Even for a doctor used to the carnage of war, it was a sight which instilled panic and fear. As appalling figures reveal that 3,600 people in Syria have been treated for neurotoxic symptoms – and that 355 of them have died – one of the courageous medics treating them has spoken about the horrors of Wednesday’s chemical attack.
Majid Abu Ali, a 38-year-old Syrian GP, has described the moment he watched hundreds of dying men, women and children arrive at his makeshift hospital on the outskirts of Damascas.
There were toddlers and babies gasping for oxygen as their air supply was slowly cut off.
Paralysis, foaming at the mouth and an inability to control bodily functions were also symptoms, which made Dr Ali and his colleagues certain they were witnessing the effects of chemical weapons.
‘The look of horror in victims’ eyes was what affected us most,’ said Dr Ali. ‘All of us have been dealing with war victims for the past two years, but nothing could have prepared us for this. The situation was quite terrifying.’
As the international community argues about the exact nature of the weapons used, Dr Ali has provided the first detailed testament of life inside a Syrian civilian community contaminated by deadly nerve agents.
He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We want the world to know what innocent people are suffering – for people to share our outrage and to stop this horror.
‘This is not about politics or taking sides, this is about stopping the extermination of people in one of the cruellest ways known to mankind.
‘Not only are children being exterminated by the dozen, but doctors treating them are also succumbing to the chemicals as they go about their work.’
Reports from human rights activists in Damascus suggest that at least six doctors have died while treating victims.
Dr Ali trained at Damascus University and now works inside the rebel city of Douma, about seven miles north-east of the centre of Damascus and two miles from the suburb of East Ghouta, scene of the atrocity.
He said: ‘I was woken by a colleague on Wednesday soon after 3am. The bombing is constant, and we are used to early calls, but this was an appalling escalation in the conflict.
‘My colleague said that there would be no shifts as we all had to deal with a massive emergency round-the-clock.
‘By 7am there were 630 victims, 422 of them women and children. Sixty-seven had died by this time, with many more close to death.
‘All had the classic symptoms of chemical attack, ranging from asphyxiation to that terrible glazed look associated with nerve agents – pupils are contracted and muscles are in spasm.’
Dr Ali said the most disturbing sight was row upon row of young children’s corpses lying perfectly still and seemingly asleep.
‘There had been similar attacks in the past, but our suspicion was that the agents were diluted. Wednesday’s attack was a full-blown chemical bombardment,’ he said.
‘Those who made it to the medical point were not even the worst affected. Whole families died in their own homes.
‘My friend Abu Abdel-Rahman, a doctor, died at home with his grandmother. He was only 32 and was solely interested in caring for other people
‘Abu’s body was only found because one of us from the team went round to scramble him to get on duty.
‘People like Abu were dying everywhere – simply falling down in the street. Others simply passed away in their sleep. At 5am on Wednesday, a mother and her three-month-old baby girl came into the medical point, even though the mother could barely walk.
‘She screamed at us to save her little girl, but we couldn’t do anything for her. She was too young for her body’s system to cope.
‘Another entire family of five arrived later, but each of them died slowly in front of us. We are all used to dealing with the classic wounds and other trauma caused by shelling, but not these horror weapons.
‘They are utterly inhumane.’
The Ghouta attack was concentrated on a heavily built-up area largely controlled by the rebel Syrian Free Army, with at least seven districts hit.
All are just a short drive from the bunker where Assad is said to be commanding the destruction of his own people.
Dr Ali pointed to US President Barack Obama’s ‘red line’ speech of almost exactly one year ago, when he suggested that the use of chemical weapons would make international intervention in Syria inevitable.
‘That sounds like a hollow claim now,’ he said.
‘The truth is that Assad is taking advantage of the lack of international action to exterminate potential enemies as quickly as possible. My patients are the principal victims of this thinking.’
COMMENT: We wring our hands… as poison spreads
By Ian Birrell, Foreign Correspondent
More than 100,000 Syrians lie dead. One-fifth of a 22 million population has been displaced. Yet even a few months ago there were still supposed experts who claimed Bashar Assad, the London-trained eye doctor turned dictator, was a decent chap trapped by cruel circumstance.
These deluded fools must surely have been silenced after the hideous deaths of perhaps 1,700 people in apparent chemical attacks last week. If confirmed, it will be the worst such incident since Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds 25 years ago.
When there is slaughter on the Syrian scale it seems almost academic whether people are killed by bullets or poison. But last year Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons was a ‘red line’ that would ‘change my calculus’. He was right: if the world is to have any rules of war, there has to be a response to Assad’s latest outrage.
The question, of course, is what? This is already a proxy war, with fighters from 25 countries. I have spoken to refugees burned out of their homes by Iranian forces who, like the Russians, side with Assad.
Meanwhile money and munitions have poured into the rebels from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – with a wink and a nod from the White House.
Now the contagion seems to be spreading. Lebanon suffered two more huge bomb attacks yesterday. Jordan is struggling to cope with a massive influx of Syrian refugees while Iraq is again drowning in blood.
Amid all this, the UN looks even more hopeless than ever, given the shameful Russian and Chinese lock on any Security Council action and a second-rate Secretary-General.
Yet if nothing is done, what message does this send to other rogue states? And as the world wrings its hands, the jihadists and extremists grow stronger inside Syria.
For months, Britain and France have wanted a bolder stance, encouraged by their action in Libya that ousted another despot (although this aided the collapse of neighbour Mali).
David Cameron, meanwhile, is haunted by another conflict: Bosnia. This showed how doing nothing can turn out to be as fateful a choice as taking action. Serbian ethnic cleansing rampaged for three years while a Conservative Government led Western opposition to intervention. Then came the 1995 massacre of 8,000 people in Srebrenica, finally forcing Nato into action.
There are no easy answers to the Syrian dilemma. The easiest move politically is to arm the rebels, although their problem is not a shortage of weapons, and there is no point creating no-fly zones if we cannot defend them against well-armed forces backed by Russia.
Ultimately, we must ponder two profound questions. First, are we prepared to become embroiled in war in the Middle East? And second, do we really understand the impact of our actions if we do get involved?
The answers could define this decade.