“I Couldn’t Save Them”: Grieving Father After Gas Attack in Syria

The grief-stricken father cradled his 9-month-old twins, Aya and Ahmed, each in the crook of an arm. Stroking their hair, he choked back tears, mumbling, "Say goodbye, baby, say goodbye" to their lifeless bodies.

Then Abdel Hameed Alyousef took them to a mass grave where 22 members of his family were being buried. Each branch of the clan got its own trench.

In this picture taken on Tuesday, 4 April 2017, Abdul-Hamid Alyousef, 29, holds his twin babies who were killed during a suspected chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. (Photo: AP)

“They were dead. All are dead now.”

More than 80 people, including at least 30 children and 20 women, were killed in the chemical attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun early Tuesday, and the toll could still rise. The Alyousef family, one of the town’s main clans, was hardest hit.

Another member of the family, Aya Fadl, recalled running from her house with her 20-month-old son in her arms, thinking she could find safety from the toxic gas in the street. Instead, the 25-year-old English teacher was confronted face-to-face with the horror of it: A pick-up truck piled with bodies of the dead, including many of her own relatives and students.

Aya Fadl, lies on a bed, with an oxygen mask to heal breathing difficulties following a suspected chemical attack on her town of Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. (Photo: AP)

"Ammar, Aya, Mohammed, Ahmad, I love you my birds. Really they were like birds. Aunt Sana, Uncle Yasser, Abdul-Kareem, please hear me," Fadl said, choking back tears as she recalled how she said farewell to her relatives in the pile.

"I saw them. They were dead. All are dead now."

Fadl remembered her panic when the rockets woke her.

"My husband, where are you? Oh, where are you my lovely son?" she recalled calling out. "They were next to me but I couldn't see them." She said their eyes began hurting. "The air became very heavy. There was no bad smell. But the air was so heavy to breathe."

The Alyousefs brought their dead to a family member’s home that was outside the worst attack area. The courtyard had turned into a makeshift morgue where surviving relatives tried for hours to resuscitate loved ones already dead.

On the way to the grave, Abdel Hameed Alyousef asked a cousin to video his farewell to his twin son and daughter as he sat in the front seat of a van being loaded with bodies.

When the airstrikes hit, he was with the twins. "I carried them outside the house with their mother," the 29-year-old shop owner told the AP. "They were conscious at first, but 10 minutes later, we could smell the odour."

The twins and his wife, Dalal Ahmed, fell sick.

He brought them to paramedics and, thinking they would be OK, went to look for the rest of his family. He found the bodies of two of his brothers, two nephews and a niece, as well as neighbours and friends. "I couldn't save anyone. They're all dead now," he said.

The tragedy has devastated the small town. It also deepened the frustration felt by many Syrians in opposition-held areas that such scenes of mass death, which have become routine in the country's 6-year-old civil war, bring no retribution or even determination of responsibility.

The US and other Western countries accused President Bashar Assad of being behind the attack, while Syria and its main backer, Russia, denied it. Despite world condemnation, bringing justice is difficult in the absence of independent investigation of Syria's chemical arsenal, which the government insists it has destroyed.

A victim of a suspected chemical attack receives treatment at a makeshift hospital, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. (Photo: AP)

Sarin And Chlorine Gas Used

A Doctors Without Borders medical team that examined a number of victims in a hospital near the border with Turkey, said the symptoms are consistent with exposure to a neurotoxic agent – at least two different chemical agents.

Victims of the attack showed signs of a nerve gas exposure, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation. Paramedics were using fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.

The US’ early assessment is that it involved the use of chlorine and sarin, according to two US officials, who weren’t authorised to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Medical teams also reported smelling bleach on survivors of the attack, suggesting chlorine gas was also used.

A Syrian man holds a suffering baby victim of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syrian city of Idlib, inside Syria, near the Reyhanli border crossing, Turkey. (Photo: AP)

Sarin Gas’ Effects

Sarin is a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas which has been classified as a nerve agent. It has been used as a chemical warfare agent.

It need not be inhaled as it can permeate through skin, and reach the lungs and cause damage. Once exposed to it, the victim suffers extreme pain, blurred vision and lack of other nervous sensations.

A man carrying a child following a suspected chemical attack, at a makeshift hospital in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. (Photo: AP)

If the amount of gas is less, it wears off eventually. But if the gas is in lethal amount, then it can kill people within 10 minutes.

However, Sarin’s can cause permanent damaged by harming a victim’s lungs, eyes and central nervous system.

(With inputs from AP and Reuters.)

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