'He doesn't see us as human': Survivor describes horror of Syrian chemical attack

Abdulhamit Al Yousif and his son woke up last week to the sound of planes passing over. The pair, who live in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikoun, had heard those sounds before and though they didn't imagine a chemical attack, he said, word spread quickly to run for cover.

23-year-old Nejdet Al Yousif says 'people started vomiting, foaming at the mouth, fainting'

Nejdet Al Yousif lives in Khan Sheikoun, Syria, site of last week's deadly chemical attack. (Nil Koksal/CBC)

Nejdet Al Yousif said he thinks it was a technique a friend mentioned in passing that helped save him. If ever there is a chemical attack, the friend had said, douse a rag with cola and cover your face. These are the kinds of conversations you have when home is a war zone.

Al Yousif and his family live in Syria's Idlib province. Their town, Khan Sheikoun, was the site of the deadly chemical attack last Tuesday.

The 23-year-old held his hand to his nose as he described what the attack smelled and felt like.

"It was a strange smell," he said. His eyes began to blur and "people started vomiting, foaming at the mouth, fainting."

His wife, who is eight months pregnant, and his father Abdulhamit, were also caught up in the toxic fumes.

They were rushed across the border to Turkish hospitals for treatment.

Speaking from his hospital bed in Iskenderun, Turkey, last Saturday, Abdulhamit Al Yousif's upper lip quivered as he recounted his experience.

They woke up to the sounds of planes passing over, the elder Al Yousif said through a translator. They'd heard those sounds before and though they didn't imagine a chemical attack, he said, word spread quickly to run for cover.

Abdulhamit Al Yousif was treated at a hospital in Turkey after being caught up in the gas attack on Khan Sheikoun, Syria, last week. (Nil Koksal/CBC)

He says 28 members of his extended family did not survive the attack, a number CBC News couldn't independently confirm. When asked why he thinks his town was a target, the elder Al Yousif said of Bashar al-Assad, "there's no power standing in his way. He doesn't see us as human, he sees us as terrorists." Idlib is rebel-held territory, but Al Yousif said he is a farmer and that his son was a student before the war.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is looking into the attack, which killed over 80 people.

The United States and the U.K.'s UN ambassador have said that Assad's government was behind the attack, saying he used sarin gas on his own people. Turkish officials say autopsy results on three victims who were brought to Turkey for treatment prove that chemical weapons were used.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad's government has denied responsibility for the attack. (SANA via Reuters)

But Russia and the Syrian government claim they did not launch an attack on Syrian civilians, with both countries at times saying there was an explosion at an Al-Qaeda site that housed chemical weapons.

To that, Nejdet Al Yousif shakes his head. "If there was a chemical depot there, would we keep our kids there? Are we that stupid?"

Tensions over the attack and the U.S. retaliatory strike are mounting, and Russia on Wednesday vetoed a UN resolution that would have condemned the attack and pushed Assad to co-operate with inquiries.

The father and son, meanwhile, said they welcomed the U.S. airstrikes on Syria.

"That's what it has come to," Abdulhamit Al Yousif said, "that we welcome a foreign power attacking us." 

But he wants the U.S. and the UN to do more. "If a president will do this to his own people," he said of Assad, "powers like the U.S. should be more effective."

And what about concerns of the divisions in the country, that Assad's departure would leave a power vacuum? Who could come next?

Abudlhamit was adamant, "Whoever comes into power, they can't be as bad as him," he said.

His son agreed. "Our only hope is Assad's end," he said.

Al Yousif says if Assad will target his own people 'powers like the U.S. should be more effective.' (Nil Koksal/CBC)


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.