The horror that unfolded in the early hours of August 21, 2013, is still fresh in the minds of many Syrians a decade later.
“Most of us were awake because it was too hot to sleep,” recalled Alaa Makhzoumi, now 30. “We were on our roof and enjoying the night,” she told DW.
At around 2:30 am, Syria’s deadliest chemical attack hit Ghouta, which was once an opposition-held suburb of the country’s capital Damascus.
“When we heard the explosions, we thought it was the usual shelling,” Makhzoumi said. Her husband, who is a doctor, immediately left the house to see if anyone needed help.
“But then, the anguished cries from the streets got louder, and our own breathing became more difficult,” he told DW. The family covered their faces with wet tissues.
“We were afraid it was a chemical attack, and even though we didn’t know anything about it, we stayed close to the windows.”
The decision to use wet tissues and not seek shelter in the basement probably saved their lives.
“Families used to hide from the regular bombardment by going downstairs, but this time, everyone who went downstairs died,” Abd al-Rahman Saifiya, who worked that night as a paramedic in Eastern Ghouta, told DW . “Many died without knowing what kind of weapon they were killed with.”
According to various investigations and sources, between 480 and 1,500 people, among them many children, died in their sleep or suffocated elsewhere from the attack.
A lot of evidence
An investigation by the United Nations Missions confirmed a month after the attack on Ghouta that sarin, one of the most toxic chemical warfare agents, was used.
“The environmental, chemical and medical samples we collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used,” the UN report said.
Sarin is heavier than air and sinks, causing many to die while seeking shelter in basements.
The attack comes two years into the Syrian civil war, an ongoing conflict between government forces under the regime of President Bashir Assad and other opposition forces.
A comprehensive report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international non-governmental organization (NGO), concluded that “the evidence regarding the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that they weapons systems known and documented to be the only ones owned by, and used by, the armed forces of the Syrian government.”
The HRW report also stated that Syrian opposition forces did not have “140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack or their associated launchers.”
Assad rejected any accusation, saying in one of the first reports of the attack by the Syrian news agency SANA, “It defies elementary logic.” Instead, Assad placed the blame on opposition forces.
The then-Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi even said that “everything that was said is illogical, outdated, illogical and fabricated,” according to SANA.
There is no shortage of evidence, and many non-governmental organizations have created large databases.
“The documentation from the Ghouta attack is the most documented and most graphic incident the Syrian Archive has ever investigated,” said Libby McAvoy, the Syrian Archive’s legal advisor.a project that documents atrocities using open-source material, such as social media content, told DW.
“Almost 300 materials were uploaded in real time, within the first 24 hours, which is about half of the total number of materials we found documenting this attack.”
The Syrian Network for Human Rights has also recorded at least 222 chemical attacks in Syria since 2012, despite a ban on chemical weapons under international law that has been in place since 1925.
But Assad and his Russian allies have not changed their stance in the last 10 years. They continue with their version that the opposition is responsible.
Accountability is not a priority
“Assad is playing the waiting game, hoping that the world will finally forget about accountability and pragmatically readmit him to the international community as the legitimate leader of Syria,” Lina Khatib, director of the London-based SOAS Middle East Institute. , said DW.
“It is important that the pursuit of accountability for Assad’s brutal actions continues even if the political track of the peace process is halted.”
For now, it seems, time is actually playing into Assad’s hands, Kelly Petillo, Middle East researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR, told DW.
Despite the alleged war crimes that temporarily alienated Assad regionally and internationally, the Syrian president is increasingly being welcomed back by the international community and the Arab crowd.
“Accountability is not diplomacy,” said Petillo, adding that his hope now lies in an internationally led political path to a legitimate constituency in Syria. “Maintaining accountability must happen equally.”
Without accountability, Laila Kiki, the executive director of the US-based NGO The Syria Campaign, a group that supports local activists, fears that there is always a risk that we will see a repeat of this. atrocities in Syria and elsewhere, he said. in a statement ahead of this year’s 10th anniversary.
For survivor Alaa Makhzoumi, the past 10 years have not erased the trauma she experienced, even though her family finally made it to Turkey three years after the attack.
“We will never forget the images of the dead children,” he said.
Omar Albam contributed to this article from Idlib, Syria.