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Survivor of Syrian chemical weapons attack speaks out

Sawwan witnessed first-hand the devastation of chemical weapons in Syria in the earliest hours of Aug. 21.
Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish border, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013.
Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish border, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013.

Ameenah Sawwan figures it was the direction of the wind that saved her life.

Sawwan, a 23-year-old Syrian woman, survived the chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus last summer. Four months ago, she became one of the 9 million Syrians driven from their homes since the civil war began in 2011.

Sawwan and her cousin fled Syria last October and plan to wait out the war on the Turkish border until they can return to their country permanently.

Earlier this month, Sawwan and two other survivors of the chemical attack were flown to Washington by a Syrian opposition group to meet with U.S. lawmakers and urge the Obama administration to do more for Syria.

In a lengthy interview over Skype, while she was visiting the Capitol, she described the day her home was attacked. Her account is consistent with details from the massive chemical attack reportedly launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Damascus suburbs last August.

The Obama administration, citing U.S. intelligence, has said the chemical weapons attacks that day killed more than 1,400 people in suburbs around Damascus. Nearly all the victims were civilians. It was the worst such attack in 25 years, and the year’s most grave human rights violation.  

Since then, under international pressure, the Assad regime has agreed to surrender its chemical weapons for destruction – a process overseen by the United Nations. To date, Syria has handed over more than one-third of its known chemical weapons arsenal.

Sawwan witnessed first-hand the devastation of chemical weapons in the earliest hours of Aug. 21, 2013. 

Heba Sawwan, left, and her cousin Ameenah Sawwan, right, survivors of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Syria, speak during a news conference in Washington, Feb. 6, 2014.

Still awake at home in the rebel-held town of Moadamiya, she was preparing activities for orphans she worked with as a field activist.

Around 2:30 a.m., she began receiving emails from friends in neighboring towns, warning of chemical attacks nearby and including video footage.

Clicking on the YouTube links, one after the other, Sawwan watched writhing bodies, children foaming at the mouth, and shots of a basement full of dead bodies in neighborhoods only miles away. “I thought, 'Oh my God, how could he do that?'” she said, referring to Assad.

Three hours later, as she huddled in the basement with her family, Sawwan heard a series of explosions. The civil war had been raging for more than two years and the sounds of warfare were familiar and distinguishable.

“I started feeling dizzy, and I didn’t know if it was because of the malnutrition or the gas,” she said. When she emerged from the basement, a thick fog covered the streets.  Her eyes and nose burned and with no towel to cover her face, she nearly suffocated. She realized then that her town too had been attacked with the same deadly gas that seemed to have claimed victims in the videos she had watched just hours earlier.

Arriving at Moadamiya's make-shift hospital – a 900-square-foot basement clinic with just 10 beds set up by the rebels – Sawwan said she saw people convulsing in ways she had never seen. There were rows of bodies, including children, dead on the floor. According to U.S. intelligence, more than 400 children died that day.

Sawwan said only two doctors worked then in Moadamiya – a town whose population has dwindled from 53,000 before the war to a mere 12,000 today.  Desperate to help, she doused water over the faces of the injured. “It was too much,” she said, “It was something I can’t describe.”

After the Sarin attack, the Assad regime shelled the town throughout the day and into the night. “We thought we were going to die,” she said of her family. “We thought if we don’t die from the chemical weapons, we’re going to die with the shelling, and if we’re not going to die with the shelling, the regime will break in and slaughter us all.”

According to the United Nations, about 80 people died in Sawwan’s suburb of Moadamiya that day – hundreds more died in other areas ringing the capital.  But, remarkably, everyone in Sawwan’s family survived.

The wind that morning carried the toxic fumes away from her home, sparing her family from death. “It’s God’s miracle that the wind took the gas in the opposite direction,” she said, “that’s why my family survived.” One street over, though, “there are not a lot of people who are living,” she sighed. 

The brutality of the Assad regime – which has ruled Syria for decades – reaches far beyond Sarin gas. Barrel bombs, mortar shells, and starvation – weapons Sawwan has come to know all too well – have destroyed Syria and its people.

As it attempts to crush an armed and emboldened opposition, the Syrian government has deliberately cut off electricity and food to starve the population of Sawwan’s hometown.

As winter took hold, Sawwan said that she feared the tactics are working. Despite committed support for the Free Syrian Army, neighbors have begun to surrender to the regime.  “They didn’t want to,” she said, “but they had to.” Their children were starving.

In three years of civil war that has ripped Syria apart, Sawwan and those around her have witnessed and endured tremendous suffering and loss. Relatives have been disappeared by security services; a young cousin died of hunger, another was killed by shelling on his wedding day. Ten days after the chemical attack, mortar shells killed her brother, his wife and their 7-year-old son.

Friends have been raped in front of their families, apparently by Syrian soldiers. The regime, she said, does “things that I never wish would happen, even to my enemy.”

In recent weeks, Assad’s ruthless bombing – rolling barrels of explosives out of airplanes – has killed thousands in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo and left swathes completely empty.

Between Jan. 22 and Feb. 12 of this year, nearly 5,000 people were killed throughout Syria, an average of 236 people a day – the deadliest weeks since the war began.

In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry said President Obama had asked for new options for Syria though all options, he stressed, remain “on the table.” 

Sawwan said she has no plans to seek asylum in the United States. “My country needs me,” she said, “I need to be in the nearest place to Syria,” she said before heading back to neighboring Turkey.

“One day,” she said, “Bashar al-Assad will leave and we will have to be organized. We don’t have excuses not to be organized.”