian Army, awoke to the sounds of glass breaking, cupboard doors banging, and jars of tahini and cured eggplant spilling onto the floor. He climbed out of bed, but, for almost thirty seconds, he was unable to keep his footing; the building was moving side to side. When the earthquake subsided, he tried to call his daughter Rula, who lived down the road, but the cellular network was down.
Thirty seconds after the first quake, the building started moving again, this time up and down, with such violence that an exterior wall sheared open, and rain started pouring in. The noise was tremendous—concrete splitting, rebar bending, plates shattering, neighbors screaming. When the shaking stopped, about a minute later, Saadeddin, who is in his late sixties, and his wife walked down three flights of stairs, dressed in pajamas and sandals, and went out into the cold.
“All of Antakya was black—there was no electricity anywhere,” Saadeddin recalled. Thousands of the city’s buildings had collapsed. Survivors spilled into the streets, crowding rubble-strewn alleyways and searching for open ground, as minarets toppled and glass shards fluttered down from tower blocks. The general and his wife set off in the direction of the building where Rula lived, with her husband, Mustafa, and their four children.
A third quake shook the ground. When Saadeddin made it to his daughter’s apartment block, flashes of lighting illuminated what was now a fourteen-story grave. The building—which had been completed less than two years earlier—had twisted as it toppled over, crushing many of the residents. Saadeddin felt his body drained of all emotion, almost as if it didn’t belong to him.
Saadeddin was not the only person searching for Rula and her family. For the past decade, her husband, Mustafa, had quietly served as the deputy chief of Syria investigations for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a group that has captured more than a million pages of documents from Syrian military and intelligence facilities. Using these files, lawyers at the cija have prepared some of the most comprehensive war-crimes cases since the Nuremberg trials, targeting senior Syrian regime officers—including the President, Bashar al-Assad. After the earthquake, the group directed its investigative focus into a search-and-rescue operation for members of its own Syrian team, many of whom had been displaced to southern Turkey after more than a decade of war. By the end of the third day, nearly everyone was accounted for. Two investigators had lost children; one of them had also lost his wife. But Mustafa was still missing. [Continue reading…]