"The night I saw death"

By Justin Byworth, World Vision United Kingdom CEO

“Death. That night I saw death,” were the first devastating words eight-year-old Tasnim said to me.

Sitting in the sparsely furnished tent that is now home to Tasnim, four of her siblings, her mother Rawda and uncle Kindeh since fleeing Syria less than a month ago, Tasnim fixes me with an intense stare and explains she wants me to hear her “one million per cent true” story of surviving the massacre at Ghouta on the night of 21 August 2013, the chemical attack that shocked the world.

These are the words of one ordinary family caught up in the agonies of war, without elaboration, interpretation or judgement.  

Kindeh, Tasnim’s uncle, began the awful tale: “We all lived in Ghouta until less than a month ago. I was working on a construction site in Damascus, passing through the government checkpoints every day. When I didn’t give the guard money for Malboro cigarettes he hit me with his gun.”

“No bread or flour or rice was allowed to enter Ghouta for three months. Only women were allowed into Damascus to buy any food at all, but when I brought bread the guard threw it on the ground, stamped on it and told me ‘now you can take it’. If I complained he would beat me too,” continued Rawda.

They said that one bag of bread cost one bullet.

“The guards started using bags of bread instead of sandbags around their checkpoint, just to humiliate us. They said that one bag of bread cost one bullet. So we were afraid like this for three months before the massacre. We lived by picking whatever fruit or vegetables we could find in Ghouta.”

“It had become normal for planes to throw bombs and fire on our homes. Even in Ramadan, bombs were falling every two or three hours. My husband died but I cannot even say to the officials that he was killed by a bomb or I could be hit or put in prison, so I told them it was a car accident.

“That night there were planes dropping bombs as usual. At 1 am we heard bombs but the sound was strange. The second time at 3 am we heard them again and then we heard cars driving around and people calling for help. Many people started getting out of their homes and finding places to hide – like the tunnels and underground shelters we often used. But the chemical weapons are heavy and they fall down to the lowest places, so those in the tunnels and shelters were not safe.”

Mariam lost 17 members of her family in the chemical weapon attack in Ghouta. She was already in Lebanon when the tragic news reached her. Photo by Patricia Mouamar

“At 4 am we noticed people starting to have saliva coming out of their mouths and many were dying. Some who helped others during attacks took microphones and drove around telling people, ‘It’s chemical weapons – watch out.’ There are a few nurses or doctors in Ghouta who know something about chemical weapons, they had told us ‘if one drop explodes in the air it can kill 500 people’.”

“There are four main neighbourhoods in Ghouta where many people died. Some didn’t wake up and died while they were sleeping, others died in the shelters and tunnels. My brother was a first aider, he and his son were helping in Zamalka neighbourhood where many people died. They knew it was chemical weapons, so they took some clothes, poured coca cola on them and put charcoal between the layers. The Free Syrian Army had given us instructions on what to do if there was a chemical attack. We heard people telling others to watch out over their walkie-talkies.”

“The people who survived are those who made their own masks, using cups, clothes, charcoal, coke. Some tried to hide their face in sand, some hid their babies’ faces in the soil.”

I was transfixed with horror, listening to her words. 

“Our home was in an area where less people died. We covered our faces and stayed in the upper levels of our house. We were affected but our lives were safe. We were dizzy, had headaches, tears in our eyes, vomiting and the nerves in our arms and legs felt loose.  Everything was blurry. We couldn’t eat for two days.”

As I sit transfixed in horror by the words I’m hearing, Rawa gestures her hands in the air. “How many people do you think died?” she asks me. I shake my head as she says: “I can tell you it is many more than you and the world know. The international inspectors were allowed free entry to some areas and they were able to do a good investigation. In other neighbourhoods the regime prevented the inspection, they didn’t really know everything that happened. When they left it was worse. The Syrian regime threw more bombs and fires than ever before, it was terrible, worse than a horror movie. One week later we left and escaped to Lebanon”.

She collapses into tears as she trails off, “My two older sons are still there.”

As she weeps Kindeh picks up the story again: “The biggest disaster is the hunger. People in Ghouta have nothing to eat, they are dying of hunger. There are injured people without help. You come from a big country with power – tell me is this right?”

Justin Byworth visits with Syrian refugee families in southern Lebanon. Photo by Patricia Mouamar

“Death. Destruction. Ambulances. Fear."

I don’t know how to answer him. The entire time the adults have been talking little Tasnim hasn’t taken her gaze away from me. Finally she gets her turn to speak. When she does her voice is calm, unwavering, speaking words no child should ever have to. “Death. Destruction. Ambulances. Fear. No food, no bread. We barely ate. I saw dead bodies. Pieces of bombs in the streets. We moved from place to place to stay alive. That night I saw death. Little children dead. People crying everywhere because they had lost a family member. I was so afraid, I started to cry.”

“Thank God I’m not afraid now like I was. But I am afraid that something will happen to the people in Ghouta. We’ve been here in Lebanon for 20 days. I miss my brothers. We don’t have much news about them.”

Rawda explains: “These days in September we normally buy clothes for our children to go back to school. It’s been two years since they’ve been to school, now we have nothing for them. The boys play with sticks as guns, for them war has become a game.”

Again her grief stops her and Kindeh takes over, “Tell our story. Tell it as it is. This is reality. Please help us. Winter is coming. We have nothing except the few things you see in this tent.”

I will tell their story. And World Vision, the charity of which I am Chief Executive, will help them and others like them. But as I turn to sleep tonight my mind will be filled with images from inside their small, faded khaki UNHCR tent at the end of a long day in the Bekaa valley. It is a valley filled with tents, each one filled with Syrian families, all of them desperately in need of food, water and basic essentials.

There are so many stories and the need is overwhelming agencies like us. 

We are doing what we can but we desperately need funds to do more. But tonight I am left with the memory of Kindeh dropping his head into his hands as he recalls his brother, Rawda’s husband, dying; Rawda’s conviction and her raw grief and fear for her sons still stuck in Damascus; the clear, calm faces of Tasnim, her teenage sisters Nour and Bayan and little brothers Khosay and Mohamed; and the way my Lebanese colleague Sandy quietly passed Tasnim a tissue as she fumbled for one up the sleeve of her jumper amidst her tears.

Tonight all I can do is pray that somehow that little Tasnim may somehow sleep and dream in peace.