Idlib doctor, dazed, walks away from collapsed building after airstrike kills his entire family

Dr. Mustafa Mahmoud a-Sayeh awoke on Wednesday morning to find his body covered in bruises and his four-story residential building reduced to a pile of rubble.

Around him, sharing a large bed, his entire family was dead: his wife and their six children.

In all, 14 members of a-Sayeh’s family were killed in their sleep by two airstrikes that hit al-Qasour district in the rebel-held city of Idlib at dawn, the Civil Defense reported on Wednesday.

The strikes killed 25 people in total—16 of whom were children.

A-Sayeh, who buried his wife, six children and his brother’s family on Thursday morning, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier that he’s “in a complete state of shock.”

The last conversation a-Sayeh had with his family was about returning to al-Bab, which they fled in 2014 after the Islamic State (IS) took control of the northeast Aleppo city.

The orthopedic surgeon had planned to move back with his family next month, after Free Syrian Army rebels expelled IS fighters from the town in late February.

“I delayed our return to al-Bab because I was worried about the landmines Islamic State fighters had planted in the town.”

Q: Where were you and what were you doing when the airstrike hit your building?

At 3:30am Wednesday morning, I was sleeping next to my wife and children in our house in al-Qasour district.

I didn’t hear anything but the sound of planes circling overhead. Moments later, everything went dark. I couldn’t see or feel anything—I thought I was dead.

I woke up to the voices of Civil Defense members. I opened my eyes and found our four-story building reduced to a pile of stones.

I went into a complete state of shock. I thought that I was dreaming, that I was still asleep, lying beside my children.

After some time, people in my neighborhood and Civil Defense members came to comfort me.

‘May God grant you patience,’ they said.

I sat there crying, and calling out ‘Oh God.’

I stayed at the site and watched as the Civil Defense pulled out bodies. Maybe one of them had survived, I thought.

Four families had lived in the building, including my brother, his wife and their five children. We had all fled al-Bab.

 Dr. a-Sayeh’s building in al-Qasour district on March 15. Photo courtesy of Civil Defense Idlib.

Q: Were you injured?  

I just have bruises on my body. Other than that, I’m fine, at least physically speaking. I was rescued along with two other men. 

Q: How are you coping with your loss?

I feel an overwhelming sense of defeat. I’m a father who lost his children, a husband who lost his wife and a brother who lost a younger sibling.

I feel like the whole world is caving in on me. I’m traumatized, I just can’t believe what happened.

Everyone in the building died—my wife, my six children, my brother and his family. He was 47 and had five children. He was an engineer.

I don’t challenge God’s judgment—I believe in His justice and will. But as humans, we can’t comprehend separation and death.

Until this moment, I’m in complete shock. I feel like I’m still sleeping, that this is a just nightmare and I’ll wake up soon.

But everyone at the wake told me that what happened is real life. My family is dead.

Q: Why do you believe that your life was spared?

 I survived because life and death are in God’s hands. God willed that I should live and fulfill my purpose. As a doctor it’s my duty to treat the sick and wounded, and to help them continue their lives amid the horrors of war.

Q: Tell me about the last conversation you had with your children. What’s your last memory of them?

The last thing we talked about was al-Bab. We were planning to return in a month, and my children were talking about what they’d do when they arrived. I delayed our return to al-Bab because I was worried about the landmines that Islamic State (IS) fighters had planted in the town.

[Ed.: On February 23, Free Syrian Army rebels expelled IS fighters from al-Bab after more than three months of heavy fighting. Before leaving, IS fighters planted landmines around the city, Syria Direct reported in March.]

My youngest children—Remas, Rand and Baybars—had only lived through war. But they would get excited about the smallest things—a bag of chips or some biscuits. They didn’t grasp what was happening around them.

They were afraid of bombings, though. Whenever there was bombing, they’d shut their eyes and put their fingers inside their ears to block out the noise.

My older children would often discuss the revolution. Aybada was 16, Hamza 13 and Wiam 10. They would question the death and destruction that is occurring in Syria.

‘All of this, just because we asked for freedom?’ they would ask.

They would say things like, ‘What was our sin? What did the children do wrong?’

Or: ‘Our friends are dying every day because of this war. Is freedom a right, or is it a crime?’

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.