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Losing family overnight: A survivor recalls the Ghouta chemical massacre

Seven years after the chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta, the pain of survivors has not healed.

26 August 2020

AMMAN  “An old man in his late twenties,” Diyaa al-Din al-Shami, from the East Ghouta city of Zamalka, introduces himself. Although he survived death by sarin gas on August 21, 2013, the crime remains “a knife plunged into my heart, and the hearts of many who lost their loved ones, fathers, mothers and family,” al-Shami told Syria Direct. “For us,” he added, “the attack remains a wound that does not heal, a wound dug into our memory and our heart that is impossible to forget.”

Seven years ago, the Syrian regime targeted the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with approximately 10 rockets filled with toxic sarin gas, killing 1,127 civilians, including 107 children and 201 women. Among them was Diyaa al-Din’s family: his mother, three sisters and two brothers.

“My family and I were asleep. At 1:45 after midnight, we heard rockets with a strange sound,” Diyaa al-Din recalled. “We lived in the atmosphere of bombing, and we knew each shell and even its type and direction by its sound. But this sound on August 21 was strange.”

At first, Diyaa al-Din and his family thought the rockets were “defective, because there wasn’t much sound, and we didn’t hear an explosion.” Even so, the sound was “extremely terrifying.”

Shortly afterward, “we started to have trouble breathing,” said Diyaa al-Din. Then his oldest sister screamed: “It’s chemical gas.” The family rushed to “close the windows and put wet cloths over our noses. But it became even harder to breathe.” Diyaa al-Din’s brother suggested they go up to the roof of their building “because chemical gas is heavy, and going up could be the best solution.”

The family started climbing the stairs of the five-story building. “My mother and little brother were in front, followed by my oldest sister, then me,” Diyaa al-Din recalled, “and behind me was my middle sister, then my youngest sister, and finally my older brother.” 

But “when we reached the third floor, my mother fell, and my little brother held her right away. Then my older sister shouted ‘Mom’ and then she fell.” Diyaa al-Din turned to look behind him and “found my little sister sitting on the ground, screaming at the top of her lungs. She was saying, with her voice hoarse from the gas: ‘Oh God, I can’t see . . . Oh God, I can’t see.’ My middle sister was lying on the ground, shaking with foam coming out of her mouth.” 

Diyaa al-Din and his older brother stood for moments not knowing what to do. Then, his brother “leaned against the wall, fell and lost consciousness.” Diyaa al-Din kept going up to the roof. “What were the feelings that pushed me to keep going up to the roof? I don’t know. I got to the roof and passed out,” he said. 

Later, he woke to the tragedy of losing his entire family. “My whole family died—my mother, three sisters, two brothers—six people in all,” he said. In all, the number of his relatives who died in the attack “is more than 35 people, and I can’t even remember how many were injured.” 

An ongoing crime

Seven years have gone by since that day, but “the gas remains in our blood.” There are “physical impacts until now,” Diyaa al-Din explained, citing two examples. The first is “a woman from Eastern Ghouta who gave birth to a child who was deformed because of the gas after she was displaced to northwestern Syria.” The second is the refusal of hospitals in Turkey, where Diyaa al-Din now lives, for “Syrians to donate blood, under the pretext that our country was bombed with chemicals.”

But the most intense burden for survivors like Diyaa al-Din remains the psychological impacts. He does not only remember the massacre on its anniversary but rather “the whole year, although the feelings grow stronger this month.” It is “a feeling of defeat, grief, pain. An indescribable, mixed-up feeling,” he said, adding: “Nobody asks me what this feeling is. I, as an individual, write, [but] no matter what I write, no matter how much ink I spill, I won’t be able to describe the feeling, even though I lived it. I can’t convey it.” 

“We will not forgive”

Diyaa al-Din has never delivered his testimony about the massacre to any human rights organization. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) in Germany contacted him about a year ago “and asked for my testimony,” he said, “but that hasn’t happened yet.” 

Although he is prepared to give testimony, Diyaa al-Din said that “as someone who was hurt, or a victim, I’ve given up [on the idea] that there will be a trial [for the criminals]. The international community, human rights and [international] humanitarian organizations, all of them are complicit.” In Diyaa al-Din’s view, for those bodies to stand “against Bashar al-Assad would by necessity mean that they would stand against governments, ruling regimes, and superpowers. Thus, I do not believe—it is impossible to prosecute him.”

Even if Bashar al-Assad were to be tried internationally, the most that could happen, in Diyaa al-Din’s opinion, is to “send him into exile and then work on a political transition. He would remain [alive] and the wealth he amasses would remain as well. But the rights of the people would be lost.” However, Diyaa al-Din believes that “if we as a people revolted like in our first revolution [in 2011], then he would be held to account by us.”

“We will not forgive,” Diyaa al-Din said, “not today, nor tomorrow, nor after a million years. We will not forgive. Our pain is known, the criminal is known, and we will hold him to account, be it today or in a million years.”

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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