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Syrian medical student who treated gas attack victims describes powerful chlorine odor

Kevin G. Hall, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- It was around 4 p.m. on an otherwise quiet afternoon in the Syrian rebel-held city of Douma when the bombs began raining down. Mustafa got to work in the basement of a crumbling building.

He was one of three medical students and eight nurses accompanying a lone doctor in what passed for an emergency room. They worked for 30 straight hours, treating the wounded as they staggered or were carried into the makeshift hospital.

Those 30 hours were just the prelude.

Before the end of Mustafa's second chaotic day in the repurposed basement, Douma was known around the world as the site of an apparent gas attack on civilians. Horrific videos of the aftermath, showing the bodies of victims with white foam seeping from their mouths and nostrils and frightened children with inhalers pressed to their faces, went viral online.

"I will never forget the screaming of the children, how afraid they were. It was a terrifying moment to see all these people suffering so much," said Mustafa, which is a pseudonym. McClatchy agreed to conceal his identity to protect him and his family in Syria.

After the attack became known, President Donald Trump promptly blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia for supporting his regime. For several days threats, between the world's two largest nuclear powers bounced back and forth. Shortly before dawn Saturday in Damascus, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom launched coordinated missile strikes into Syria, hitting a chemical-weapons research facility and two storage sites, according to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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On Saturday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council that was called by Russia, that the United States military was "locked and loaded" to strike again if there's a repeat of the chemical attack.

Meanwhile, first-person stories of the gas attack on Syrian civilians that prompted the week of nervous waiting for a U.S. response have begun to emerge. Mustafa spoke by phone and texts to a Syrian-American doctor who taught medical students, including Mustafa. The doctor spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his family in Syria.

"We were able to gather that it was a chemical attack from the descriptions we received from the injured. They saw yellow smoke, they suffocated, and they've described an overly pungent smell of chlorine," he said. "We have witnessed this before ourselves and remember the strong smell of chlorine. This attack was so strong that the smell of chlorine coming from the patients has made it hard for us to breathe."

The communication with Mustafa came as he was moved to points north with hundreds of other Syrians. They left, he said, on buses belonging to the Syrian government along routes protected partly by Russian air power and military advisers. He and friends provided cellphone photos they said were taken inside the buses.

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