Pulled from the rubble with the umbilical cord attached to her dead mother after an earthquake in Syria last year, Afraa Al Sawadi turns one under the loving care of her uncle who named her after her mother who had died just after giving birth. | Image Credit: AP/AFP

JINDAYRIS, Syria: A year ago, Afraa Al Sawadi was pulled from the rubble of her family home still attached to her dead mother by the umbilical cord, after a devastating earthquake hit northwest Syria.

Now in the care of relatives after the February 6, 2023 quake, which ravaged Turkey and Syria and killed nearly 60,000 people, she is among the orphaned children toughing it out in the war-ravaged country.

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“We named her after her mother, Afraa, to carry on her name and not forget her family,” said her uncle Khalil Al Sawadi, 35, who has taken the infant girl in alongside his seven children.

“My wife breastfed Afraa because we have a baby girl who we called Aataa... they’ve become like twins,” he said.

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According to Damascus, the earthquake killed more than 1,400 people in government-controlled areas of Syria, while more than 4,500 died and tens of thousands were injured in areas held by opposition factions in the country’s northwest.

Jindayris, in Aleppo province near the border with Turkey, was one of the areas worst-hit by the quake, heaping more misery onto war-weary residents, many of them were displaced during the conflict from other parts of the country.

Afraa with her uncle. Image Credit: AFP

From the first moments after Afraa’s rescue, her story captured hearts and made international headlines as the earthquake’s “miracle baby”.

Now, Al Sawadi’s daughters sing to Afraa, who is bundled up in winter clothes at their modest home.

The little girl with rosy cheeks and wide eyes turns one on Tuesday and has started crawling.

Syrian earthquake survivor toddler Afraa Al Sawadi in a swing at her uncle's house where she lives in Jindayris town in the northwest of Aleppo province on February 4, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

“When she began talking, she started calling me dad and calling her aunt mum,” said a visibly emotional Al Sawadi.

Making a living through odd jobs after being displaced from eastern Syria, he said he felt a heavy responsibility for raising Afraa.

He expressed hope that she would have a bright future, getting a good education and even “doing better than my own children”.

Syrian earthquake survivor Hamza Al Ahmed. Image Credit: AFP

‘Nothing is left’

In Jindayris, controlled by Turkish-backed armed Syrian opposition factions, quake-stricken buildings sit in ruins while others remain partially collapsed.

Hundreds of families still live in tents and makeshift shelters, while the luckier ones are in displacement camps made up of small cement buildings constructed thanks to foreign donations.

Hamza Al Ahmad, 15, walks with crutches through the streets of Jindayris, where he lives with his brother, who is married.

The teen was left orphaned when his family’s building was destroyed in the quake.

“My father and mother and four siblings died. I spent 35 hours under the rubble,” he told AFP.

“The building totally collapsed, nothing is left of it. It’s become empty land,” he said.

Ahmad’s leg had to be amputated and his arm was left injured due to crush syndrome, which occurs in limbs starved of blood circulation for too long.

“To me, the anniversary of the earthquake means destruction,” he said.

“I feel as if life stopped that day. We lost all those who were dear to us,” he said.

“Life without your parents is hard, but it goes on,” said Ahmed, who is also getting used to using a prosthetic leg.

“My dream now is to get better and to go back to standing on my feet,” he said.

Syrian earthquake survivor Yasmine Al Sham. Image Credit: AFP

‘It broke us’

According to the United Nations, 265,000 people in northwest Syria had their homes destroyed in the quake, and more than 43,000 people displaced by the disaster have yet to return home.

Yasmine Al Sham, 10, survived the quake after 18 hours under the ruins of her family’s building.

But her father, pregnant mother and three of her siblings, including her twin sister Mal Al Sham, died after two days trapped under the rubble, and she is now in the care of her grandmother.

“I was sleeping when the quake struck... my older brother picked me up and rushed me towards the door of the house, which fell down around us,” she said.

The quake worsened a pre-existing vision problem and she had to wear special glasses after dust got into her eyes.

Sham, who loves drawing and colouring, now only has her grandmother and cousins left, and said she missed her twin sister.

“We used to spend our time together in the same class at school,” she said. “We used to play together.”

Her grandmother Samira al-Yassin, 62, who was previously displaced from central Syria, said 47 people - all relatives - were killed when the family’s building collapsed.

“The memory of the earthquake is painful,” said Yassin, who was widowed in the quake.

“It broke us. We lost our whole family. Only a few of us survived.”