“Muscles become paralyzed, the lungs collapse. I have never seen anyone die in a most atrocious way”. Dr. Annie Sparrow is a pediatrician who has worked for years with the Syrian American Medical Society, a nonprofit organization that has been responsible for bringing health care to Syria and all the surrounding areas affected by war since 2007. Hundreds of volunteer doctors and nurses welcome thousands of Syrian victims of chemical attacks in their hospital. “The international community continues to send antidotes. The world knows that chemical weapons will continue to be used. Again and again”.
It is thanks to SAMS volunteers that it was possible to issue the report “A new normal: ongoing chemical weapons attacks in Syria”, 63 pages showing the numbers of a new humanitarian crisis, that of attacks with unconventional weapons, gas, and poisons. SAMS operators have collected hundreds of testimonies, stories of men, women, and children who arrived to the clinic with obvious signs of intoxication. Unfortunately, for many of them there is no story to tell: their lifeless bodies have spoken in their stead.
161 Chemical attacks have been carried out since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, but SAMS has counted about 133 more of them, unconfirmed cases connected to chemical weapons. In 2015, the report said, there was a sharp increase in the use of nerve and chlorine gases, 69 attacks against the 55 registered the year before. Since the beginning of the war, about 14 thousand Syrians have been exposed to toxic substances, and 1,491 of them have died.
“Not only the types of used chemicals have increased since summer 2015, but also those who use this kind of attacks”, SAMS volunteers explain, referring first and foremost to the Islamic State. Isis has begun to use mustard gas – called this way because of its strong smell – and chlorine gas as if it were a “normal” weapon to be used against unarmed people. Maximum results with minimum effort. Thousands of people are forced to flee from the territories the Caliphate is interested in.
Chlorine gas is less aggressive than Sarin – whose use has been officially banned in Syria after Assad’s government joined to the Convention on Chemical Weapons in 2013 -, but it is still as dangerous as it used to be. This gas is used for different civilian purposes, such as sanitization of water, therefore its production has not been stopped or placed under the Convention’s control. However, when used as a chemical weapon, it becomes a powerful poison, which leads to death by suffocation in extreme cases.
It is an insult to human dignity, to a people which has been brought to its knees by a long-term conflict. Chemical weapons are powerful and do not just poison the lungs: Sarin, for example, can be absorbed by the skin, corroding it. Gases affect also the nervous system and cause a progressive loss of control of bodily functions, until the person falls into a comatose state that slowly leads to death.
Unfortunately, the sufferings of those who survive a chemical attack never end. Besides physical harm, many veterans live in constant fear that another attack may be unleashed at any moment: “many people have seen their loved ones dying suffocated,” Dr. Sparrow explains. Most of them struggle with panic attacks, depression, flashbacks, and seizures.
“Given the scale of these attacks, it is really incredible that the UN Security Council has not yet taken tougher measures to intervene and stop this massacre.” Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, a UN expert in war crimes, finds it almost unbelievable. “How shameless do these attacks against civilians have to become for the international community to decide to do something?”