My Trip to Khan Sheikhun, a City Devoid of Life

My Trip to Khan Sheikhun, a City Devoid of Life

Khan Sheikhun is now a city with no form of life.

It now resembles a ghost town, after most of its residents fled the gas bombs that were dropped on it last week, most likely including sarin gas. More than 80 civilians lost their lives in the aftermath of the brutal strike.

The chemical attack—one of the most vicious throughout the Syrian civil war since the chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013—led to a shift in US policy toward Syria compared to Trump’s early days, when he stated that he did not see Bashar Al-Assad’s departure as a necessity.

Life Suspended in Khan Sheikhun

I visited Khan Sheikhun last Thursday, 48 hours after the chemical attack. I crossed from the Turkish border, travelling a distance of 140 kilometers, before reaching the crime scene.

Idlib, which falls under opposition control, has not been visited by foreign news agencies for years, due to the high risk of kidnapping as well as possible airstrikes by the Assad regime. Moreover, the spread of Al-Qaeda splinter forces, known as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, poses another threat, especially after they joined other armed factions and declared independence from the Al-Qaeda leadership.

Life crawls along cautiously in the cities and towns of Idlib province, despite the war and the random strikes. During springtime, the Idlib province has some of the most beautiful vegetation in the world, with never-ending fields of green, and cherry and almond trees in full bloom.

Though I did not enter the cities of Jericho and Idlib, I witnessed signs of life in the other towns, albeit somewhat timid due to the constant fear of airstrikes.

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Yet, the signs of war in Idlib are even more pronounced; with no consideration for the surrounding aesthetics, they are there, loudly announcing their presence. Non-stop air raid sirens sound from the watchtowers, warning against the next flock of warplanes entering the province’s airspace.

Clouds of smoke billow through the skies after the raids, occupying the horizons every time you turn toward the towns on the agricultural route, forcing you to think of the perpetual torment of the locals’ daily lives.

Yet, once you arrive in Khan Sheikhun, any evidence of life dissipates. The city has been left semi-abandoned, after many of the locals fled, including the displaced people who had arrived in Khan Sheikhun in search for safe refuge after escaping from the neighboring Hama province. Following the chemical attack, these internal refugees returned to Hama to bury their dead.

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Share TweetKarim Shaheen visits Khan Sheikhun 48 hours after the attack, dispelling any doubts over the question: who did it?

Share TweetKhan Sheikhun has come to resemble the site of a great haunting, after most of its residents fled the gas bombs.

A Weapons Depot Used to Store Wheat and Fertilizer

First, I went to the location of the chemical strike. I did not want to spend too long in the city, as reconnaissance planes were still circling above, signaling the likelihood of another strike.

I had hoped to investigate the Russian Defense Ministry’s claims that the Syrian regime forces had targeted a chemical weapons depot in Khan Sheikhun, which had led to the leakage of the poison gases, and the resulting casualties.

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The bombs impact was still evident; a charred hole in the ground filled with scraps of green in the middle of a road, with civilian housing on both sides. On the other side, there was the depot and storehouses that were previously used to produce and store grain.

I walked into the depot, which was still standing when I got there. I saw nothing inside but rubble, and a volleyball net that clearly hadn’t been used in a long time. As for the grain storage, there was nothing worth noting there but some wheat and fertilizer, and the pungent smell of manure.

One of the volunteers from the civil defense team and other eyewitnesses recounted the chronology of events: the warplanes launched four raids on the city between 6:30 am and 7:00 pm. At first, the civil defense and locals thought they were just like any other air raids.

But after the first civil defense team arrived, the defense center was overwhelmed with SOS requests from the civil defense volunteers themselves, who told the center that members were falling and losing consciousness en masse. Subsequently, the rest were alerted to the possibility of a chemical strike.

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A man residing near the site of the attack, who introduces himself as Abou Al-Baraa’, says that when he went out, he was struck by the terrifying sights. The victims were lying on the floor, their lips bluish, breathing with difficulty and foaming at the mouth.

As for the paramedics, they described the scene as “armageddon-like”: children were suffocated to death, and families had fallen and lost consciousness on the stairways, roofs, and basements of their homes.

Khan Sheikhun Hospital

The injured civilians who were still alive were taken to the city hospital. When it could no longer accommodate the spiralling numbers of patients, the rest were taken to other hospitals in Idlib, while some were transported to Turkey.

A few hours later, the hospital and neighboring civil defense center were both targeted by several violent airstrikes, putting them out of commission, despite the fact that they were built inside a rock formation on a mountain.

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When I arrived to the location, there was little more than a pile of rubble .

I walked in and found the place dark due to the power outage and the destruction of the hospital. Inside, there was destroyed medical equipment strewn across the floors, and a now-defunct operating room. The remaining atropine shots that were used to treat the sarin patients were still scattered throughout, doctors having been unable to use them after fleeing the attacks and evacuating the patients.

The Father Who Lost His Twins

After my visit to the hospital, I went to visit the Al-Yousif family, which collectively lost more than 20 family members.

In the funeral parlor, I met Abdel Hamid Al-Yousif, who had lost his twin infants, Ahmed and Aya, in the attack, after they suffocated in the chemical attack, at only nine months old. Following the attack, images of Abdel Hamid and the twins went viral around the world. He also lost his wife, brother, and numerous relatives.

Abdel Hamid and his brother Khaled were among those who were attempting to aid the victims, while his wife and children hid out in a shelter. But the gas would infiltrate the basement, choking the family in the refuge where they thought they would be safe.

Abdel Hamid collapsed when he learned of their fates.

When I visited him, he was nearly catatonic from the shock, dressed in a dark training suit, his thin face framed by a light beard. He would alternate between muttering the names of his children, and staring listlessly into the distance. His relatives would remind him of the importance of patience during misfortune, as tears continued to stream down his face.

His brother Khaled is still ill, with no capacity to do anything but weep over his relatives who lost their lives.

His cousin, Alaa Al-Yousif, recalls Abdel Hamid’s shock, and his family’s pain as they buried the twins. He recalls Abdel Hamid’s insistence on holding them in his arms until they reached the grave. When he saw his cousin taking pictures, he told him: “Take my picture with these birds.”

Karim Shaheen is a Middle East correspondent at The Guardian.

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