22 Aug 2013

Syria: ‘they are leaving us alone to die’

I just got through to the Damascus suburb of Douma by Skype to speak to a man who tried to save some of those affected by the apparent chemical weapons attack on Wednesday.

“The doctor gave me an injection to help”, he said. That would have been Atropine, used to reduce the symptoms of nerve agent poisoning.

Mohammed – that was the name he gave – said he and the doctors in the areas hit had struggled to save as many people as they could before they too became affected. Even Atropine doesn’t prevent all the effects of the gas.

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“I stayed about an hour and then I couldn’t manage any more,” he said. “I was exhausted.” Reports suggest that first responders started to succumb yesterday evening. Those burying the dead are at particular risk, because the corpses will be emitting gas.

Mohammed’s description of those he tried to treat with his first aid training corroborate not only the pictures we’ve seen posted online but the classic symptoms of nerve agent poisoning.

“Most of them had white bubbles coming from their mouth,” he said. “I saw two or three kids hallucinating. They were saying things from their dreams. They were trembling and choking. They needed oxygen but we didn’t have any.”

Today everyone’s talking about the need to get the UN weapons inspectors to the scene as soon as possible, before traces of the gas disappear.

Read more: Syria death toll rises – ‘houses full of bodies’

But according to Gwyn Winfield of CBRNe World, a specialist journal on weapons of mass destruction, medical treatment for survivors is equally urgent. Victims need oxenes, a form of oxygen treatment, for several days after atropine.

“For those people who have received small doses they may have a lifetime of nerve damage, of convulsions and seizures,” he said. “If they miss that medical window, there’s no hope for them.”

Mohammed knows only too well how little he and his friends were able to do.

“We helped a lot of people, but I also saw many families who were sleeping. They went on sleeping forever,” he said. His sorrow is matched by anger.

“No-one in the world wants to take action on Syria,” he said. “They are leaving us alone to die.”

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