Victim: I could see people coming out of their homes but they would fall down – there was foam coming out of their mouths.
Few people sleep early in Damascus, even in times of war. So when shells started to crunch into the east of the capital at around 2am on Wednesday, Um Hassan and her four children were wide awake, bracing for familiar sounds of bombs falling on buildings and the empty road below.
Soon, though, loudspeakers in the neighbourhood, some attached to mosque minarets, started blaring terrifying warnings – telling residents to leave their houses and flee.
“We were in a panic to take the children and run out of Zemalka to any nearby villages,” said Um Hassan of her area in the east Ghouta district of the capital. “People who were sleeping in their homes died in their beds because they could not feel the effects of the attack.”
Headaches and nausea quickly overcame the family as they scrambled though blackened streets towards the family car, a violent cacophony of shelling all around and the air filling with a strange, noxious odour.
“I still feel sick and drowsy with all the smoke I have breathed,” she said 36 hours after the attack, which killed hundreds of people, wounded many more, and sparked outrage around the world.
“As we were trying to [leave], I could see people coming out of their homes but they would fall down. We tried to help some of them but they died before we got them to the hospital.”
The attack seemed relentless, according to Um Hassan and other victims and first responders contacted by the Guardian via Skype onThursday. The Syrian government has acknowledged that its military launched a large operation in eastern Ghouta in the early hours of Thursday, but has vehemently denied the use of chemical weapons.
“We picked up a woman with her two kids, the rocket had hit their house but … they all died. I could see the foam coming out of their mouths and noses.”
Not far away in Zemalka, Abu Omar, a militant with the Free Syrian Army, was on call when he heard the first rocket land. “I ran to my house immediately to check if my wife and kids were OK. When I reached home, I began to smell something like vinegar and rotten eggs. Then, I heard people shouting that the district was under attack by chemical rockets. I and some of my colleagues ran to the FSA headquarters in Zemalka to get ambulances to evacuate the people.
“We were in a district called Al-Mazra’a. We started to knock on the doors, calling people to get out. Those who were not responding or opening the doors, we began to break their doors and look for people inside. We were able to evacuate 20 people. None of them were dead but they were suffocating.
“We distributed them among the makeshift hospitals in the district. It is really a miracle that none of the victims were dead … though some of them were foaming at the mouth and their bodies were turning blue.”
Abu Omar says another burst of rockets landed around 3am. But they were unlike other explosions that had regularly peppered the area for the last year as regime forces tried to dislodge rebel groups and the communities that backed them from their stronghold less than seven miles from the heart of Damascus.
“You could hear the sound of the rocket in the air but you could not hear any sound of explosion.” And they caused no visible damage to any buildings. The smell became overpowering.
Abu Omar says he tried to seek shelter in the local mosque, but was turned back by the scene of a sheikh and his family lying dead. The dead and dying were by now all around.
“I went to one of the houses and found an infant who was a year and a half old. I can’t forget this scene till now,” he said. He was jumping like a bird, struggling to breathe. I held him immediately and ran to the car but he died. I swear to God the number of the dead infants and children are more than the numbers of elders. We even broke the locks of the shops to pile the victims inside. In one of the shops, there were 200 children.”
Also in Zemalka on Wednesday morning, Ashraf Hassan, 18, and his four friends were playing cards.
“Around 1.30am, we started to hear shouts of people for help. We did not hear any attack or shelling. We went out to find out that the district is in complete chaos and panic. At 2am, mortars started to fall.
“We began to break in houses to check out about the people inside. In one of the houses, I found four brothers sleeping opposite each other dead in their bed and their parents were dead too in another room. All of them suffocated. I could see foam on their mouths and noses.
“I helped many other guys evacuate bodies and some people who were still alive … until I myself started to smell the gas.
“The smell was like cooking gas. My friends told me to wear a mask on my nose and mouth but I began to feel nausea and vomiting. My eyes turned very red and started to itch.
“I felt I’m almost going to lose consciousness. I woke up today with very itching eyes and could not open them at all, so I came to the hospital for treatment.”
He said all those who survived the attack were suffering from the same symptoms.
As whatever it was that dropped on Zemalka and two other areas in eastern Ghouta continues to ravage its residents, survivors and eyewitnesses have tried to piece together where the rockets or missiles were fired from.
Two areas of the capital, not far away, and both in regime held areas are being scrutinised.
“They came from around four kilometres away,” said Haitham Baghdadi, a resident of Jobar, who on Thursday was trying to flee with his family to Jordan. “One site was the October War Panorama, and another was the air base. They have tried to wipe us off the map.”