Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The View From The Site Of The Chemical Attack


The indelible images and details from last week's chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed more than 80 people horrified the world and helped initiate a U.S. response. Here now is the story of one family caught up in the assault. Ayaa Fadel told reporter Bel Trew of The Times of London that last Tuesday at about 6:30 in the morning, she, her husband and son were shaken out of bed by the bombing, and they fled their home.


AYAA FADEL: We run and run. After about five minutes, another three explosions. We were so scared. In the way, a big lorry stopped us and told us that they had many dead people, and we saw our relatives. All were my relatives, my friends, my neighbors. I can't believe it. My God. Children are marred. Ayaa (ph), Mohammed (ph) and Ahmed (ph), I love you, my birds. Really, they were like birds. My aunts and - my uncle Eel (ph) said, Abdel Kareem (ph), please hear me. All are dead now. Please listen to me. Please save us. We are the victims of this injustice war. Please stop it. Enough is enough. Enough is enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was bombing survivor Ayaa Fadel. We turn now to reporter Kareem Shaheen of The Guardian newspaper. He was the first Western journalist to enter the scene of the attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun. He joins us from Istanbul via Skype. Welcome to the program.

KAREEM SHAHEEN: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us what you saw when you arrived in the town.

SHAHEEN: We found a ghost town. A lot of people had fled. A lot of people had left. It felt like the town was mourning all the people who had died in the chemical attack. We went immediately first to the site of the attack itself. There's not much left of the missile that was used, just a blackened crater with a green fragment from the missile. We looked at the nearby adjacent warehouse and grain silos that the Russian Defense Ministry had said that the attack had initially targeted, a chemical weapons production facility or a warehouse that contained chemical weapons in the town. And we went inside to investigate whether that was true and found the warehouse and the silos completely empty. We also went and visited the family of Abdul Hameed al-Yousef, the man whose picture with his two children went viral after the chemical attack. I went and visited him while he was mourning with other family members and friends who were paying their condolences.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did they tell you? What did the survivors tell you?

SHAHEEN: It was really heartbreaking. I mean, we spoke to people. His cousin was a few - was maybe a hundred meters - his house was 100 meters from the site of the attack. He's someone who works at the local clinic, and he immediately figured out that this may well be a chemical attack based on his expertise working at the hospital. And so he doused his family with water and with soda drinks and vinegar to protect them from it. And, you know, a lot of the people who were first responders who went to the scene of the attack, they described how the first team of first responders that went in, they didn't realize that this was a chemical attack. And so they went in without protection, and they began radioing back to the headquarters, telling them we're falling unconscious. You need to send more people to save us as well.

And the family themselves were describing how they went and initially tried to help people and take them to the local clinic. And then they collapsed because they were exposed to the gas as well. And when they woke up, they went back to their homes and found the bodies of all their family members just lined up, you know, in their beds, you know, whether it was their cousins, their nephews, their nieces, their brothers and sisters. It was a really heart-rending description, and the father himself was - we couldn't really do a proper interview with him just because he was in such a state of shock and just kept repeating the names of his children who had died.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They also told you, I read, of a second attack, one that targeted a medical facility.

SHAHEEN: That's right. I actually went to the hospital itself, which was abandoned at this point. The hospital and civil defense center, they're the first responders who usually go and save people from the rubble when an attack happens. Both of them were bombed shortly after the chemical attack while they were treating victims there. And they also - they had the bodies of the people who had already died in a shed just across from the entrance to the hospital, and the shed had collapsed on the corpses. And so they were talking about how it seemed as though they were bombed twice, the people who had died.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you mentioned, you went into a warehouse. That warehouse, the Syrian government claims, stored chemical weapons, chemical weapons that were kept there by the rebels. Did anything that you saw when you went in there clarify the situation as to what may have been stored there?

SHAHEEN: Yeah. I went into the warehouse that was right across the street from where the bomb fell, and it was completely abandoned. I mean, this area had been bombed previously several months earlier, and so it wasn't really in use by anyone. You can see it from the street. You can see the warehouse and the grain silos there next to it. It used to be a grain production or storage facility somehow. And so I went into the warehouse, and it was just empty. There was just nothing there. There was even a volleyball net in there that was probably used for entertainment at some point. But there was nothing in the warehouse. There was nothing in the grain silos except some animal manure and just soil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nothing that would suggest that chemical weapons had been stored there.

SHAHEEN: No, absolutely not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Reporter Kareem Shaheen. He joined us via Skype. Thank you so much.

SHAHEEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.