REYHANLI, Turkey — Most of the survivors who were admitted to the state-run hospital in Turkey’s southern border town of Reyhanli don’t remember what happened to them after they heard a loud explosion on the morning of April 4. The bombs dropped by Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s warplanes on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun that morning were laced with a nerve-damaging toxin called sarin, according to the Turkish government.
Omar Hamoud, a 24-year-old fighter from the Free Syrian Army, can vividly recall the moment he was exposed to the deadly gas.
“It’s a strong, overpowering smell,” says Hamoud, who’s receiving medical treatment at the hospital. “The moment it comes to you, something happens to your body. You can't think straight. Your eyes get a bit watery, but the main thing is breathing. You can't breathe.”
It wasn’t the first time Hamoud has experienced a chemical attack, he says. Before the Khan Shaykhun sarin attack, the Syrian regime had used other chemical weapons at least twice in the past few weeks. He said that he survived two chemical attacks in Hama province and one in Idlib.
Assad, the Syrian regime leader, has often been accused of using chemical weapons in the six-year war, especially chlorine gas. A month-and-a-half after Aleppo was recaptured by the forces loyal to him in December 2016, the Human Rights Watch released a report saying chemical weapons were part of the arsenal used to retake the city.
On April 4, at around 5:00 am, Assad regime forces dropped what Hamoud says was a chemical bomb in a city called Souran, which is in the northwestern province of Hama. He survived the attack, and made a hasty escape northwards. At about 6:30 am, regime forces hit the town of Khan Shaykhun in the province of Idlib, killing over 80 people and injuring several hundred. Hamoud was among those hit in Khan Shaykhun as well.
Hamoud explained that the Idlib attack that captured media attention was only part of a broader push by Assad's forces that also affected Hama province, and which involved other chemical attacks, including in Souran.
Technically, there is a ceasefire in place, brokered by Russia, Syria and Iran, that should prevent the warring factions from fighting. That, according to Hamoud, is not happening on the ground.
A gruelling battle had broken out between the regime forces and the opposition in several villages and towns in Hama. In late March, Hamoud says, he was part of the rebel operation that won back control over Souran in Hama. He says the city was captured by an Iranian Shia militia named "Quwat-ul-Khasa" the previous week.
By the evening of April 3, the regime forces engaged with rebels in a treacherous, street-to-street battle and regained control over Souran, he says. “The fight continued all night and by morning we took Mardes [a neighbouring town],” Hamoud says.
Speaking with five years experience as a rebel fighter, he said the regime forces have launched chemical warfare several times in the past to try to reclaim territory when the rebels had won strategic locations.
Indeed, the gas attacks have both physical and psychological impact. Hamoud and his fellow fighters were exhausted from fighting throughout the night, only to face the gas attack in the morning. They held a position in Souran in an abandoned house with graffiti on its walls that read, “Stop fighting or Assad will burn you all.”
“We heard a loud explosion,” he says. “I saw my friends shaking and unable to walk straight. I started to feel dizzy and realised we had been hit by something poisonous.”
Hamoud said that he had suffered a similar attack about a month earlier, when the rebel offensive was at its peak in the quest to take over Souran, and, like most rebels, he knew how to respond to it. He doesn’t remember the exact date of that attack, however.
The key to defending himself against the toxic assaults, he said, lies in Coca Cola or any similar fizzy drink.
“We carry cola bottles in our pouches,” he says, “When the attack happens, we pour them on a piece of cloth and breathe through it. It makes breathing easier.”
On April 4, as he breathed in toxic gas, he and his fellow fighters ran toward a pickup truck. “The driver was unconscious because he didn’t use the cola [to protect his mouth],” he says. “I drove the truck. I looked back; everyone on it had fainted.”
The effect of the gas, he said, was felt across a wide area, spreading around two kilometres in radius. They began to feel better a few kilometres away, after speeding out of the town.
Mahmood al Mahmood, a Syrian doctor currently based in Turkey’s Hatay province, said it is unlikely sarin gas was used in the April 4 Souran attack, and that it was most likely a gas with a sleeping effect, used to send fighters into a state of confusion.
Before moving to Hatay two years ago, Mahmood treated all sorts of war injuries in Aleppo. He says it’s “nearly impossible for someone to not doze off after being hit by a substance like sarin.”
“If it’s sarin gas, no cola drink can save you,” he says.
Syria has been a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention since October 2013. Yet while the nature of the gas used in the Souran attack isn’t clear, the Assad regime forces have been accused of using chemical weapons, including chlorine and mustard gas, on several occasions since the Syrian conflict began.
The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, an NGO based in the Netherlands, has investigated previous allegations and says it has confirmed with a “high degree of confidence” that chlorine and mustard gas have been used in the past.
An hour after fleeing Souran, Hamoud had almost arrived at Bab al Hawa hospital in Khan Shaykhun, where he wanted to take his injured comrades for medical treatment, as well as seeking treatment for himself.
But before they could get there, they were struck by an even worse attack. This time, it was most definitely sarin gas.
At 6:30 am, fighter jets pounded the area with chemical bombs. Hamoud was near the strike area. “I heard the explosion,” he says. “My friends just told me that I was found naked on the street and brought to Turkey in an ambulance.”
Although Hamoud’s account of fighting in Souran and Mardes coincides with some news reports published between March 30 and April 4, there is no mention of the regime forces having used the chemical weapon in the two areas.
On March 30, however, a non-profit named the Syrian American Medical Society did release a report stating “different areas in Latamneh were hit by barrel bombs containing chemical weapons agents, injuring 166 civilians and 7 medical staff.” The village of Latamneh is about 14 kilometres away from Souran.
Out of several hundred injured from the Khan Shaykhun attack on April 4, the serious ones were moved to the state hospital in Reyhanli.
Hamoud was one of them. He says it took him two days to speak. “My jaw had gone numb,” he says.
He is likely to be discharged from the hospital on April 7, and sent back to Syria’s Idlib province soon after. He is heading back to his hometown with more anger against Bashar al Assad. He said he would return to the battlefield.
“They [the Assad regime] chose the morning because the chemical weapons are potent when the sun is not warm yet,” he says. “How can the world not see what’s happening in Syria?”