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‘I message Christian on WhatsApp – I need to let it out and ask, ‘Why are you not here?”

On February 6, 2023, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck southern Turkey at 4.17am.

The apartment building of Christian Atsu, the former Ghana international whose Premier League clubs included Newcastle United, Chelsea and Everton, collapsed. 

The night before he had scored a last-minute winner for Hatayspor, a club in one of the worst affected regions.

Another equally strong earthquake hit at lunchtime, contributing to the collapse or damage of hundreds of thousands of buildings across an affected area of 140,000 square miles of Turkey and Syria. In total, at least 60,000 people were killed.

One year on, The Athletic speaks to Atsu’s fiancee Claire Rupio about the torment she and their three young children are going through. And to Atsu’s twin sister Christiana Atsupie Twasam, and agent and close friend Nana Sechere — who both joined the search to find him. 

Christian and Christiana were the youngest of 12 siblings born in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana. Fishing, farming and — especially for Christian — football was their childhood. Twasam is the family name, Atsu (male) and Atsupie (female) denote that they are twins.

“It’s a special bond that I don’t even understand. It’s extraordinary,” Christiana tells The Athletic. “there is no way to explain that love.”

Christiana says she is managing her grief

The night before the disaster, Christiana had finished a 12-hour nursing shift at Royal Stoke University Hospital. She had moved to England to be closer to her brother, who sponsored her training.

“I’d seen on Facebook that he’d scored a beautiful goal, so my intention was to give him a call as soon as I got home, but I was really tired, I don’t know when I fell asleep, we last spoke a few days before,” she says.

Claire was at home in Newcastle with the children, Joshua (nine), Godwin (six) and Abigail (three). They were used to Christian being away and had not seen him since Christmas. His goal, after a long injury lay-off, gave everyone a spring in their step.

“He’d called the kids before the game,” says Claire. “Then after the game we’d spoken to congratulate him on the goal. It was just normal, he was supposed to call on Monday, but he didn’t.”

Nana had known Christian since 2012. And but for a late flight change, he would have been at the game against Kasimpasa to see him score and planned to stay at his apartment.

“I was ecstatic watching in my living room but annoyed he’d scored and I wasn’t there,” he says. “He made a point of thanking me for sticking by him in the dark times. But I was telling him to go and enjoy the celebrations, and I cut him off. Now, I look back and I don’t know why I did that. His last words give me comfort.”

The next call he received was from a panicked member of the Hatayspor staff just after 5am. “He said, ‘Have you spoken to Christian? There’s been a big earthquake and his building has collapsed.’”

Nana called Christian straight away: “I tried several times. It went to voicemail. I sent him a few WhatsApps and there was just one tick. There was no filter on the news channels and I saw the seriousness of the situation.

“I called Christiana and told her the situation, (but) I didn’t want her to panic. I told her that I hoped Christian would be fine, but just to let Claire know as soon as she could.” 

In Newcastle, the family were preparing for what they thought would be a normal week.

“I heard it on the radio first when I was driving them to school and I thought it’s Turkey, but he’ll be fine, nothing will happen to him, that would be absurd,” says Claire. “Then I saw a lot of missed calls from Christiana after I’d dropped the kids and I thought, ‘What’s happening?’

“I called her back and she said, ‘His building has collapsed’. I was in shock, I thought, ‘That can’t be true’. I had to take the children out of school before it finished; I didn’t want them to hear it from anybody else.

“I told them there had been an earthquake where Daddy was playing and they haven’t found him yet. They deserved the respect to know everything. They were very upset and crying. I tried to stay positive and tell them he will be fine.”

Wracked with worry, and alone, Christiana had one instinct. “If I had wings I would have flown straight there,” she says. But official documents from the Ghana embassy had to come first, while flights to Turkey were disrupted.

Within 24 hours, hope emerged via reports from Turkey — confirmed by a Hatayspor official and the Ghana FA — that Christian had been rescued and taken to hospital.

“I took the children to school the next day because I thought, ‘This is good news, we’ll be fine, he has been found,’” Claire says.

Meanwhile, Nana sought details: “I spoke to someone I trusted who said he hadn’t seen Christian and had been to the hospitals. That’s when alarm bells started to ring.”

That glimmer of hope was cruelly extinguished a few hours later. “We were driving on the way home from school and we heard it over the radio that it was false,” says Claire. “Why was it put out there like he wasn’t a normal person, with a family, with three children? They just heard it on the radio saying it’s not true.

“It’s always bad to have false news, but we lost the day because of it — no one searched for him. That’s what makes me angry. Maybe he was still alive that day. We don’t know.”

The confusion resolved Nana to get out to Turkey as quickly as possible. “I wasn’t listening to the media any more, I was speaking to people on the ground, ” he says. It was agreed with Claire that she would stay with the children, while her parents arrived from Germany for moral support.

Christiana, older brother Isaac and Christian’s close friend Katalin Comoe from Portugal — Christian had started his European career with Porto — joined the rescue effort. They were granted permission to travel to the affected area. Roads were blocked by fallen buildings, tarmac was fractured.

“When I got there, I was devastated because I thought no one was going to survive in that building,” says Christiana, recalling the sight of the collapsed Renaissance Residence five-star block where Christian was. Hatayspor’s sporting director Taner Savut was also in the wreckage.

Tents were erected nearby in a clearing on some farmland, safe from unstable buildings. Barrel fires burned to generate heat in sub-zero conditions. Rescue vehicles and equipment struggled to make it to some areas.

“We would call out his name,” says Christiana. “The rescuers would alert us if they sensed a life, then bring out the body and you’d be asked to verify if it was someone you knew. It broke my heart when you saw a body bag coming — it was going to be your own relative or not,” she says. “We were like a family around the fire in the evening. When someone verified their relative and broke down, it reminded you that one day you would too.”

At home, Claire barely slept. “There were live feeds that I followed the whole night, praying he would be pulled out. I thought, ‘He’s strong, he believes in God, he will get out.’”

There were moments of encouragement during the search. “I spotted a shoe that looked very much like Christian’s through the legs of one of the search team,” says Nana. “He threw it over to me and it was one of his Yeezy trainers. We found the other one from the pair soon after, and it told us we were looking in the right place.”

It lifted spirits, but there was realism as the search moved into an 11th day. “I had high hopes that we would find him alive, but I noticed that I wasn’t sensing him, feeling him around me,” says Christiana.

In the middle of the night, a call came while they slept in cars and tents. “They had found a body they strongly thought was Christian,” says Nana, who accompanied Isaac to the site.

“Two officials took us to a body bag lying on the floor,” he says. “We had seen so many, that even before they were opened (we knew they) weren’t the right shape or size for Christian. But I could tell by the shape of it that it was Christian. We saw him and we broke down.”

Claire will never forget the call from Nana. “It was around 3am on Saturday, and when I saw Nana’s name come up on my phone I knew: this is it,” she says. “I picked up and he was just crying. He said, ‘I’m so sorry’, and he couldn’t say anything more.

“I needed to figure out how I was going to tell my kids that their dad is gone. It was terrible, there was so much going through my mind.”

She took the boys to football practice first. “One of the coaches just came up to me and gave me a hug, but I told him just to be normal as I hadn’t told them yet. They were awaiting good news when I sat them down and then I looked at them…”

Claire breaks down thinking of that moment. “I told them, ‘They have found your dad, but he didn’t make it’. It’s something I wish no parent has to do. It was heartbreaking, he was everything to them. Losing anyone is difficult, but we couldn’t even say goodbye.”

That night the family attended Newcastle’s game against Liverpool at St James’ Park. Before kick-off, there was a minute of applause which included away fans singing ‘You’ll never walk alone’. Christian spent five years at Newcastle from 2016 to 2021, where Claire says he was his happiest and the family set up home. The club have provided meaningful support to the family since.

The process of repatriation started promptly after Christian had been found. Ghana’s ambassador in Turkey, Francisca Ashietey-Odunton, helped.

Soon came a flight home that Christiana will never forget.

“What I went through and what I’m going through, I’ll never wish on my enemy,” she says. “Flying on a plane knowing at the back someone that you love is there was so hard. I was used to flying with him, sat side by side, but now he was somewhere far away and only you are there.”

Once the plane had landed, Christian’s body was transferred to a military hospital as preparations were made for a state funeral. Christian was an idol of Ghanaian football: his seven-year international career comprised 65 caps and nine goals. Three AFCON appearances included winning the player and goal of the tournament award in 2015 when they were beaten finalists.

In the build-up to the national event, a private and traditional ceremony took place, specific to twins. It was one of separation.

“It’s like our spirit is the same,” Christiana says. “They needed to separate me from him.”

It was carried out by the same pastor who had christened them after they were born in 1992.

“He said a prayer and told us, ‘I know you came together, but there is now separation,’” Christiana says. As a nurse, she was used to seeing and caring for people who had suffered loss, but that “it’s different when it’s someone you love”.

Claire and the children attended the funeral in the capital Accra. “There was so much support and love showed to him,” she says. “There were people with his face on T-shirts and everyone was very welcoming. I love the culture and how they celebrate (someone’s life) with dancing and singing.”

The funeral also meant Christian lying in state for the public to pay their respects in an open coffin. “I didn’t want the kids to have that as the last image of him and they respected that, so we walked past with our heads down,” she says. “I couldn’t really process it; I just went through it.” When Claire was too upset to read her tribute, Christiana stepped in.

Christian was then relocated to his home town of Dogobome in Ada Foah for burial, with mourners welcomed to the family home to honour him. It led to an unexpected encounter.

When in Portugal, Christian had helped a Ghanaian lady with work and income. “She wanted everyone to know how much he did for her and her son,” Nana says.

On learning that the woman was struggling to make ends meet while looking after her disabled son, Christian pledged to help. She did not want charity, but said she could cook and clean and continued to help once he left for Portugal. “He took her into his home and made sure he paid her for her work but he gave her more to make sure it covered the care for her son. It was a story that put everyone in tears,” Nana says.

Christiana was not surprised. “He would accommodate people, no matter your background. He saw everyone else as his own. He loved to share but if he did something for you, he didn’t want the next person to know.”

Claire saw that too. “He was very humble and loved to support people. If there was a homeless man outside, he would just give them money. He was special.”

Before leaving Ghana, Christiana spent time at the house where she and her brother had lived together, with rooms opposite each other. “I went to his room, opened his wardrobe, got out some of his clothes… because I just wanted to smell him again,” she says.

“When people say, ‘How are you coping?’ I don’t cope. I just survive every day,” says Claire. “Mentally, you’re fine for a few days, maybe a week, but then lots of emotion comes.

“Sometimes I message Christian on WhatsApp — I just need to let it out,” she says. “‘Why are you not here?’ or maybe one of the kids needs him.”

On Father’s Day last June, one of Christian’s close friends travelled over and attended a special event at school, to make up for him not being there as best as he could. The first Christmas without him was another tough period. 

“Abigail drew a picture on the 24th and she was telling me, ‘Listen, don’t forget to send this to my dad’,” Claire says. “At first I said, ‘OK’, but then I had to explain that he’s up there watching over you now and she got upset.”

Joshua, the eldest child is now 10 and has Christian as a middle name. He has his father’s face and smile — even his walk, says Claire. He misses seeing his dad on the touchline at his football matches.

“When his dad came and watched him, it was a highlight for him. Now he’s gone. Every child takes it differently, but he has been very quiet. He doesn’t really want to talk, he just wants to see him.

“Godwin (now seven) speaks about his dad a lot and asks a lot of questions which can be tough. ‘Where is he now? What does he do now? Is he still watching over us?’”

January 10 would have been his 32nd birthday. “We were not able to congratulate him, celebrate it with him or call him or anything, so January was very emotional,” Claire says.

Christiana just wanted a change of scenery on their birthday. “I went to Chester,” she says. “But I broke down there. He was not there.

“I know grieving has five stages, but I don’t know where I am at the moment. Sometimes I’m in denial, sometimes acceptance, it fluctuates and I feel like I’m not progressing. I’ve lost my mum and my dad, but Christian leaving has had more impact on me than anything.

“We’ll launch the Christian Atsu Memorial Foundation in March to continue his charity work.”

Christian had built a school in Ghana and was funding additional projects. “I have the baton to continue his work, but it’s not easy. I have to heal first,” says Christiana.

Writing has helped Claire. During the summer, when back in Germany, she wrote a song ‘Lotus’ alongside her brother who is a music producer, which has now been released. “He could see I was struggling and he just told me to write down my feelings,” she says. “It’s about grieving, depression and Christian.”

There are other plans to honour his legacy too. “I want to do that through football,” says Nana. “I want to make sure his name is not forgotten and it’s kept alive in Ghana and beyond.”

If you have been affected by this story and would like to talk to someone, you can find support here if you are in the UK and here if you are in the US.

(Design: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic; photos: The Atsu family/Getty Images)

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