KHAN SHEIKHUN, Syria – They collapsed one after the other. In minutes, Mohammad watched his mother, father and nephew fall to the ground, convulsing after a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria.
He is barely able to lift his pale blue eyes as he recounts his tragedy to Agence France-Presse, a day after the dawn strikes killed 72 people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun.
“We heard noises outside, so my father walked out and saw someone lying on the ground. He collapsed, started shaking and my mother screamed, ‘Come look at your father!'” the blond man in his 20s says.
Mohammad, his sister, and her 4-year-old son rushed outside to help.
“My mom was screaming, standing there, then suddenly she fell to the ground. Then the boy. Then my sister,” Mohammad says.
White foam was pouring out of their months and they were convulsing violently. Only his sister survived.
“We felt like there was a chemical there, but you don’t think about running away, you think about helping people and carrying them out,” he says, almost helplessly.
“God have mercy on the victims – my father, mother, nephew and the whole neighborhood. I hope God takes revenge on the perpetrator,” Mohammad adds.
More than 160 people were left gasping for air, convulsing, and foaming at the mouth after early morning raids on Tuesday, doctors said.
They have sparked international condemnation, with several world powers pointing the finger at forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
‘Gas overpowered everyone’
The World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said victims showed symptoms consistent with the possible use of a nerve agent, such as sarin.
Surrounded by mourning relatives, Abdulhamid can barely utter the words: “19 members of my family were killed.”
The thin man is lying on a low couch with an IV drip in his arm, describing how he scrambled from relative to relative on Tuesday, April 4, to try to save them.
“We put some masks on but it didn’t do anything… People just started falling to the ground,” Abdulhamid, 28, says.
As an ambulance pulled up to ferry victims to the hospital, Abdulhamid himself collapsed.
“Someone would be helping us carry a wounded person and then he would collapse, and then another one, and another… Until the gas overpowered everyone,” he says, wincing.
“My children Ahmad and Aya, and my wife Dalal died.”
Outside, his elderly mother began hitting herself, crying out and sobbing.
Their relative Abdulrahman witnessed the same terror: “I saw people shaking, falling to the ground, then foaming at the mouth.”
“Then the people that were trying to help them began showing the same symptoms,” the stocky, bearded man says.
“There were no injuries, no pieces of shrapnel” after the air strikes, he says.
‘God does not sleep’
A day after the raids killed dozens, the rebel-held town is almost deserted. Many of its residents have fled, while others fill living rooms in silence, traumatized by the raids.
An Agence France-Presse correspondent said residents were still finding bodies around the town, including of a family that had hidden in a small cove they used as a bomb shelter and had never emerged.
On the road into town, a medic and his assistant are carefully putting remnants of what appears to be a missile into plastic bags.
“We took samples from the location of the strike, a specimen of the rocket, and animal and plant samples,” says Dr Hazem, who heads Khan Sheikhun’s medical office.
The boom of air strikes can still be heard behind them, rattling a bright red sign marked with a skull and crossbones propped up on a nearby rock.
“We were promised that UN teams will come to examine the site… We are protecting the samples and cataloguing them so when any team comes they can see what happened to us here,” Hazem says.
Both the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the UN’s chemical arms watchdog said they were investigating the attack to determine whether chemical substances were used.
And US President Donald Trump said the attack was an “affront to humanity” that “crossed a lot of lines”.
But Abdulhamid, his voice weak, said he could “rely on no one but God.”
“God does not sleep. He won’t forget anyone.” – Omar Haj Kadour, Agence France-Presse | Rappler.com