Hope fades for Syrians one year after chemical attack

The BBC's Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen on the attack, a year on

It was 02:30 on a hot summer night in Damascus.

The sound of rockets landing was nothing new. At least six of them exploded, one after the other, in the north-eastern districts of Zamalka and Ein Tarma.

Majed, a 26-year-old civil society activist in nearby Douma, was trying to get some sleep when the calls for help started arriving.

The law student regularly documented incidents for the Violation Documentation Centre (VDC), an organisation that keeps track of the tens of thousands of deaths and disappearances in Syria.

But Majed was not prepared for what he saw on 21 August 2013 in the eastern Ghouta, the agricultural belt around the Syrian capital.

Chaos

"There was chaos everywhere. People were running from one place to the other and shouting, screaming: 'Gas! Gas! They hit us with gas!'," he recalls.

"At that point no-one had realised what was going on. People did what they usually do when there was an attack. They went to the basements, women and children first.

"They sought shelter in the most dangerous place when there is a chemical attack. The gas concentrates in lower areas and that's where the highest number of victims died."

Activists inspect the bodies of men, women and children after the 21 August chemical weapons attack in Damascus It has been difficult to establish the precise death toll from the 21 August attack

UN chemical weapons inspectors have confirmed that the rockets that landed in Zamalka, Ein Tarma and the western suburb of Muadhamiya, contained sarin.

Sufficient exposure to the nerve agent, the vapour from which is heavier than air, can lead to death via asphyxiation within minutes.

Beyond comprehension

Majed rushed around the suburbs of the eastern Ghouta - from Irbin to Zamalka to Hammuriya - going to field hospitals and mosques to count the dead and take photos as evidence.

Before that night, the most bodies he had documented after one attack was 27. What he witnessed was beyond comprehension, he says.

"In one single room at a field hospital, there were 600 bodies lying on the floor. One child after another; boys and girls who had their eyes open and white liquid coming out of their nose and mouth."

Smoke above buildings in the eastern Damascus Ghouta after the 21 August chemical weapons attack The UN says several surface-to-surface rockets were fired at eastern and western districts of Damascus

Graphic photos posted by activists in the hours following the attack showed dead children, women and men. Each was later wrapped in a white shroud and given a number. In many cases, they were not identified.

Majed wanted to take a wide-angle photo of the scene at the field hospital, thinking that he would be able to show all of the bodies in one frame. But no matter how far stepped back, he could not.

"People would come in to field hospitals and be forced to walk up and down between the bodies looking for members of their family."

But Majed says one scene is etched in memory.

One father arrived looking for his children, he recalls. After finding the body of his eight-year-old daughter, he picked her up and burst into tears.

"Holding her in his arms, he kept on looking and soon discovered his younger daughter," Majed says. "But he completely lost it when he found his third little girl also dead. He dropped the three bodies on the ground and collapsed."

'World's shame'

It has been difficult to establish the precise death toll from the attacks, owing to the chaos resulting from the large number of casualties and the lack of any large hospitals in the affected areas.

Many cases went undocumented as mass graves were dug and victims buried without being counted.

Men bury a victim of the 21 August chemical weapons attack in Damascus Many victims were not identified or counted before being buried in mass graves

However, estimates on the number killed range between about 350 and 1,500. In some areas, no-one was left alive. In others, entire extended families perished.

Even medics who rushed to help the victims died after inhaling sarin lingering in the air.

US President Barack Obama subsequently accused the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of crossing a "red line" by using chemical weapons on its own people.

Mr Obama was on the verge of launching punitive air strikes against Mr Assad's forces when Russia came up with a proposal to avert them.

UN chemical weapons inspector in Irbin, Damascus (28 August 2013) UN chemical weapons inspectors confirmed sarin was used in the attacks but did not apportion blame

The UN-backed deal led to Mr Assad handing over Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons but also left his supporters free to continue using conventional weapons against rebel forces and civilians, angering many Syrians.

"People hoped that the West was finally coming to save them," says Majed. "But instead, they gave Assad a green light to kill more, using other types of weapons."

"It is to the world's shame that it witnessed such a massacre and remained unmoved. We don't seem to matter to anyone. This issue about human rights and democracy is only a lie that the West and UN use when it suits their interests."

'No-one cares'

A year on, the war in Syria continues to rage and has spilled over into neighbouring states. The death toll is now approaching 200,000, according to activists.

The hope of salvation has now vanished for many Syrians.

Majed, an advocate of civil disobedience and opponent of armed rebellion, has left Syria.

Child injured by what activists say were two air strikes in the north-eastern Damascus suburb of Douma (3 August 2014) The eastern Ghouta comes under almost daily bombardment from government forces

He continues his work to help people inside his homeland but worries that things will only get worse.

"The world has failed the Syrian people," he says.

"After the chemical attack I saw many men around me turn to extremism. The disappointment caused by the West's inaction created a fertile recruiting ground for extremist groups, who told those who had lost their loved ones that they were their only hope."

"People want a way out of the violence Assad is inflicting on them."

Many other Syrians feel the same.

"No-one cares about us," is a complaint you often hear, as is: "They even stopped calculating the number of dead or refugees amongst us."

The readiness of the US to launch air strikes against Islamic State fighters in neighbouring Iraq to protect members of the Yazidi religious minority has caused further disappointment to those who once took to the streets calling for freedom and are now left suffering atrocities carried out by both Assad's forces and IS.

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