Khan Sheikhoun: ‘I saw the dead bodies of 22 members of my family’

The TimesMinutes after the first missile hit, Abdelhamid al-Youssef and his young wife, Delal, scooped up their nine-month-old twins and ran down to the street, thinking it would be safer. Three more missiles landed nearby, and Abdelhamid ran back to check on his brothers.

His efforts were in vain: his brothers were dead. And when he returned to his wife and babies he found them dead too.

A few metres down the road in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, his cousin Alaa and his wife, Ayaa, and their 20-month-old son Najdat, could feel a boiling sensation in their lungs as an odourless, colourless gas seeped in through the windows.

“The air didn’t smell bad at first but it became heavy, you couldn’t breathe. It felt like it had weight in it,” said Ayaa, a teacher. “Then our eyes started to hurt and we felt terrible.”

The toxic clouds, believed to be a lethal cocktail of chlorine and nerve agent, were heavier than air, and pooled at the bottom of apartment blocks and houses — with inevitable consequences for Abdelhamid’s wife and twins, and many others who had gone to ground in the mistaken belief that that would save them.

Ayaa said that a lorry arrived soon after the attack to remove the dead. “They told us we have a lot of dead people inside. I looked in — and there were my relatives,” she said.

Among the heap of bodies she saw Abdelhamid’s twins and wife. They looked frozen, statues of figures who had died gasping for breath. Ayaa collapsed at that point, waking up hours later in hospital. “I saw them — they were all dead. All are dead now. Why?” she asked, weeping. “We are just poor people, we are just normal.”

In all, 22 members of the al-Youssef family were killed in what was one of the worst chemical attacks of the six-year Syrian war.

The airstrike took place at 6.30am on Tuesday near the town’s main bakery, on Youssef street, which is named after the family who have lived there for generations. Until this week, that family was one of the largest in town.

At least 86 people, 27 of them children, were killed in the attack. The youngest were Aya and Ahmed, Abdelhamid’s twins, who were buried in rough graves on Wednesday. Another 546 were injured, according to Unicef.

Witnesses said Sukhoi-22 fighter jets dropped four missiles on the area — the last of which contained the toxic gas. Footage taken at the scene showed men, women and children foaming at the mouth, convulsing and gasping for breath. Rescue workers, many of whom were later taken to hospital themselves after succumbing to the gas, stripped the victims and hosed them down.

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