This Monday (21 August 2023) marks 10 years since the worst chemical weapons massacre of the 21st century when 1,144* people in Syria, many of them children, were suffocated with Sarin nerve gas when the Syrian regime attacked the populated Damascus suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta. A decade on, survivors and the families of victims are demanding action as the war criminals responsible continue to evade justice.
Chemical weapons, which cause horrifying human suffering, are banned under international law and their use cannot be justified in any circumstances. Despite this, since 2012, there have been 222 chemical attacks in Syria according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights – the vast majority perpetrated by the Assad regime. International investigators including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have found the Syrian regime responsible for chemical weapons attacks yet the regime continues to enjoy impunity for the atrocities it has committed.
Tuhama Darwish, a former nurse who helped respond to the Ghouta attack, and volunteer with the campaign group Don’t Suffocate the Truth said:
“Ten years on the pain is still the same. My heart is still shaking and I still can’t hold back my tears when I remember the woman whose eyes were asking me for help but whose death was faster than my attempts to save her.
“I still have hope, despite all the world’s attempts to deny what happened, distort the facts, and normalize relations with the criminal regime. Despite all that we went through I still have the hope of justice one day, as long as we remain ‘the witnesses and survivors’ of every memory, we will keep going and reminding the whole world about what happened on the attack day, so that a day will come when all the criminals responsible will held accountable.”
Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign, said:
“It is sickening to think that 10 years after such abhorrent acts of brutality those responsible have not been brought to justice. Back in 2012 Obama described chemical attacks as a red line – but those words have meant nothing. Today instead of holding perpetrators accountable Assad is being welcomed back into the Arab league and invited to international conferences cementing impunity for the most heinous of crimes. To all those who seek to shake hands with Assad this anniversary should serve as a clear reminder of the atrocities his regime has committed.
“The world has ignored the suffering of survivors for too long, it’s time for the international community to hold perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria to account to ensure that the world never again sees a repeat of these horrifying attacks.”
Survivors and families of victims who have spoken out about chemical weapons continue to endure devastating emotional trauma and have been mocked and dehumanized through a campaign of online disinformation and denial.
The Syria Campaign’s research into online disinformation has exposed how social media companies have failed to equitably enforce their policies to counter online denial over the use of chemical weapons in Syria with devastating consequences for survivors and victims who continue to face the impact of the spread of these harmful lies.
In addition to the online disinformation campaigns to deny the truth about Assad’s deadly chemical attacks, investigations into the incidents have been hindered by the manipulation of evidence, presenting of false witnesses and the intimidation of survivors, witnesses and their families.
Thaer Hijazi from the Association of Victims of Chemical Attacks, who is himself a survivor said:
‘We, as survivors, have been subjected to various attempts by the regime and Russia to erase and distort the truth, using every means possible over the years. To this day, the regime attempts to silence witnesses by pressuring their families through arrests, particularly those witnesses who participated in investigations or provided testimonies about the attacks in which the regime employed sarin gas, chlorine, and mustard gas. Any effort to amplify the voices of these witnesses is challenging due to the intimidation tactics used by the regime to obliterate and conceal the evidence of the crimes.”
To mark the anniversary, memorial events to pay tribute to victims and demand justice for chemical attacks in Ghouta and elsewhere in Syria have been organized by Syrian activists and campaign groups in several locations worldwide including Berlin, Paris, Washington DC, Idlib and London with artists, musicians and speakers.
*Data from the Syrian Network for Human Rights