On the run from Syrian chemical weapons | The Storytellers | DW | 14.05.2014
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The Storytellers

On the run from Syrian chemical weapons

Syrian civilians have been killed in chemical weapons attacks, which the West attributes to Bashar al-Assad's regime and Damascus attributes to rebels. Qusai Zakarya survived one and wants to the world to know about it.

Qusai Zakarya* is sitting in a pizza place in New Haven, Connecticut, home to the prestigious university Yale. It's a far cry from the hometown he fled a short time ago.

"I come from a big family, all of us lived in Moadamiyah," he says. "It is - used to be - a quiet town with simple people. Before the war, life appeared peaceful on the outside, but under the surface, the people were threatened by the government."

The walls have ears, says Zakarya, a widespread saying in Syria too, which he says is a result of the ruling Assad family allowing the intelligence services to arrest and jail Syrians without providing reasons, let alone a court order or indictment.

"We lived in constant state of fear," he says.

For Zakarya a change began when word got out about a group of children who had been inspired by the Arab spring and took the brave step of writing anti-regime slogans on their school walls in Daraa in 2011. This simple act sparked a revolution, he says. His neighbors in Moadimiyah included senior regime soldiers so he didn't dare join in the protest. He says he supported the activists secretly.

An activist wears a gas mask in the Ghouta region

In September the US approved the supply of anti-chemical weapons gear to the Syrian opposition

"All that we dreamed about is building a new Syria, to have a free Syria for all, Syria for all the Syrians," he says.

Moadamiyah, which is about 10 kilometers from Damascus (seven miles) rose up, first peacefully and then with weapons. The town was regularly subjected to air bombings and mortar attacks. On August 21, a chemical weapons attack hit Moadamiyah and nearby towns.

Caught off guard

"I was up doing my prayers around 4:45 a.m., when I started hearing terrifying alarms coming from Damascus, the kind of alarms you usually hear in movies about World War II," Zakarya says. "Within seconds I started hearing rockets flying into the ground."

Zakarya says a rocket filled with Sarin gas hit Moadamiyah about 150 meters (500 feet) from where he was. Before he knew what was happening, he couldn't breathe.

"I felt like my chest was on fire, my eyes were burning like hell, and I wasn't even able to scream to alert my friends, so I started beating my chest over and over until I managed to get my first breath, and [then I] started screaming to alert my friends."

On the streets he saw men, women and children of all ages running in panic, falling on the ground, suffocating, without a single drop of blood.

"I saw a kid laying on the ground, suffocating and nobody was close to help him. So I ran to him. He had big wide blue eyes and he was almost staring into another dimension, he was suffocating."

Zakarya tried giving the boy CPR but was unsuccessful. He took the 13-year-old by car to the town's field hospital, with its eight doctors for nearly 14,000 people, minimal equipment and limited supplies. Hundreds of people exposed to the chemicals had already shown up. Then Zakarya passed out and his heart stopped.

Syrian children recover from a gas attack

Children recover from an alleged gas attack: 150,000 people have died already in the fighting in Syria

Back from the brink

"The doctors gave me CPR, trying to get my heart working again, but there was no point, so they placed me among the deceased."

He lied unconscious amongst the dead for 45 minutes until a friend discovered that he was still just barely alive.

The doctors were able to bring him back. He regained consciousness to discover that soldiers equipped with chemical protection gear were attacking the town on the ground and bombarding it by air. The Free Syrian Army held them off, he says.

A few months later, Moadamiyah was subjected to a different tactic: give in or starve. The town was besieged for six months, cutting off food, gas and medical supplies. The power supply was extremely limited.

"We had only olives and leaves of trees to survive on and the symptoms of malnutrition started to spread," Zakarya says. "People started turning into ghosts."

He lost nearly 14 kilograms (30 pounds).

Forgotten victims

Zakarya started a hunger strike to draw attention to the starvation of his countrymen. He stopped eating for 33 days to get the world to understand life of Syrians under siege.

"Imagine yourself waking up one day and knowing that you don't have any food in your house, and when you want to go and get some food, you see soldiers shooting at you, you see bombs and aircraft falling on your neighborhood and your street.

UN chemical weapons tester collects samples

UN inspectors found evidence of chemical gas attacks in the nearby area of Ghouta last August

"When you come back home, you see your family, your children, your sister and wife starving, they're literally starving to death, they're hungry and you cannot do anything to help them. Imagine how frustrating and heartbreaking that is."

As a result of media and political pressure, the regime permitted civilians to leave Moadamiyah. Zakarya says some were arrested, others were killed, and many are still missing. He was lucky to make it to the US via Lebanon in March.

These days, Zakarya tells his story to anyone who will listen: politicians, journalists, students, activists, ambassadors. That's what brought him to New Haven, for a talk with students. He dreams of meeting Angelina Jolie, a UN goodwill ambassador, to ask for her support in stopping the war. Even so, he makes him feel nauseous to tell his story over and over.

"It's just so disgusting and pathetic that all of that happened and it wasn't enough to have the international community and the United States doing anything against the Assad regime."

He often thinks back to Moadamiyah and his family and friends, now thousands of kilometers away.

"I never forget them, they're always on my mind. I'm doing my best, but it's very hard for me. I feel like I'm daydreaming. Living here and having all of my memories and thoughts back in Syria. Believe me, it's too much for anybody to handle. I don't know how long I can keep doing this."

*Qusai Zakarya is not his real name.

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