|I heard the helicopters from my home one Monday night as I watched a movie on TV. We hear the chopping wings of helicopters almost every day. They fly over Idlib and drop barrel bombs on our neighbourhoods too often to count. But we don’t usually hear the helicopters at night.
I am the medical director of a field hospital in Sarmin, Idlib. It is the area that I grew up in. Sarmin is an old suburban town outside of Idlib city, with ruins that have been around for more than two thousand years. It is springtime in Idlib, which brings beautiful nature and the green leaves of thousands of olive trees. I am a radiologist by training, but since the conflict in Syria began, I have been working in general emergency medicine to help those affected by the daily bombings. I helped to establish the field hospital in Sarmin four years ago. We are currently using the fourth building to house the field hospital – the first two were flattened to the ground. Hospitals are targeted by the government in Syria, and our field hospital has been hit by bombs and missiles 17 times.
On the night of March 16, only one month ago, as I heard the helicopters overhead at about 8:30pm, an announcement blared through my walkie talkie and through the mosque speakers of Sarmin that there were explosive barrel bombs that had been dropped. They said that the barrels were filled with poisonous gas – it was a chemical attack. Voices shouted for people to avoid the area where the barrels were dropped and to go to higher ground for safety.
I immediately left my house and drove to my field hospital, hoping that the injuries would be minor and fearing for my family. Sarmin had never before experienced a chemical attack. As soon as I left my house, I could smell the odour of bleach. When I arrived to the hospital, a wave of people had already begun to arrive. They were all experiencing symptoms of exposure to a choking agent like chlorine gas. Everyone was decontaminated with water before coming into the hospital, and their clothes were taken off of them. Dozens of people had difficulty breathing, with their eyes and throats burning, and many began secreting from the mouth. We lay people on the floor as the beds filled up. Our humble field hospital became chaotic. We tried our best to give people oxygen and hydrocortisone nebulisers to stabilise their breathing. Moderate cases were injected with hydrocortisone, and the severe cases required Atropine injections. The first wave of 50 people came from the Qaminas village, less than 10 minutes away from Sarmin. We saw 20 additional people from the western neighbourhood of Sarmin – the wind had blown the chemical agent in that direction.
Above the chaotic sounds of my hospital, I continued to hear the loud wings of helicopters. As we were finishing treating these victims, another wave of patients arrived at our hospital. Two more barrel bombs had been dropped on the southeastern neighbourhood along the main corniche. Thirty more people spilled into my field hospital, and there would have been many more had the radio not alarmed our town to the attacks.
Among the people who entered, I saw my friend Waref Taleb. He ran an electronics repair shop in town, and recently helped to fix my phone. He, his wife, his mother, and his three young children – all under the age of three – were a sickly pale colour when they arrived, a sign of severe lack of oxygen and chemical exposure. In the most severe cases of chlorine exposure, your lungs fill with fluid and you suffocate. We immediately intubated Waref and gave him CPR, and rinsed off his wife and gave her Atropine. His mother was already dead when she arrived. We worked quickly to treat three-year-old Aisha, two-year-old Sara, and one-year-old Mohammad, giving them oxygen and injecting them with Atropine. Mohammad was foaming at the mouth. We were forced to treat Sara and Aisha on the body of their dead grandmother. As quickly as we worked, we could not save them. In a short period of time, Waref and his wife’s symptoms progressed rapidly, and they too died.
We learned from civil defenders who rushed the Taleb family to the hospital that the barrel bombs filled with chlorine had hit their house as they hid in the basement. In our daily barrel bomb attacks, it is safest to go to the basements of houses, but for a chemical attack like this, basements are the worst place you can be. Chlorine is thicker than air. One of the barrel bombs fell through a shaft in their home, filling the ventilation with gas when it broke open and released chlorine. Their basement became a makeshift gas chamber.
Altogether that night, we saw 120 people. There were only five physicians, including myself, and about 15 nurses working at the hospital. Many civil defenders and medical staff, including me, experienced symptoms of chemical exposure from such close contact with the patients. As I worked, my chest became tighter and tighter, and I had a hard time breathing. My throat was burning. The young nurse who took care of baby Mohammed had symptoms of a critical level. The entire hospital smelled like bleach that night.
I wish that I could say that this night was unique, but it was not. Since the night of March 16, our field hospital has seen victims from five additional chemical attacks in Sarmin and the neighboring towns. On April 16, one month after the attack that killed the Taleb family, I testified about my experiences in front of the United Nations Security Council in a meeting hosted by US Ambassador Samantha Power. After watching a video I showed of Sara, Aisha, and Mohammed dying in our hospital, many of the Security Council members were in tears. But we need much more than tears. Those who have the right to tears for these attacks are the people of Syria. From the Security Council, we need action. Less than two hours after the Security Council meeting, I got word from my hospital that they were receiving victims from yet another chemical attack in Idlib city.
After four years of conflict in Syria, I have more friends who have been killed than I have who are alive. I have seen too many people from my community take their last breath at my hospital. The hardest part is knowing every day that it will happen again – you will see more of your friends come in on stretchers, you will see more children die in front of you, you will again fear for your family as you hear the sounds of helicopters above. This life is not human.
In response to chemical attacks in Syria, the international community sends us more Atropine. This is disappointing. This means that the world knows that the Assad government will use chemical weapons against us again. What we need is not Atropine – what we urgently need is protection from the bombs, with a no-fly zone if necessary. What we need is to prevent another family from slowly suffocating together after being gassed in their home. What we need is for the United Nations to enforce their own resolutions.
Dr Tennari is calling for 1,000 medical workers to join his call to the UN Security Council to enforce its own resolutions and stop the chemical attacks. Please send this email to any medical workers you know – doctors, nurses, paramedics or health care workers. If you are a medical worker sign up here: www.medicsunderfire.org
Dr. Mohamed Tennari established and directs a field hospital in Sarmin, Syria and is the Syrian American Medical Society’s medical coordinator in Idlib governorate. Last week he described this attack to members of the UN Security Council. Many cried but they are still failing to act.