Syria: Family of 11 clung together in death

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew

The entire Bakrieh family in Douma were found in a heap on the bathroom floor. After a gas bomb tore through their building, the parents had tried to scrub the chemicals off their children’s skin. But the toxic cloud overwhelmed the family of 11 before they could protect them.

Abdullah Abu Homam, a local volunteer, said that all of them had damp clothes and foam on their mouths. Three of the children were toddlers in nappies. One of the women was still cradling her child by the sink.

“When I entered the flat they were all in the bathroom, their clothes were still wet so we believe they tried to rinse themselves in vain. Eventually they must have realised it was over so they drew closer together and died,” Abu Homam said.

At 7pm on Saturday a metre-long gas bomb had punched through the roof of their four-storey block of flats in the last rebel-controlled enclave near Damascus. Video footage showed that it had landed on a bed in a top-floor room.

As many as 70 people died, the majority women and children, and 500 were injured, according to the Syrian American Medical Society. The worst hit were families who had hidden in basement shelters to escape airstrikes.

If confirmed, Saturday’s gas attack would be the deadliest in Syria since warplanes dropped nerve gas on the rebel town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing 89 people a year ago.

Just hours after Saturday’s killings, the Syrian government confirmed that rebels had agreed to withdraw from Douma and allow full regime control of the area. Yesterday, 20 buses carrying fighters, their relatives and civilians left the area for rebel-held districts in the north. There was speculation that Saturday’s attack was a ploy to speed up the withdrawal deal. As many as 50,000 residents are expected to leave.

Everyone in the Bakriehs’ building and a nearby block of flats was killed, according to Abu Homam. He described following a trail of foam up the stairwell to the bodies of a woman hugging her two daughters.

“It seemed that they tried to reach the top of the building after running from the basement because I saw the foam trail all over the stairs to the fourth floor,” he said.

The gas was so strong that one man whose sister died in the building said he passed out hours after the attack when he found her body. “I tried to hug her but the smell of the gas was so intense I couldn’t. I fell to the ground, could not move and blacked out,” he said.

More than 1,745 people, including 400 children, have been killed since the onslaught against the rebel stronghold started in February, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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Sarin killed my unborn baby. When will it end?

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Struggling to breathe in the aftermath of the sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun last month, Aya Fadl was one of many people rushed to the nearest hospital.

As the paramedics attached an oxygen mask to her face, she prayed she would survive — and that her unborn baby would too.

Ms Fadl was ten weeks pregnant when on April 4 a regime warplane dropped a chemical bomb on the town in northwest Syria, killing 25 of her relatives and 92 people in all.

She lived. Her baby did not.

“Days later the doctor told me that my baby had died because of the gas. I was devastated, there are no words,” she said. “It felt terrible. I was 70 days pregnant at the time.”

Ayaa Fadl’s account of the Sarin gas attack

Ms Fadl, 25, collapsed from the poisonous fumes after stumbling upon a lorry packed with the corpses of her dead relatives. She awoke in hospital, along with her son Nadjat, two, and her husband, Alaa, 27. Three of the 25 relatives she lost died only recently, after being taken to a hospital in Turkey in a vain attempt to save their lives. One of them was aged 11, she said.

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Father’s tragic bid to save family from warplanes

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
A Syrian father who told his wife to take their babies and hide from the warplanes unwittingly sent all three of them to their deaths.

Abdelhamid al-Youssef, 29, left his loved ones with a paramedic when he saw a missile strike near his parents’ home in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. He told his family before he left: take cover.

Delal, following her husband’s advice, carried their nine-month-old twins Ahmed and Aya to the basement of the building, normally the safest place in an airstrike. This time, however, the warplanes shrieking overhead had dropped nerve gas — which, because it is heavier than air, quickly began to pool at the bottom of the apartment block, suffocating them.

“Hours later rescuers found them in a basement near our house, dead, with foam in the noses and mouths,” Mr Youssef told The Times. “When I saw them —” he began, before breaking off into a shaky prayer. “I did not expect that. Oh God!”

He lost 22 members of his family to the nerve gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northwest province of Idlib, last Tuesday. The toxic bomb, containing what Turkish officials confirmed yesterday was sarin gas, had landed on their street.

The image of Mr Youssef weeping over the hastily dug graves of his wife and babies was one of the most heartbreaking of the many which emerged after the attack. Another, showing him carrying his dead twins swaddled in white funerary cloths, summed up the horror of the killings.

Eighty-six people, 30 of them children, were killed and 540 injured in the attack, widely attributed to the Assad regime. Fighter jets returned hours after the chemical attack and bombed the Rahma hospital where the wounded were being treated, perhaps in the hope of destroying any evidence that chemical weapons had been used.

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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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Noses full of foam, eyes half closed, victims died gasping

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo – Hannah Lucinda Smith, Istanbul
There was not much destruction to be seen in the town of Khan Sheikhoun as the warplanes vanished beyond the horizon — but any sense of relief felt by the medics who rushed in to help was short-lived. What they found instead of civilians running from flames or buried under piles of rubble were corpses; several of them in homes that appeared to have been untouched by any bomb.

In some rooms men, women and children were convulsing in their beds, foaming at the mouth. The warplanes had hit Khan Sheikhoun, in the northwestern Idlib province, at 6.30am when most people were asleep. Only when the medics and volunteers who had arrived to offer assistance themselves began to faint did they realise what had happened: the town had been gassed.

“I felt intense pain in my throat as it started to close. I felt paralysed,” said Hussain Kayal, 26 one of the first to arrive. The missile had landed barely 500 metres away from his home.

“We were shocked when we couldn’t see any damage or destruction. Inside the houses we found sleeping families choking. They were having seizures. Their noses were full of foam and their eyes were half closed. People were suffocating in front of our eyes.”

At least a hundred people died and 400 were injured in the attack, which human rights groups said was one of the deadliest uses of chemical weapons recorded in the six-year civil war. The Assad regime has been blamed, despite its protestations of innocence.

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