In the wake of latest chemical attack, Khan Sheikhoun survivors reflect on ‘year of pain and sadness’

AMMAN: In a cluster of crowded displacement camps along Syria’s northern border, one young boy frequently poses a single question to his father.

“Will Bashar strike us with sarin here?” asks eight-year-old Hashem nervously, referring to the Syrian president and a highly toxic nerve agent.

His father, Saad al-Jaber, says he never knows how best to answer. “I go silent,” he says.“No one can be sure what Bashar will do.”

One year ago, al-Jaber’s two young sons survived a sarin attack in the opposition-held, central Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed 90 people, including their mother.  Al-Jaber, 30, was on his way to the farm where he worked at the time of the attack and was not harmed.

Memories of last year’s attack are particularly present for al-Jaber and his sons today, after the Syrian government allegedly used a sarin-like nerve agent in an aerial attack on the city of Douma east of Damascus earlier this month, killing dozens of people.

Khan Sheikhoun residents demonstrate in the city on April 4. Photo courtesy of Baladi News.

Two weeks after the attack on Douma, which prompted retaliatory US-led missile strikes, a team of investigators with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) entered the city on Saturday to collect samples for analysis.

With investigations into yet another alleged gas attack underway, Khan Sheikhoun residents who lived through last year’s attack—and say they still suffer from psychological trauma—worry that international condemnation has done little to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

“It was all for nothing,” says al-Jaber.

‘I didn’t think I could go on’

“Everything in Khan Sheikhoun reminds me of the day of the massacre,” says Abdel Hameed Alyousef, who survived the chemical attack one year ago only to learn that 25 of his relatives, including his wife and nine-month-old twins, had not.

“I didn’t think I could go on,” the 29-year-old says, “but this is what God willed for me: a year of pain and sadness.”

After burying his loved ones in a mass grave one year ago, Alyousef left Idlib for Turkey. In the immediate wake of the attack, most of Khan Sheikhoun’s residents did the same, seeking safety elsewhere in the province or crossing the northern border.

Some 25,000 residents have not returned to the town, according to its local council president Mamoun Maarati. Others “gradually came back” over the past year.

Alyousef could not stay away from Khan Sheikhoun for long, he says. One month after departing, he returned to be with his family.

“I couldn’t leave their graves,” he says.

Regular visits to the mass grave where Alyousef’s children, wife and siblings are buried helps him cope with his loss, he says. He speaks to the dead, telling them about life in their absence.

And he waits for closure.

“I’m living with no goal other than to see Bashar al-Assad in court,” the farmer says, “and for justice to be served.”

Amid the international outcry that followed the April 4, 2017 Khan Sheikhoun attack—for which the Syrian government denies responsibility—United States president Donald Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk missile strikes on a military airfield in Syria’s Homs province, destroying approximately 20 planes.

“It was a farce,” says Dr. Hazem, a medical official with the Khan Sheikhoun Local Council who treated victims of the attack. “The planes returned to bomb us.” Hazem asked that his full name not be published, fearing repercussions for relatives in government-held territory.

Conventional airstrikes hit Khan Sheikhoun less than 24 hours after the US strikes. And over the course of the following year, the bombings continued despite a Turkish- and Russian-backed de-escalation zone that was implemented in the rebel-held northwest.

Then, reports of chemical weapon use returned as a string of suspected chlorine strikes hit the former rebel stronghold of East Ghouta, followed by the gas attack on April 7 that killed dozens.

“Regardless of the international threats, Bashar went and bombed East Ghouta,” says Khan Sheikhoun resident Jamal Maarouf, who returned to the town in July 2017 after initially fleeing north. “It’s as if he’s saying: ‘No one will hold me accountable, just watch.’”

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Abdel Hameed Alyousef visits the gravesite in Khan Sheikhoun where his wife and children are buried on March 31. Photo courtesy of Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images.

The Assad government and its Russian ally reject accusations of chemical weapon use, claiming that the Douma attack was staged.

The Douma attack provoked yet another round of retaliatory strikes on April 13, this time against three Syrian government targets and conducted by the US, France and the United Kingdom.

“Mission Accomplished!” President Trump tweeted the next morning.

‘Everyone was affected’

As news of the Douma attack spread earlier this month, photos and videos appeared on social media, revealing the lifeless bodies of men, women and children scattered across floors, foam at their mouths.

For Khan Sheikhoun residents, the images were a visceral reminder of what they lived through one year ago.

“I didn’t sleep that night,” says agricultural worker Alyousef, who heard about the attack in the displacement camp where he lives with his sons. “It was as if I was reliving the same situation, impact and suffering.”

“I felt I was there alongside them,” he says.

Although some of the physical symptoms of the Khan Sheikhoun attack—which included temporary paralysis, difficulty breathing and blurred vision—have faded, the psychological impact remains, says medical official Hazem.

“People are suffering from severe psychological trauma accompanied by despair and hopelessness,” Hazem says.

There are no trained psychiatrists in Khan Sheikhoun, and no accurate documentation of the number of people struggling with trauma, he adds. But “everyone was affected in one way or another.”

“To this day, my children wake up at night crying,” says displaced resident al-Jaber. “We feel like we’re suffocating,” they say.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.