August 21, 2016

Artino, on the anniversary of the Sarin chemical attack he photographed

3 years ago today, 1,347* people in were killed in Eastern Ghouta in a sarin gas attack from the Syrian regime. Artino, a war photographer, rushed to the scene. This is his story. [Artino now works for The Syria Campaign].

“My pictures of the attack were used around the world and today they will be used again to mark the ‘anniversary’. This is wrong – we do not need one day every year for sadness and then we forget about it again. We need accountability and protection.

I first heard about the attack from my friends on Facebook around 1AM. I had already been injured three times reporting on the sieges in the Ghouta and needed sticks to walk, so I couldn’t travel alone and had to wait until the early morning to leave. A friend picked me up on his motorbike and we went to Zamalka, one of the towns that was hit.

We got there and it was like hell. People were running, screaming in the streets and nobody knew what happened – people were trying to use water to treat it but that did nothing.

We went to a field hospital and hundreds of affected people kept coming in. There were so many that doctors could barely check pulses – ‘he’s dead’ – and then they had to move on. Many of those still alive were hallucinating, this is one of the effects of sarin gas. I remember one little girl turning scared to her mother saying, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’. I can still see her mother smiling but with fear in her eyes.

I was in shock, crying and shaking too but I was also trained from the front lines and knew I had to help. I spoke to people and took their pictures because even in that chaos, I knew the world needed to see this.

A friend of mine also knew this, that we needed to show this to people, so he brought me to the room of the dead. From the screams of the hospital I went into this quiet room and I couldn’t understand, why all these people, all these babies in pyjamas were just lying there sleeping. As a photographer, I see in shots and I started to see more detail, frame by frame in my mind.

‘Why are they silent?’ – then the shock, the realization as I saw the dark blue skin, the twisted mouths. I started to shake and cry again and had to leave the room. The chaos of hundreds of people panicking was better than the quiet of the room. I couldn’t handle the silence of death, the families dead in pyjamas.

After this, I left and uploaded my photos and tried to come back to help but I was overexposed to the gas and I collapsed. Even from just being near people in the attack, I could hardly breathe and my eyes were swollen and blurry.

I am a photographer, my job is to tell the story and afterwards I had lots of requests for interviews as an eye-witness. What I told them is what I still tell people three years later – this is not ‘an event’ for you to talk about and then move on.

After the attack on the 21st, there was a lot of hope in Syria. Obama’s ‘red line’ had been crossed and we thought this meant something would happen, something would change. We waited – for nothing. There have been hundreds of more chemical attacks since,
people are still losing their families and nothing is being done.

The people of Syria will not be silent about this but world leaders are. If 1,347* can be killed in 2 hours and those with power do nothing, they are not human. They are puppets, toys being moved by others.

More than a million people in Syria are living under siege today. When these attacks happen to them, they are not an event to talk about and then move on from. Babies have their futures stolen and innocent souls are lost.

The politicians don’t give a shit. Yes, they ‘remember’ but with no action, with no justice, with no freedom or dignity for the people of Syria. Without this, we will carry these memories with no release every day, forever – not just for an ‘anniversary’.”

To protect Syrian civilians join The Syria Campaign:

*This is the figure from Eastern Ghouta medical office but reports differ. However, there is consensus this figure is most likely an underestimation.