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With Failing Lungs, Survivor Of Suspected Chemical Attack In Syria Tells Her Story


We're about to hear the voice of a victim from the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this month. This is the attack that prompted U.S. airstrikes. Victims have now made their way to refugee camps in remote parts of Syria. And NPR's Ruth Sherlock went into the country after getting rare permission from Turkish officials to cross the border. Ruth met a woman whose lungs are failing but who managed to tell her story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The sick and the wounded of Douma crowd the entrance of a half-destroyed concrete building at the edge of a refugee camp in northern Syria. Thin and pale, some hold babies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We're walking inside a makeshift clinic. It's really just an abandoned home with no light.

There we find patient Amani on the only bed. She's in her mid-30s, veiled all in black and looks terrified as she tells the doctor it hurts her to breathe. The doctor, a young woman in a white coat, says Amani's lungs were damaged in the apparent chemical attack on Douma two weeks ago. She gives Amani an injection.


LAMA AL-ARIAN, BYLINE: Infection medication.

SHERLOCK: But Amani's condition is getting worse, so she's being sent to hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She has to wait for a car to take her, so we walk back through the rain to her tent. Still scared, she asks us not to use her full name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Inside, she talks about the time she spent in Douma under siege.

AMANI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says the years of war have already taken a toll on her health. Our news assistant Lama al-Arian interprets.

AL-ARIAN: She's saying she feels extremely tired. She's very sick. When her house was bombed, there was a lot of dust that was coming into her lungs as well as smell of the dead bodies.

AMANI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says the chemical attack preyed on her already weak lungs. As she talks about it, she breaks down.

AMANI: (Crying).

SHERLOCK: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

AMANI: (Crying).

SHERLOCK: On the night of the attack, the family was hiding in the basement.

AMANI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Amani says she felt her throat close up as the gas started to come in. She says it was as though she was fighting death, and all she had was a makeshift remedy.

AMANI: (Speaking Arabic).

AL-ARIAN: When you're in a chemical attack, you start suffocating. You're just dying to breathe. She said, "if I didn't have the cotton that had the water drops on top of it, my fate would have been with God."

SHERLOCK: Amani's account is consistent with the other eyewitnesses we spoke with. They all talk of a chlorine gas attack. The U.S. government says it has proof this was done by the regime, but that hasn't been established by independent investigators.

There were other horrific things happening that night in Douma. Across town, Amani's sister Amal was trying to survive conventional airstrikes. Amal sits with us now in the tent.

AMAL: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says there was supposed to be a cease-fire in place, but the bombardment by the government was like nothing she'd seen in all of the war.

AMAL: (Speaking Arabic).

AL-ARIAN: In her neighborhood, every other house was bombed. She would see people running in the streets without any headscarves on, without any clothes on at times, covered in complete dust because their houses had fallen on top of them.

SHERLOCK: As we're talking, Amani's 7-year-old twin daughters Masa and Malaz come into the tent.

Two little girls - hi. She's shaking my hand. How are you - a lovely red sweater that says love on it.

MALAZ: (Speaking Arabic) Malaz.

SHERLOCK: (Speaking Arabic).

MASA: Masa.


AL-ARIAN: (Speaking Arabic) Masa.

SHERLOCK: These girls have only ever known a life of war. Amani says during the siege, they couldn't even go outside.

AMANI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She tried to distract them with toys. Masa puts on my headphones, and we play by talking into the mike.

(Speaking Arabic).

MASA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: I tell her she's a journalist now.

MASA: (Laughter).

SHERLOCK: (Speaking Arabic).

MASA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "No," she replies. "I want to be a doctor so I can help in a chemical attack." For now, though, Masa and Malaz can go nowhere. With just a few toys, their whole life is in this tent, and their mother is being sent away to a hospital. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, northern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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