“It’s been three years since the revolution began. I’m in Saqba, living in constant fear in my home near the station. We tried to flee several times without success. Now, I often hide beneath the bed, only coming out to hug my mother whenever I muster enough courage. I fear that one of us might suddenly die, or that some harm might befall one of my brothers. My friend Mona died; I still can’t believe it. She wanted to be a teacher, she adored children… Oh, my God…”

This is some of what I wrote in my small notebook after the chemical massacre, which claimed thousands of lives.

Six years have passed since then, and I have struggled with these memories. Mona’s face often appears in my dreams, a haunting reminder of her fate. In these dreams, I assure her that I will never forget her, or anyone else. Her image vies with the memories of those who fell victim to the chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta on August 21, 2013. Remembering these events is like carrying an immense burden; it feels as though a mountain weighs upon my chest every time I recall what I witnessed and heard.

As someone who lived through that massacre, my testimony is the only thing I can contribute. I was part of what happened. I realized that remaining silent was akin to complicity in the ongoing horror, and since then, I have been working to break free from both fear and silence. Sharing this story, no matter how much fear it brings, is an impulse I must honor.

In Saqba

We moved to Eastern Ghouta in 2009, and I am still unsure what prompted us to settle there, specifically in Saqba, which would later become the central hub of Ghouta’s revolutionary activity. Before the revolution, Saqba’s population was just over thirty-six thousand, making it a small town. However, it was renowned as one of Syria’s major centers for furniture and home furnishings, providing a significant source of income for many of its residents. The town was also known for its fertile agricultural lands.

At first, I felt out of place there. The town seemed narrow and its people alien to me. These feelings, however, vanished a few months after the revolution began. Saqba was among the first areas to witness anti-regime protests, and we had some truly remarkable, beautiful days filled with dreams of freedom, justice, and retribution against tyranny. We basked in this freedom for days, even months – and I felt thankful to fate for bringing me to this town, making me one of its own and a witness to one of the greatest revolutions, as well as one of the most atrocious crimes.

Living in Saqba brought me closer to its community, especially the students, teachers, and staff of Saqba Girls’ Secondary School. A revolutionary bond grew between us, which swiftly dissolved any feelings of alienation and loneliness I had. I was seventeen when we started participating in demonstrations, which we organized collectively and covertly. These demonstrations weren’t mere gatherings or chants; they held deeper meanings for each of us. There was Nour, protesting for her father who was arrested by the regime, and Manal, who felt a newfound sense of responsibility after her two brothers joined the Free Army in late 2011. We were all united in our stand against the various injustices that we faced.

I recall how the spark of our resistance ignited during a qawmiyah class – a mandatory course on Baathist nationalism. We collectively boycotted the class, refusing to engage with the curriculum or listen to the pro-regime teacher. Some of the girls drew caricatures and plastered them on the classroom walls. Our activities weren’t endorsed by the school principal at the time. In fact, she reprimanded many of us and attempted to thwart our participation in any protests. Whether her stance stemmed from concern for our safety or from her outright rejection of the revolution, I can’t say for sure. But what stands out in my memory is how we, high school girls, raised our voices in those demonstrations. I remember holding hands with my friend Mona, leaving school to join the protests, and arriving at the Association Square. We dispersed quickly, either out of fear of our families, or due to the threat of a sudden missile strike or an unexpected raid by the regime’s security forces (who could no longer move freely in our rebellious town, and so resorted to abrupt attacks with army support.) However, their capability to conduct such raids diminished once the Free Army gained more control over Saqba and its surroundings.

Life took a harsher turn due to relentless bombings from planes and mortars. The brutality peaked on November 18, 2012, with a massacre executed by a regime MIG plane. This attack resulted in the deaths of dozens of Saqba residents and the collapse of over eight buildings, crushing the inhabitants inside. This remains one of the most harrowing scenes etched in my memory. Those days were rife with atrocities, despair, loss of life, and moments that made one feel as if they were departing this world. Thoughts haunted me during my final months in Saqba, thoughts like “My head will be severed, my heart will burst, my limbs will scatter, and I will be reduced to nothing but bones…” I miraculously left Saqba and all of Eastern Ghouta in November 2013, two months after the chemical massacre, leaving behind our home, families, and loved ones buried in rubble or doomed to perish from bombings, starvation, and the ensuing siege. I left behind a world destined to endure struggles until its last breath.

The MIG plane massacre was the most violent and ruthless, in my opinion. I often wondered, what could be more cruel than buildings crashing down on those living inside? Yet, when the chemical massacre took place, it unveiled levels of brutality far beyond anything I could have previously conceived.

That Ill-Omened Wednesday

In the days leading up to the massacre, there was a significant increase in bombings across Eastern Ghouta, particularly in areas like Zamalka, Jobar, Saqba, and Ain Tarma. Opposition factions reported that they were resisting the regime’s efforts to advance, intrude, and fragment Ghouta. The battlefronts were ablaze, and the humanitarian situation in Saqba deteriorated rapidly due to the loss of electricity and communication networks, severe shortages of food and medicine, and skyrocketing prices. This was exacerbated by the regime’s intentional targeting of bread ovens in Eastern Ghouta, turning a simple loaf of bread into a distant dream for many families.

We found ourselves adapting to circumstances we never thought humanly possible. Anyone who took shelter in Eastern Ghouta, enduring the bitterness of hardship and hunger, would not be at all surprised to imagine a day when chemical-laden missiles might rain down upon us.

It wasn’t even five in the morning: we were trying to sleep, but the skies over Saqba were alive with the sounds of missiles and circling planes, along with the reverberating echoes of gunfire piercing through the walls of our home. Suddenly, we heard my father’s voice, yelling, fraught with panic. Rushing outside, we saw him visibly shaken, his breaths growing shorter. Despite his usual eloquence and coherence, he was struggling to articulate what was unfolding. All he managed to say was, “They’re dying from suffocation. We’re all going to die. The criminal… the…” and then he added, “Zamalka is being obliterated.”

The full picture was unclear to us at the time. We were accustomed to hearing about unusual deaths, and the familiar sounds of activity on bombing days, as people scrambled to recover the martyrs and save whoever they could. Only a few hours later did we come to understand that the regime had launched missiles equipped with chemical warheads at parts of Eastern Ghouta, particularly targeting Zamalka and the outskirts of Ain Tarma.

We were at a loss about what to do next: should we resign ourselves to what seemed like inevitable death, scream out in terror, or rush to offer help? I remember hearing an elderly man say, “Saqba’s turn will come too. We’ll be gasping for air like animals. Who cares about us? Certainly not America, not anyone…”

His words echoed in my ears for a long time. My mother told me there was a moment when I seemed to have died; my face and lips turned blue, and my blood seemed to have frozen in my veins. Yet, somehow, I revived, and to this day, I don’t understand my intense will to live despite the harshness of life. With no electricity or television, we were cut off from the world. It wasn’t until some of my father’s friends arrived that we began to understand the gravity of the situation. One of them, with tears in his eyes, said to us, “Get dressed, uncle… get dressed.” We were, of course, already dressed, but what he meant was that we should prepare ourselves, dress in the clothes in which we would meet our Creator.

We performed ablution, then put on our clothes and draped our prayer garments over them.

My family, along with some relatives and neighbors, sat in a state of utter astonishment and helplessness. Sounds of the outside world filtered in: the wailing of ambulances, the murmurs of men congregating at every corner, each sharing their unique accounts of the unfolding events.

I distinctly recall the expression on the face of our downstairs neighbor as she carried her daughter in one arm and some food in the other. She climbed up to the roof, gazing out at the world from a distance. Her face seemed to bear the entire weight and desolation of the world, reflecting a total loss of hope. She confided in us, saying, “I can’t bear the thought of seeing my daughter in agony and convulsions. If it comes to that, I’ll have no choice but to throw both her and myself off this roof.”

Despite hearing about it, we didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the tragedy until we saw it on mobile screens. Taking photographs was a challenge then, as communication networks were down and there was hardly enough electricity to keep devices charged. Moreover, transferring video clips via Bluetooth was a time-consuming process.

Among those who visited our home was Uncle Abu Fadi, who worked at a field hospital in Hamouriya. He hadn’t been to Zamalka himself, but he mentioned receiving hundreds of suffocation cases from the affected areas. The regions of Ghouta were united in their suffering: injustice, hunger, the loss of loved ones, and a grim acclimatization to death, so much so that we said our goodbyes daily, fearing each day might be our last. Medical centers in Arbin, Hamouriya, Douma, and Saqba were overwhelmed with thousands of sarin gas victims, brought in carloads from Zamalka and Ain Tarma.

Many of the affected individuals didn’t survive, and for those who did, continuous monitoring was necessary to alleviate the effects of the deadly sarin gas they had inhaled. However, the dire situation made it nearly impossible to follow up on these survivors. The magnitude of the disaster had overwhelmed the capacity of Ghouta’s medical facilities. Uncle Abu Fadi described the scene, saying, “I swear, it’s like a slaughterhouse. Cars are constantly loading people from Zamalka, hastily unloading them, and then rushing back to fetch more.”

The medical centers in Ghouta were ill-equipped to handle such an influx of patients. There was a critical shortage, sometimes even a complete absence, of atropine injections and inhalers needed for treating sarin exposure. Often, all that could be done was to provide basic first aid and attempt to mitigate the gas’s effects, such as dousing the victims with water or placing onions under their noses. These measures did manage to save many lives, even in instances where death might have seemed a kinder fate. One such case was an elderly man who, after losing his entire family and six grandchildren, survived but was left blind.

At that time, we heard the account of a man who narrowly survived. He was part of a medical team, including a driver and four paramedics, that rushed to one of the targeted sites right after the attack. Three of them succumbed to the poisonous gas, leaving only him and one other as survivors. He recounted the scenes he saw: hundreds of children who never woke up from their sleep that night, elderly individuals found lifeless while still kneeling on their prayer rugs, mothers who desperately carried their children to higher floors in search of breathable air, only to be overtaken by death. He described a scene reminiscent of the Day of Resurrection, with people running through darkened streets before collapsing like fallen leaves on the sidewalks and roads, and rescuers unable to rescue themselves.

That day, the cemeteries in Saqba were overwhelmed, unable to accommodate all the martyrs brought for burial. The number of unidentified children exceeded those buried with their families. Many were laid to rest nameless and unknown; no-one knew who they were, so they were assigned numbers instead: Girl No. 1, Child No. 3, and so on.

In the wake of the massacre, the windows of homes across most Saqba neighborhoods stayed shut for many long nights. The following days were filled with a deep-seated loathing for everything around us. We despised ourselves, the air we breathed, the water we drank. Everything seemed to echo back the details of that horrific massacre. Yet, in the midst of all this, a sense of solidarity emerged, transcending the devastation, the killings, and our feelings of helplessness. Just a few days later, chants began to rise again, and several demonstrations were held in Saqba, condemning the massacre.

Fear permeated everything in the aftermath. Our fear wasn’t just of death itself, but the terror of becoming unrecognizable corpses. Several questions haunted us: Where would I be buried? To which center would my body be taken? Would there be anyone left to save? Many contemplated fleeing the area, but this seemed nearly impossible and akin to suicide, given the relentless bombings and raging battles on Ghouta’s frontlines.

Our hearts were heavy with the fear of the unknown, and our daily routine morphed into training ourselves to defy death, to withstand the cruel gas we had dreaded and feared might catch us off guard. Rumors circulated, warning of the crushing defeat awaiting what was left of Eastern Ghouta. We heard about the celebrations among elements of Assad’s army, rejoicing over the deaths in Ghouta. This, coupled with the news that the regime would face no repercussions for crossing the “red lines” set by Obama, extinguished all our appeals and hopes. We prepared ourselves to endure any further atrocities the brutal regime might inflict upon us.

After hearing the countless stories, many residents of upper-floor apartments opened their doors to those living in basements and lower levels. Our homes became stocked with protective masks, onions, vinegar, and homemade remedies whose exact compositions I can’t recall – a mix of vinegar and other common household materials. Paramedics instructed us on how to mitigate the effects of toxic gas and provide first aid to someone experiencing seizures.

In the face of death’s constant threat, we grew closer and more united. After the horrific event, women stopped sleeping in nightgowns; instead, they slept with their veils wrapped around their heads, ready to meet God at any moment. I vividly remember families praying for a merciful death – bloodshed rather than suffocation; not witnessing the convulsions and twitches of their children. They prayed for a swift end by shell or missile, one that would spare one the agony of a slow death. It might be hard to believe, but such prayers became a frequent occurrence.

Today, I write about a wound that continues to bleed within my soul and memory. I sigh at those harrowing days, as I reflect on everyone who perished from suffocation near me. I dedicate my words to Mona, my classmate, and to the memories of our wooden classroom chairs. Each letter I pen is a tribute to her, her soul, and the dreams that were interred alongside her. I write to honor the courage she instilled in me and to commemorate all the victims of that horrific massacre. My writing serves as a defiance against oblivion, ensuring that the tragedies weighing heavily on my memory are not forgotten, and neither is the criminal responsible for these heinous acts.