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After 'Night From Hell,' People Of Damascus Ask: Are We Safe?

Men wearing masks walk along a deserted street that was hit by what activists said was a gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ain Tarma on Wednesday.
Men wearing masks walk along a deserted street that was hit by what activists said was a gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ain Tarma on Wednesday.

The writer is a Syrian citizen living in Damascus who is not being further identified out of safety concerns.

Damascenes are shedding tears for the fallen and expressing fear and confusion in the aftermath of what could prove to be one of the worst chemical attacks in recent years. Residents are left unsure of how to protect their health in the wake of the incident.

Rebels say President Bashar Assad's forces used chemical weapons in an attack on Wednesday, killing hundreds of people. President Obama met with his national security team Saturday to discuss the reports.

Also Saturday, Doctors Without Borders said approximately 3,600 of its patients in Damascus showed symptoms of exposure to "a neurotoxic agent." The humanitarian organization said it could "neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack."

As footage of bodies kept surfacing on social media, the Syrian authorities at first denied the presence of any chemical agents around Damascus. But on Saturday the authorities issued a statement saying "poisonous gas suffocated government soldiers," and accused "terrorists" of carrying out a chemical attack.

The Syrian government has always referred to rebels as terrorists.

But the Syrian authorities have yet to issue any clear statements putting to rest Damascenes' concerns for general public safety.

There have been no statements on the quality of the air in the city, or the safety of the food supply and water, and whether civilians need to take any extra precautions.

One of the suburbs where the chemical attack may have taken place is Ghouta, an agricultural area that supplies much of the fresh produce, meat and dairy to Damascus.

At a recent gathering of several Damascenes in the urban middle class neighborhood of Maysat, one mother of three, Salwa, said she cried "for hours" on Thursday after learning the news. And now she was worried about what to feed her children.

"People are saying we should wash fruits and vegetables very, very well, but how do I know if that's enough? And can we eat the yoghurt? Can we drink the milk? The cows that graze in Ghouta, is their meat good? Will we feel the effects years from now? I just don't know," she said.

Khaled, a 42-year-old physical therapist, echoed these concerns, especially that his home is not too far away from Ghouta.

"I read online that sarin gas is heavy, so it falls down and then dissipates," he said. "So I suppose it won't blow over to us, even when we're downwind from it, right? I hope so, anyway."

He and others recalled what they referred to as "a night from hell" on Wednesday.

It was the middle of the night when missiles carrying chemical warheads allegedly fell on several areas in the Damascus suburbs. The death toll could rise in the hundreds, and it includes gruesome stories of entire families killed as they slept.

Khaled was home that night with his wife and in-laws, and like many other Damascenes, he said the shelling sounded unusually fierce.

Syria's uprising-turned-civil war has entered its third year now, and Damascenes have long gotten used to the sonic booms of warplanes above, and the jolting blasts of missiles. As much as any ordinary person can, Damascenes have also gotten used to the grim, daily news of unimaginable destruction and a seemingly endless death toll.

"But that night, it all felt different," said Khaled.

"First of all, the shelling was louder than I remember at any time before. It's as if the regime started using new missile batteries that are located right smack in the middle of the city. The sound was bigger, closer, heavier, louder, more scary."

Others described a similarly violent night.

"Our windows shake all the time, but that night, starting around 2 a.m., was really particularly powerful. Frankly I was surprised to see that our windows withstood it and didn't shatter," said Hana, a 73-year-old widow.

She said the thunderous blasts jolted her out of bed in the middle of the night. She knew the shelling was not meant for her — government shelling originates from Damascus and the hills that surround it, but targets suburbs around the city where rebels are suspected of hiding — but she felt unsafe in her home anyway.

"I started moving throughout the house, thinking maybe it's best I stay in the bathroom, or the hallway, or the closet. I couldn't figure out where," she said.

The dreadful news soon started pouring in on television and online.

The average Damascene household receives on its television set dozens of channels via satellite, including most Arabic news channels as well as French, Russian, the BBC and, sometimes, even CNN International. Within the typical family, members that support the regime will tune into the government-run Syrian channels to her the news. Those who support the rebellion watch non-Syrian media.

So it was no surprise that when news began to surface of the alleged chemical attack at an area located less than a 30-minute drive from the center of Damascus, not everyone believed it.

Raghad, 30, describes herself as "neutral," and insists on watching state-run TV.

"There's so much conflicting information that I have to believe nothing," she said.

Though everyone at the gathering believed that a chemical attack had taken place, the guests exchanged an array of speculations and conspiracy theories.

Did ordinary people in the West know about the attack? Did Western governments give Assad a green light to do this? Was the United Nations just playing along for show with statements of condemnation?

"If not, then how could a regime get away with so much? How brazen must Assad be to launch a chemical attack just when the U.N. is here?" said Shirin, 25, a graduate of Damascus University Law School.

She is referring to the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors who arrived in Damascus earlier in the week. Word is they have yet to leave their hotel in downtown Damascus. The U.N. disarmament chief also arrived in Damascus Saturday to investigate the allegations.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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