Idlib town reels following major chemical attack: ‘No rebel positions, just people’

AMMAN: At the scene of a chemical attack in southern Idlib province that killed more than 70 people and injured 500 this week, residents, doctors and rescuers on Wednesday told Syria Direct “the scale of the trauma is unbelievable.”

People “are in shock, dazed,” Dr. Okbah Dagheem, a doctor in Khan Sheikhoun told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Medical workers are as well,” he added. “We have been on alert since Tuesday morning, doing everything in our power.”

Just after dawn on Tuesday, Syrian regime warplanes reportedly struck a residential area in the southern Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun with missiles carrying poison gas, according to sources on the ground.

In the following hours, scores of people died, with hundreds more taken to hospitals in Idlib province and Turkey, 90km north. As hospitals and rescuers worked in the aftermath of the gas attacks, the main hospital in Khan Sheikhoun and the town’s Civil Defense building were reportedly hit by conventional airstrikes.

The opposition Idlib Health Directorate reported 74 deaths and 557 injuries by Wednesday afternoon. Medical personnel and rescue workers were among the casualties. The Idlib Civil Defense cited a higher number of casualties on Wednesday, telling Syria Direct that staff verified 100 deaths by name.

“The Civil Defense buried the dead until midnight,” Osama Baradai, the head of the Idlib Civil Defense told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Today, we’re still working."

“The scale of the trauma among Khan Sheikhoun residents is unbelievable,” Baradai said. “Some families lost 20 people, some four or five members. It is a deep wound.”

Syrian armed forces deny carrying out a chemical attack against Khan Sheikhoun. The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that Syrian regime warplanes had struck a rebel arms depot where chemical weapons were manufactured.

 A Syrian man collects samples at the site of a gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 5. Photo courtesy of Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

“The strikes hit residential neighborhoods,” Dr. Abdelqader Najam, who runs a medical center in Khan Sheikhoun told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “There is no warehouse here, no rebel positions. Just people.”

The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet on Wednesday in the wake of the attack, which drew widespread international condemnation.

The Hague-based Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Tuesday that its Fact Finding Mission (FFM) was “in the process of gathering and analyzing information from all available sources.”

Most sources who spoke with Syria Direct reporters on Wednesday referred to the gas that struck their town the day before as sarin, while others did not describe the gas.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday that victims of the attack appeared to show signs consistent with exposure to “a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.” The organization’s online statement also noted the “disturbing frequency” of chemical attacks in Syria since 2012.

On Wednesday, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that it had recorded nine chemical attacks in Syria by regime forces since the beginning of 2017.

Shortages of medical facilities in nearby opposition-held areas—among the targets bombed by Russian and regime warplanes in the weeks and months leading up to Tuesday’s strike—complicated response efforts, doctors on the ground told Syria Direct.

Protective clothing and medicine needed to treat the injured were also in short supply, said medical sources on the ground. The WHO said on Wednesday that it was shipping medicine into Idlib from neighboring Turkey in addition to communicating with health workers in Syria.

‘They think the dead will wake’

Civil Defense teams identified additional victims of the Khan Sheikhoun attack on Wednesday, with entire families found when rescuers entered underground shelters and residences.

Some people in the town, accustomed to conventional bombings, had slept in their basements. There, gas heavier than air found them.

“There are some houses that are still locked,” Idlib Civil Defense head Baradai said. “We haven’t gone in yet.”

Some Khan Sheikhoun residents refused to believe their relatives were dead, and are currently holding on to their bodies in the hopes that they will wake up.

Rumors built on anecdotal evidence from 2013 gas attacks on rebel towns near Damascus spread online on Tuesday, saying that victims who appeared dead could be revived as long as 48 hours later.

“These rumors have no medical basis,” Dagheem told Syria Direct. “If a patient’s heart has stopped for more than half an hour, they cannot be revived.”

Even so, four sources in Khan Sheikhoun told Syria Direct that the rumors had taken hold and given residents false hope. Some still refuse to bury their relatives, despite Islamic law stating that a body should be buried as soon as possible after death.

“Even if all we are holding on to is a delusion, people can’t accept losing our loved ones,” Eyad Mahmoud, a member of the Khan Sheikhoun Civil Defense told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “This bombing has destroyed us all.”

One of those who refused to bury a loved one is Mahmoud’s own relative Umm Mustafa, whose 20-year-old son died in the attack. Doctors pronounced him dead, but his mother refused to believe it, Mahmoud said. “She had heard the rumors.”

 Khan Sheikhoun residents bury the victims of a gas attack on April 4. Photo courtesy of Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images. 

Instead, she took his body home, where she repeatedly poured water over his body, waiting for him to wake up. “She stayed like that for more than 10 hours,” said Mahmoud. “She said she wouldn’t bury him alive. She said he would come back. She was in agony.” Relatives finally buried Mustafa against his mother’s will when his body began to give off an odor.

Umm Mustafa’s story is not uncommon, Civil Defense head Baradai said. “Families are holding on to bodies that have already been pronounced dead,” he said.

Abu Muhammad, a 35-year-old schoolteacher in Khan Sheikhoun, lost his five-year-old son Adham in the attack. His wife, herself lightly injured on Tuesday, is still waiting beside their son’s body. “She, like many residents, refuses to bury him,” he said. “She is screaming and crying and talking to him."

“They think the dead will wake in 48 hours.”

Conventional bombings

Tuesday’s attack, while horrific, is only unique in the scale of the casualties and the method of killing. Conventional airstrikes—by Syrian regime, Russian and United States-led coalition aircraft—are a regular feature of life in rebel-held Idlib province, and have killed hundreds of civilians this year alone.

As the population of Idlib province swells due to civilian displacement and evacuation deals between the Syrian regime and opposition settlements elsewhere—in which thousands of fighters and civilians have been bused to Idlib—the potential loss of life from any airstrike on a populated area increases.

Throughout the day on Tuesday and Wednesday, at least a dozen reported regime and Russian airstrikes hit towns across Idlib province, including Khan Sheikhoun. Dozens of people were injured in those attacks, and sent to already straining medical facilities.

The same day as the Khan Sheikhoun attack, four reported Russian airstrikes hit the city of Salqin, in northern Idlib province, killing at least 30 people and injuring dozens of others, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

An estimated 80,000 people lived in Salqin before the war, but because of displacement that figure has risen to at least 200,000, a spokesman for the Salqin Media Center told Syria Direct.

Civil Defense personnel were still removing bodies from the rubble in Salqin on Wednesday, but were only able to remove one person still alive.

Warplanes continue to circle the area, Nadeem Abd Deibo, the head of Salqin’s Civil Defense told Syria Direct on Wednesday. The planes “force us to work quietly, not sending all our staff out to the same place out of fear that they could be targeted by the regime.”

The bombings reportedly hit a mosque, a public marketplace and a three-story apartment building in the city’s residential neighborhood.

“We’re powerless to help some of these people,” Amjad Zeidu, the director of Idlib’s Health Center told Syria Direct. “We’re treating them with basic medicines since most of the available equipment was destroyed inside the hospitals.”

Additional airstrikes in the past 24 hours have struck the Idlib province cities of Jisr a-Shaghour, Bidama and Saraqeb, causing civilian casualties and material destruction.

Additional reporting by Huda Abdulrahman, Mohammed al-Falouji, Reham Toujan and Yasmine Ali.

 

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.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.