Drowned in their sleep: Remembering Syria's Ghouta Massacre

Drowned in their sleep: Remembering Syria's Ghouta Massacre
Survivors of the 2013 Ghouta Massacre speak to The New Arab about their memories on that tragic day when the Syrian regime used gas on a Damascus suburb.
6 min read
21 August, 2016
No one has been prosecuted for the massacre in Ghouta [Getty]
On 21 August 2013, residents of an opposition area of the Damascus suburbs were about to become frontline victims of Syria's war in a way they never imagined.

Most were in their beds when the deadly gas consumed them, taking away their last breath as they lay there incapacitated.

Some were old men staying up reading, or babies cradled in their mothers arms, falling dead in their homes, on the streets, and in hospital beds.

The weapon employed by the Syrian regime did not distinguish between soldiers or civilians, men or children.

Regime forces fired rockets into two opposition areas of Ghouta loaded with the deadly chemical agent sarin.

Up to 1,729 people in the suburbs died, many of them children and infants. 

Among the dead

Doctor Amer al-Shami remembers trying to cope with the overwhelming number of victims arriving to his underequipped hospital.

"I couldn't distinguish between the living and the dead," he said. "There was a three-year old boy lying in the doorway with an infected leg... his face was blue like the others but his hands were moving".

The doctor managed to save the infant's life but later learned that the toddler was the only survivor from his family. He was left without parents or siblings, after the gas killed his mother, father and three brothers.  

"Most people [went] to bed early due to the power cuts in all towns and cities in Ghouta. It was hot, and there was only a slight breeze," remembered Leroy Thalathini, a Ghouta resident.

"Then several mortar rounds broke the quiet which was semi-normal in Ghouta." 

Although the Ghouta region was hit by shells and mortar bombs on a daily basis, no one expected such a massive attack to occur at the dead of night.  

Some of them had stayed in bed... sleeping forever, and others seemed to have tried to escape

Then in the early hours of 21 August, the sound of shelling was followed by sickening screams.

"Chemicals, chemicals the regime hit us with chemicals," shouted shocked residents.  

Amer rushed towards the nearby hospital, covering his face to shield his mouth from the deadly gas. He didn't realise the extent of devastation until he reached the hospital doors.  

"All the hospital's rooms and corridors were filled with the wounded," he said.

He estimated that around 600 injured arrived at the hospital that night, mostly women and children. On the second day, around 110 victims died before reaching the hospital.

Doctors struggled to treat the injured as a siege on the semi-rural region had severly limited medical and food supplies reaching residents.  

"My pictures of the attack were used around the world and today they will be used again to mark the anniversary. This is wrong - we do not need one day every year for sadness and then we forget about it again. We need accountability and protection," said Artino, a war photographer and now employee for the Syrian Campaign.  

"We got there and it was like hell. People were running, screaming in the streets and nobody knew what happened - people were trying to use water to treat [the sick] but it did nothing," he added on a statement posted on Facebook.

"We went to a field hospital and hundreds of affected people kept coming in. There were so many that doctors could barely check pulses - 'he's dead', they said, and then they had to move on."

I remember one little girl turning scared to her mother, saying, 'Who are you? What do you want?'

The survivors were hallacinating, he said, another tell-tale sign that the agent used by the regime was sarin.

"I remember one little girl turning scared to her mother, saying, 'Who are you? What do you want?'. I can still see her mother smiling but with fear in her eyes," he said.

"I was in shock, crying and shaking too but I was also trained from the front lines and knew I had to help. I spoke to people and took their pictures because even in that chaos, I knew the world needed to see this."

Civilian targets

The towns of Zamalka and Ein Tarma to the north of Ghouta were among the worst hit.

Media activist Joseph woke up in the early hours of the morning to the unusual sound of bustle on what should have been dead streets. Mosque loundspeakers called for people to head to the top floors of apartment blocks to escape the deadly gas.

Joseph said that when they arrived at the local hospital it was filled with bodies of children, women and old men.

Survivors arrived to check on their family members they lost in the panic only to find their corpses.

Firas Doumi, a civil defence worker recalled visiting the house of some of the victims.  

"Some of them had stayed in bed... sleeping forever, and others seemed to have tried to escape, but died before they could leave the house," he said.  

The attack hit an area where there were no anti-regime fighters, only civilians.  

"I learnt through wireless frequencies that the regime was shelling Zamalka and Ein Tarma with chemical weapons," said al-Saghawi Hassan, who was fighting on one of the front lines with the regime at the time.  

"The bombardment didn't hit military targets, but hit civilians to dissuade them from embracing the revolution," he said.

"None of my fighter friends were killed in the massacre, but a small number of people in factions died on the day. They were in their homes."  

'Red line'

The next day, international media was broadcasting news and footage of hundreds of dead in East Ghouta. The population had barely recovered from shock before they started burying their dead, fearing the spread of diseases in the baking Syrian summer heat.  

"Parents were roaming the hospitals looking for corpses of missing relatives. Some did not find their loved ones that night, but recognised them in the photos and videos of bodies in the massacre," said Abu Wissam al-Gotani, an activist who documented the massacre.

"After the attack on the 21st, there was a lot of hope in Syria," said another Syrian.

"Obama's 'red line' [warning of US military intervention is gas was used] had been crossed and we thought this meant something would happen, something would change. We waited - for nothing."   

There have been hundreds more chemical attacks since then, he said, and people continue to lose family members with nothing being done.  

"The people of Syria will not be silent about this but world leaders are."

"If 1,347 can be killed in two hours and those with power do nothing, they are not human. They are puppets, toys being moved by others."

Imogen Lambert contributed to this report