Saraqeb has grown used to bombing and shelling and the other conventional weapons of war, but three weeks ago, residents say, the game changed. In his airy office on the second floor of an unremarkable building on the city’s main street, Dr Mohammed Walid Tamer opens his laptop and pulls up a video file. It shows a panoramic wide shot of the city, a barrel load of explosives hurled from a government helicopter onto the streets below, and an enormous cloud of smoke and dust rising high into the air. The doctor pauses the video and rewinds the last few seconds. “Look,” he says. He points to a tiny stick figure thrown with the debris fifty feet up into the air. “That’s a person.”
His next clip shows the aftermath: civilians running into a clinic clutching people ashen with dust and blood loss, and four people carrying a dead woman on a bed because there aren’t enough stretchers to go round. “At this point we didn’t realize what had happened,” says the doctor. “But within half an hour we knew. As soon as we saw that people were foaming at the mouth we knew that it was a chemical attack.”
The camera hones in on a young man. His breaths come noisily and painfully and a milky liquid is spilling from his mouth. His pupils are tiny pin pricks in the middle of the vivid red whites of his eyes. Twenty six people died instantly in the airstrike and in the days afterwards the doctors in Saraqeb’s hospital saw dozens of people suffering with symptoms brought on by the bomb’s toxic cloud. “Even the people who went to the site to help the injured started to faint and vomit,” the doctor says. “The ambulance drivers got sick. Even the doctors who treated the patients in the clinic got headaches and stomach pains.” Soon after the attack the people started leaving Saraqeb. “Now the city’s like a ghost town,” the doctor says. “Most of the people have left, but they are still bombing us. Yesterday an air strike killed another ten people here.” Fifty thousand people used to live in this city; now the streets are eerily empty.
At first Dr Tamer and his colleagues thought that their patients had been poisoned by phosphorus gas. But they knew the importance of taking evidence, even in the chaos of the first hours after the attack. “We took soil samples and clothes from the people affected, and we took them straight away,” he says. “We don’t have the facilities here to test them properly, so we sent them to Turkey. And when the intelligence services there tested them they discovered that it was Sarin gas.”
Two barrels, allegedly containing Sarin mixed with TNT, were dropped on Saraqeb that day, each poisoning an area of one kilometer in diameter. But there was a third barrel, one that didn’t explode as it should have done. “When we found that one, we discovered that it contained phosphorus,” says the doctor. “We think that the regime dropped it to cover up the Sarin. Phosphorus is used in fertilizer, so they could have claimed that the people were poisoned because of an agricultural accident.”
One person, an elderly lady called Mariam Al-Khatib, died from the effects of the Sarin. But Dr Tamer has collected the names of the dozens more who were poisoned and recovered—including a pregnant eighteen year old woman—and may still suffer long term effects in the future. The files on his laptop are the evidence that shows that the Syrian regime has crossed US President Obama’s ‘red line’ in Saraqeb. But so far there is still there is no comeback from the international community, and the doctor doesn’t believe that there ever will be. “First they’ll ask whether it was the regime or the opposition who did this,” he says. “Then when they decide that it’s the regime, they’ll ask was it Maher Al-Assad or Bashar. And if they decide that maybe it was Maher, they’ll still not do anything.”
So Saraqeb is left to cope alone. The hospitals have run out of Atropine, the medicine they need to treat the victims. They have no gas masks or protective clothing for the ambulance and hospital staff, and no more oxygen or ventilators to treat the victims of any future chemical attacks in the city. And Dr Tamer expects that there will be more attacks. “This is a strategic point in Syria,” he says. “Saraqeb is on the main supply route from Damascus to the north. So this is just the latest attack.”