5 min read  | Damascus, Interviews, Politics

Think things can’t get worse in Darayya? Eyewitness recounts reported incendiary weapons attack


August 18, 2016

On Tuesday, regime helicopters dropped four barrel bombs containing an unknown incendiary substance on the only hospital in the Damascus suburb of Darayya.

The barrels tore through the air, locked on course to hit the field hospital, located in a basement. But when the barrel bombs made impact, and nearly 7,000 have fallen on Darayya over the last four years, something unusual happened.

“There was no explosion,” Dhia, the hospital’s anesthesiologist and an eyewitness to the attack, tells Syria Direct’s Hussam Eddin.

Tuesday was not the only reported attack of this kind. The international media is reporting three straight days this week of incendiary attacks on one of Syria’s most-bombed cities.

Here, Dhia, the doctor, describes the attack on his hospital Tuesday.

“At first, this may give you a sense of relief, but the real horror is what ensues,” says Dhia, who asked to be referred to by his first name only.

 A residential Darayya building on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Darayya Media Center.

Flames quickly engulfed the hospital, blocking the only exit as smoke filled the facility’s rooms. Civil Defense first responders fought back the flames to allow patients and medical staff to escape. But the fire blazed on, and could not be put out for another eight hours, with the Civil Defense working late into the night.

Residents of Darayya, including Dhia, are referring to the substance reportedly delivered by Tuesday’s barrel bomb attacks as “napalm,” an incendiary liquid that sticks to skin and other surfaces, causing severe burns.

Syria Direct cannot identify the exact substance used in Tuesday’s attack on Darayya. However, the testimony provided by Dhia and other Darayya residents aligns with descriptions of incendiary weapons; the barrel bombs did not detonate and caused fires that burned uncontrollably for several hours.

“The fire was enormous,” says Dhia.

“We really thought that there was no way that the Civil Defense would be able to control it.”

Q: How do this week’s strikes differ from any other barrel bomb attack?

When a napalm-filled barrel bomb falls from the sky, you’ll hear it tear through the air. That’s all. There’s no explosion. And at first, this may even give you a sense of relief, but the real horror is what ensues.

The bombs hit the building, and the only exit went up in flames. Things only got worse when the fire and smoke began to spread to the basement—our shelter—and all the while, we were just sitting there helpless, waiting for the Civil Defense to get the situation under control.

When they were finally able to keep the flames from spreading, the medical staff helped get the sick and injured out of the hospital, and we carried out as much medical equipment as possible.

The fire was enormous. We really thought that there was no way that the Civil Defense would be able to control it, but after nearly eight hours of firefighting late into the evening, they managed to put out the worst parts of the blaze. Fortunately, the damage was relatively limited. However, some of our devices and the hospital’s lighting were affected, which means that we’ve had to manage emergency cases under less-than-ideal circumstances, using whatever we’ve got left.

 Treating a patient under cellphone light. Photo courtesy of the Darayya Local Council.

Q: Walk through me what happened at the field hospital on Tuesday. 

Regime helicopters targeted the hospital. It’s the only one in all of Darayya. First, they dropped four barrel bombs. Later in the day, they circled back, dropping four more barrel bombs loaded with napalm.

The field hospital caught on fire, and the surrounding buildings also went up in flames. The attack not only damaged much of the medical equipment, but it also forced the medical staff to temporarily close the hospital until they could get the fire under control.

After a few hours, the hospital reopened. It had to. It’s the only one left in the city.

Q: Aside from this field hospital, are there truly no other places for the people of Darayya to turn?

There simply are no alternatives. This is it. It’s the only place moderately equipped and safe at the same time.

Of course we should equip another hospital. There’s huge potential, but that simply is not possible right now given the blockade of the city.

This hospital stays open, and it will treat the injured no matter the damage that the building may sustain. Only the most extreme circumstances can briefly shut us down. We make do with what we’ve got because it’s the only choice we have.

Every single day, there’s a new challenge that that makes our job more difficult. Every single day, we’ll lose a new piece of equipment. But we find alternatives, treating patients under the lights of our cellphones.  

Q: What would it mean for the people of Darayya if this hospital were destroyed?

For the past four years, this has been the only hospital in Darayya. It serves every single person in this city. We handle emergency cases and battle injuries. We treat the sick, do childbirths, OB/GYN work and even have a medical lab.

If this hospital were to be destroyed, it would be nothing short of catastrophe. If a person is injured and they do not receive treatment, they will die. We are the only place. We do as much as possible given the circumstances, but there are just some cases that you can’t properly address while working with a dim cellphone light.

 Darayya apartment building collapses on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Darayya Local Council.

Q: Given the blockade and the constant bombing, what are some of the ad hoc medical alternatives that you’ve been forced to resort to?

The shortages of medical equipment have made us creative in developing alternative solutions for treating the injured.

For example, we don’t have medical sterilizer for wounds, and so instead we have to resort to using water and salt. We don’t have proper bandages, and so we cut fabric from our homes and sterilize them with steam in addition to using cotton from our pillows and mattresses.

With regard to anesthesia, you need pure oxygen, and it would of course be a miracle if that existed in a city that’s been encircled for four years. So instead, we pass air through a filter device. There’s no real medical merit to this, but it’s all that we can do to keep the injured distracted during an operation. 

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