NICOSIA, Cyprus – No one knows how long little Bushr Al Tawashi wandered alone in the rubble of his home in the Syrian capital before rebel fighters found the toddler and handed him over to another family to look after.
Now, the 2-year-old is back with his parents — who believed he had been killed.
In their chaotic haste to escape fighting between government troops and Syrian rebels, Bushr's parents had assumed the boy was picked up by other members of their extended family who were staying with them when clashes broke out last summer in the Damascus suburb of Al Kaboun.
Heavy fighting prevented the parents from going back to search for Bushr once they arrived at a refugee camp and realized he was missing, said Stella Constantinou, a Cypriot lawyer.
Believing he did not survive the shelling, the boy's grief-stricken father, Machhour Al Tawashi, and his wife, Arin Al Dakkar, arrived in Cyprus on Aug. 6 along with their two other sons, ages 4 and 6, in search of asylum.
Word the boy was safe eventually reached the parents, who now live in the coastal town of Limassol.
"You can imagine how they felt when they were told their son was alive after bearing all this guilt thinking that he was dead," Constantinou said.
Al Tawashi told The Associated Press through an interpreter that someone had recognized Bushr since everyone knows each other in their tight-knit community, and called the family in Cyprus to deliver the good news.
The family then sought Constantinou's help to bring him to this Mediterranean island, which lies 65 miles (105 kilometers) west of Syria.
Al Tawashi's sister, who had joined the family in Cyprus, volunteered to return to Damascus on Sept. 9 to take care of the child until arrangements for his return could be made. She is now being prevented from leaving the Syrian capital, the lawyer said.
The Cypriot Foreign Ministry expedited the process of reuniting the boy with his family after his parents provided proof he was their child. Bushr's father then traveled to the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where he was reunited with the boy at the Cypriot Embassy. He brought Bushr back to the island on Thursday.
"I can't describe how I felt when I saw him, just overjoyed at seeing him again," Al Tawashi said Friday. "At first he didn't recognize me, but then we embraced and he started calling out 'Father, Father.'"
Al Tawashi said although he still has relatives in Syria, his home has been destroyed in the fighting and there's no way the family will ever go back.
"Absolutely not," the father said.
Activists say at least 35,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's government began in March 2011.
Constantinou said the toddler was just happy to be in his mother's arms again and called out to his older brothers.
"As a grandmother of a 2-year-old myself, there's nothing I wouldn't do to get that boy back to his parents," she said.