Pope and international community condemn gas attack on civilians in Douma
Last Saturday, 42 people were killed and hundreds injured in what appears to have been a toxic gas attack on the besieged town of Douma on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. According to activist groups, helicopters dropped barrel bombs filled with toxic gas on the town. Rescue workers said the victims showed symptoms consistent with exposure to an organophosphorus compound including suffocation, central cyanosis (a bluish discolouration of the skin), foaming at the mouth, corneal burns and the emission of a chlorine-like odour. Rescuers were prevented from removing many of those killed from where they had died because of further shelling, the strong smell of toxic gas and the lack of protective gear.
“The wounded arrived at us with expanded irises and loss of motor control; many were suffocating because of the high concentration of the gas … A lot of cases arrived too late. We sent some rescue workers to save people and four of them came back because they also suffocated, and we treated them as victims. The situation is very bad,” said a member of local medical staff. A local journalist described harrowing scenes of confusion and terror as hysterical families fled from nearby bombing to an underground medical centre. He said when he arrived at the medical point he saw “people walking around in a daze, not knowing what to do, women weeping, everyone covering themselves with blankets, and the nurses running from victim to victim. There were entire families on the floor covered in blankets, and there was around 40 dead in shrouds lying between the families.” Worldwide condemnation followed news of the chemical attack, which is thought to have killed dozens of civilians, including many children. The attack on Saturday evening was the latest in a string of alleged chemical attacks in the enclave of eastern Ghouta, which has in the past been attacked with chlorine and sarin gas. On Sunday, after celebrating Mass in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis deplored the reported gas attack as an unjustifiable use of “instruments of extermination”, saying“There is no such thing as a good war and a bad war. Nothing, but nothing, can justify the use of such instruments of extermination on defenceless people and populations.”
Saturday’s gas attack came after a brief ceasefire that was meant to create the conditions for a deal negotiated by Russia that would forcibly displace tens of thousands of civilians and rebel fighters. However, local rebels insisted that they want to remain in their city, increasing the risks of renewed violence. Douma is the last rebel holdout in eastern Ghouta. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of civilians and rebel fighters left other parts of eastern Ghouta for northern Syria or government-controlled areas after the rebels their negotiated surrender agreements.