The head of the largest medical relief agency in Syria claims that medics who responded to the suspected gas attack in Douma have been subjected to “extreme intimidation” by Syrian officials who seized biological samples, forced them to abandon patients and demanded their silence.
Dr Ghanem Tayara, the director of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) said doctors responsible for treating patients in the hours after the 7 April attack have been told that their families will be at risk if they offer public testimonies about what took place.
A number of doctors who spoke to the Guardian this week say the intimidation from the regime has increased in the past five days, a timeframe that coincides with the arrival in Damascus of a team from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which aims to determine whether chemical weapons were used. All the medics insisted on anonymity, citing the fear for their lives and those of their families.
“They were looking through their WhatsApp messages and phones. The doctors were treated abusively and have been threatened ever since. Their families have been threatened that they will pay a price and they themselves have told they will be arrested, and much more if they give any evidence, or interviews about what happened in Douma.”
Testimonies of first responders and witnesses are crucial to building a picture of what took place in Douma around 7.30pm on 7 April when, in the middle of a prolonged series of airstrikes, medics in the area say they were overrun by patients, many of whom displayed symptoms of exposure to a nerve agent.
“We hadn’t seen anything like that in Douma,” Tayara said. “We knew what chlorine did, but these were convulsions, foaming and something that had affected the central nervous system.” He said he thought the death toll was higher than previous estimates of between 40 and 70.
A former senior officer in the Syrian military chemical weapons programme, Brig Zaher al-Saket, who deserted in 2013, said Douma residents he worked with had buried close to 50 bodies in an undisclosed site in the area, hoping that they could be eventually recovered and used to confirm suspicions that some form of nerve agent was used in the attack.
The OPCW has been racing against the clock to collect samples from the site of the attack, a three-storey house in Douma, in which scores of people died in a basement. Jerry Smith, who helped supervise the OPCW-led withdrawal of much of Syria’s sarin stockpile in 2013, said samples of nerve agent rapidly degrade in normal environmental conditions.
A cylinder of the type used by the Syrian military to drop chlorine remains on the roof of the building, multiple witnesses have said. The Russian military and Syrian officers have had access to the house since last Thursday, raising fears that the site may have been tampered with. However, Smith said it was likely that residual samples of nerve agent would remain for at least another week, even after an attempted clean-up.
Medics and survivors who have remained in Douma, and others who have fled for northern Syria, ridiculed competing claims that the attack either did not take place, or did not use gas. In the hours after the attack, the main opposition militia surrendered. Since then, tens of thousands of locals have been exiled to northern Syria, and the Syrian military has taken full control of the area.
Abu Walid, a survivor of the attack, whose pregnant wife and only son died, said: “I saw my son coughing. I told him pull it together and run up the stairs. I grabbed my wife and ran after him. Next thing I recall was someone opening and closing my eyelids and dousing me with water. For five hours I lost consciousness, and had no idea where I was. They told me a chemical attack took place, they told me I lost my wife and son and everybody else was martyred. I told them I wish you didn’t rescue me.”
Some doctors have appeared on Syrian television to deny that anything took place in Douma. A doctor who spoke to the Guardian said: “Our colleagues who appeared on television were coerced, because some hadn’t served in the military or completed their degree, and for other reasons, some had family in Damascus. They decided to stay in exchange for being reconciled with the regime. But the regime used them.”
Another medic who treated victims said: “Anyone who has knowledge of what happened cannot testify. What was being said is that the medical centres would be destroyed on top of those working in it.
“The testimony of people under pressure cannot be relied on. Imagine if you spoke out while under the control of those that you were speaking out against, what will your fate be?”
Another doctor said: “We were receiving threats since the siege began, prior to the chemical weapons attack. When the attack took place, things became much more dangerous. They’re wiping out evidence that would prove the crime, and they are forcing doctors and residents who are witnesses to say that nothing took place.”