Three months after the sarin chemical attack on al-Ghouta, in which some 1,500 people died, Dr Ali Abu Emad recalls the day.
Dr Ali Abu Emad doesn’t remember hearing the rockets fall. The first sign that something was truly amiss was the sudden influx of people on to his makeshift hospital ward.
“Within the first six hours of the attack, we got more than 6,000 people suffering from different symptoms, but mainly difficulty in breathing,” he recalls of the day in August when rockets containing the chemical agent sarin were dropped on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
“Before the attack took place, we were already suffering a shortage of medicine and medical staff,” says Emad. “We were not prepared for such an attack. We did not have masks or clothes that are normally used to protect against chemical weapons.”
Emad, a 35-year-old general surgeon, and three other doctors treated the hordes of sufferers as best they could. People arrived suffering from nervous fits, excessive mouth saliva and difficulty breathing. Sarin attacks the nervous system and the smallest amount can kill a person in minutes.
The hospital was operating without power because of a shortage of fuel and many of the staff were not medically trained.
“After three hours, I was looking at the victims – all of them on the floor as we did not have any beds in the hospital – and I felt as if it was doomsday,” he says. “It could not be a real human scene that you see on Earth. I felt I was in another planet.”
After three frantic hours Emad found he was suffering symptoms from the gas – difficulty breathing, fatigue and shrinking pupils. “I could not find anyone to give me atropine to help me breathe or supply me with oxygen.”
He realised he couldn’t attend to everyone and decided to focus on the women and children. “The affected men were dying slowly, but I can’t forget the kids who were passing away one after the other.”
Emad attended to more than 100 children, 20 of whom died. “Some of the children came to the hospital in a very bad state and they died after an hour or two. Some stayed alive for the second day, others for the third and then they died. Some of the children died in my arms.”
The attack was the most excruciating moment in a terrible year for Syria, in which the combatants became ever more entrenched and efforts to get the warring parties to negotiate in Geneva foundered.
But the strike did produce one significant breakthrough, as Bashar al-Assad, while not admitting responsibility for the attack, did agree to hand over the country’s chemical weapons. Days later, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons won the Nobel peace prize, though of course in recognition of previous successes.
All that remains academic for Emad and the citizens of Ghouta, some of whom are still suffering from the consequences of the 21 August assault. Three months on and Emad still sees patients with side-effects from the attack, many suffering from hysteria, memory loss and nervous breakdown. A large number of those exposed to the gas have fled the area, he says.
“I do my best to help, but we have limited capabilities. We did not get any medical support from the UN committees who came to check the situation. They could see that we hardly have any medical appliances, but still no response.”
The surgeon suffered symptoms from his exposure to sarin for almost a month after the attack. He wonders what the hidden health consequences of his contact with the nerve agent will be.
“I’m still suffering from that day,” he says. “The faces of the children haven’t left me; they are with me most of the time. I am not the same man since the chemical attack in Ghouta.”
A day after the attack, a body count in the 25 medical facilities in Ghouta found about 1,500 people dead and more than 10,000 affected. Some facilities received hundreds of people in need of treatment in the first three or four hours after the attack.
In Emad’s hospital, 40 died – some because they could not be treated and some because they arrived too late to be helped. “I know of entire families who died all together,” says Emad.