Fears persist despite the fact that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has joined the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention and is allowing teams from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to dismantle and dispose of its chemical weapons stockpiles by mid-2014.
“Interaction with UN remains excellent and cooperation from Syrian authorities complete,” said OPCW spokesperson Michael Luhan told reporters at a press conference in The Hague Tuesday. He said weapons inspectors on the ground had visited 18 of the 23 chemical weapons sites declared by Syria and that the team is proceeding with “functional destruction” to ensure the sites are inoperable.
“It means that [Syria] will no longer have the capability to produce any more chemical weapons, and it will no longer have any working equipment to mix and to fill chemical weapons agent into munitions,” he said.
Hamouriyeh had suffered attacks before it was hit by chemical weapons on August 21, 2013. This photo was taken in October 31, 2012 (Photo by Syrian Revolution Memory)
But in Hamouriyeh everyone remembers how more than 300 people were brought to the medical center when the Eastern Ghouta region was subjected to a chemical weapons attack on August 21.
Twenty-seven people died at Hamouriyeh’s medical center, just a fraction of the 1,302 people alleged to have been killed in the attack, according to the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria. Those treated for injuries included eight paramedics from Hamouriyeh who inhaled toxic gases while rescuing others.
The harsh realities of war have hardened even the children here. In mid-September, a group of elementary-school age boys sat around in the street and discussed the situation as if they were adults.
“I won’t sleep at night after today. I’ll only sleep during the day, so my parents can wake me if we are attacked with chemical weapons,” said one.
“I can’t sleep during the day – I have work,” said another. “Sleep at night and wear face masks,” a third added.
The rest approved of this solution, even though the surgical masks to which they are referring will not protect them from deadly gases.
The Eastern Ghouta towns of Zamalka and Ain Tarma received the bulk of the chemical rocket attacks on August 21. Most residents have fled since the attack, but some have returned, cautiously.
“Anything is easier than being displaced,” said Um Khaled, a Zamalka resident who has been forced to leave her home several times over the past two years, and left after the August 21 chemical attack.
Two of her sons were killed by the gas. That came after a sniper killed her husband in July.
Um Khaled returned to Zamalka with her five daughters in September. She cleaned the house thoroughly and washed the clothes that had been hanging on the laundry line several times despite the shortage of water, in an effort to purge her home of deadly chemicals. She was acting on the advice of doctors.
“Inspectors came wearing special clothing and masks, fearing for their lives,” she said. “We’ve got used to it.”
Um Khaled, 50, has lost 27 members of her own and her husband’s family.
“Families in their entirety are gone,” she said, repeating a phrase spoken often by many others. Her two paramedic sons died along with others due to the lack of gas masks on August 21.
Residents went out to help without knowing they should take precautions, even though this was not the first chemical attack they had endured. It was, however, the worst.
Abu Wael, 30, a civil defense volunteer and trainer, put a wet shirt over his face before entering houses in Zamalka to assist the injured.
“We were breaking down doors, washing the faces of the injured with what little water we had, and carrying them on our backs to the cars of civilians who had come to help,” he said.
Abu Wael says he lost many of his paramedic colleagues due to the lack of organization and training in how to deal with chemical weapon attacks. Despite his repeated efforts to organize civil defense teams beforehand, local committees did not heed his calls until tragedy struck.
The paramedic who designed these makeshift gas masks makes them in yellow to persuade local children that they are dressing up as the cartoon character Sponge Bob Squarepants. (Photo courtesy Damascus Bureau/IWPR)
In September, Abu Wael organized lectures to explain the principles of evacuation to a number of new civil defense teams. He also oversees local production of masks containing charcoal, which offers some protection from the gas for up to an hour. It is almost impossible to bring in proper gas masks because of the ongoing siege.
A former toy salesman, Abu Wael made thousands of masks to be distributed at production cost to paramedics, health workers, and those living in high-risk areas.
He chose yellow for the masks so that children would be willing to wear them.
“The kids see them as the cartoon character Sponge Bob and don’t complain about wearing them,” he explained. “They were afraid of the black masks.”
The effects of the attack are still evident on a doctor and anaesthesiologist in one of Ain Tarma’s clinics. Her name is May, and her hands are scratched after having broken tens of ampoules of atropine, a drug used to treat sarin poisoning.
Residents have asked her how they should respond if Ghouta is hit by another chemical attack.
“Most people are certain that there is nothing to deter the government from attacking again and again with chemical or biological weapons, or even nuclear weapons if it has them,” she said.
When residents talk about August 21, it is as if they are describing the apocalypse. It doesn’t occur to them to ask who used the chemical weapons.
“We have been under siege and fighting one enemy for over a year. We have no one else to suspect,” said Abu Salah, a member of the local coordination committee in Zamalka.
He recalls that the rockets and missiles that started landing the morning after the chemical attacks were the worst that he had seen.
Abu Salah is unconcerned about the international community’s shifting policy.
“With no electricity or TV news, it’s easy for us not to care what decisions are being made, and to focus on our work. No one really cares about us,” he said.