Gaziantep, Turkey—Forty seconds is a lifetime. That’s about the time it takes for a barrel bomb to fall to earth after it has been dropped from a Syrian regime helicopter, some 7,000 feet above ground. “It’s a very long period time to know if you will live or not,” Mohamad Katoub, a dentist and medical worker with the Syrian American Medical Society, told me in their office space, just miles from the Syrian border.
The crude explosives, which have become the symbol of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s targeting of rebel-held areas, are typically oil drums loaded with shrapnel and explosives. But after the regime agreed to relinquish its stockpiles of sarin gas, a chemical weapon it used on suburbs of Damascus in August 2013, killing hundreds in a matter of hours, it began putting chlorine gas in barrel bombs instead. Though less lethal than sarin, in concentrated doses chlorine can cause burning of the eyes and throat, difficulty breathing, pulmonary edema, and even death. Despite being illegal under international law when used as a weapon, a recent report by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a medical aid group, found that “barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas were used systematically in civilian areas of opposition-held territories beginning in 2014.”
All told, SAMS found that there have been 161 confirmed reports of chemical attacks in Syria from the beginning of the conflict to the end of 2015, with another 133 attacks reported but unconfirmed. Nearly 15,000 Syrians have been victims of chemical attacks, and some 1,500 have died. As the civil war in Syria enters its fifth year, a temporary cease-fire between the Syrian government and its opposition appears to have ended the chemical attacks, for now, as the United States and Russia continue to broker peace negotiations. (Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accused Syria of using chlorine days after the cease-fire went into effect, though his account has not been confirmed.) Although ISIS and Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front are both exempt from the cease-fire, and the fragility of the agreement has left many in the country worried about what will come next, the slow in fighting has provided medical workers and response teams an opportunity to reflect on what the systematic use of chemical weapons has done to the Syrian people.
In an interview, Mohamad Katoub described his work since the earliest days of the uprising. Though he’s been based in Gaziantep since May of 2014, he was in a hospital in a suburb of Damascus when the regime unleashed the August 2013 sarin gas attack that horrified the world and nearly spurred the US to launch a bombing campaign in response. Beyond the obvious horrors of experiencing or witnessing a chemical attack, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, Katoub said that the attacks have other effects, like generating false alarms that perpetuate panic and stretch the limited resources of response teams. Many areas don’t have adequate waste management, Katoub explained, so people burn their trash. “Sometimes maybe the rubbish has a tire in it, or something—a different smell from usual,” he said. When that happens, people “will be afraid—many times we receive false calls” reporting chemical attacks.