STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Syria's war claimed three relatives of the woman we'll meet next. Amineh Salwan learned last year that her brother, his wife and their child had been killed. And that devastating news was only a fraction of the tragedy that Amineh Salwan experienced.
She is 23 years old, and was living in a Damascus suburb last year when it suffered a chemical attack. She has been describing her experience to American audiences under the sponsorship of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.
At the time of the attack in August, she was supporting the rebels, working with kids traumatized by urban combat.
AMINEH SALWAN: That day, I was awake, late about 2 AM. I was trying to prepare activities for the kids. We had three centers to support the kids physiologically, and to teach them some letters, some mathematics under the siege in some basements.
INSKEEP: Oh, these are children living in a war zone. Their parents might be alive or dead. Their schools are probably closed.
SALWAN: Yeah. So we were trying to help, because they're hungry all the day, and maybe we can sing and let the kids forget they are hungry.
INSKEEP: So that's how you were spending your days. And at 2 o'clock in the morning on...
INSKEEP: ...August 21st, you were getting ready for the next day.
SALWAN: Yeah. I started getting news from my friends, and they told me that they had the (unintelligible) with chemical massacres. It was really awful, about 5:30, and my friend told me that Moadimiya also was hit by the chemical weapon, and...
INSKEEP: Your own neighborhood.
SALWAN: Yeah. And I was shocked. Then I went out and I felt dizzy, and I didn't know if this was because of the lack of food, malnutrition, or because of the gas. Then I went and woke up everybody in my family, and we rushed to field hospital with cousin. She was a...
INSKEEP: This is the hospital that had been set up by the rebel forces.
SALWAN: Yeah. It's a really small one. It's a basement. We had only four doctors. Two of them are dentists.
INSKEEP: Why did you go to the field hospital?
SALWAN: Because I volunteered for a while in the field hospital. Whenever something happened, whenever we had very severe shelling, I rushed to the field hospital and see what's going on, if they need some help.
INSKEEP: Did injured people begin to arrive, sick people begin to arrive?
SALWAN: That day, we witnessed the most awful shelling and bombing from the beginning of the revolution...
INSKEEP: Oh, because they had done - it appeared, a chemical the night before...
SALWAN: Yeah. And they thought the people are...
INSKEEP: ...now they wanted to follow up.
SALWAN: Yeah. And they thought, the people are dizzy now, and they are busy with the injured and the dead people inside. We can - it's our chance. The way to the field hospital usually took me five minutes. That day, it took me about 20 minutes or more, because me and my cousin trying to hide next to the walls from the shrapnels.
INSKEEP: So you were waiting for the safe moment - even if there was one - to cross the next street and go over there.
SALWAN: Yeah, yeah. Then, when we arrived to the field hospital, we saw the dead and injured people in the street. The situation was crazy. People were shouting. Women were crying. Kids were suffocating and rushing, you know. And they were having spasm. And then we went inside, and I asked doctor: What we are supposed to do? And he said snap some blankets and use the pieces of them, and put vinegar on the noses of the injured people and try to make CPR to help them breathe.
INSKEEP: People were having spasms. They were on the floor. There was really nothing you can do for them, but he's saying vinegar on a bit of cloth and CPR might help them in some way.
SALWAN: Yeah. And wash their faces and bodies with water. And we started doing this for them. And they were continuing their spasm and suffocating, and it was just heartbreaking, watching them dying, especially kids, and we can do nothing about it.
INSKEEP: That's what's coming through to me, is that the doctor was telling you to do things just to do something, because it was actually hopeless. There was nothing you could do.
SALWAN: Yeah. Then a woman came and told me, come with me. I want to show you something. And she was not crying like the others. And she said, you see, this is my son, and this is my daughter. This is my mom. This is my brother. They were dead, all dead. I was, like, I didn't know what I'm supposed to tell her.
INSKEEP: She was very calm about all this, maybe in shock herself.
INSKEEP: Do you have any idea why you were not affected by that gas?
SALWAN: The gas didn't come to my area, because the air took the gas to the opposite direction.
INSKEEP: It was just a matter of the wind.
INSKEEP: If the wind had been blowing a different direction, you'd be dead.
SALWAN: Yeah. And that's why I survived, me and my family. And most of the people - that day, 82 people were killed in my area, and we had about 400 injured people.
INSKEEP: I know there's a lot more to your story. I'm not going to make you recount it all. But let's just note that after this attack, you made your way out of Syria. I imagine you can't go back now.
SALWAN: No, I can't.
INSKEEP: Now that you're out of Syria and you've been traveling the United States talking to audiences, do you feel the United States has been helpful to your country or to your cause?
SALWAN: No. They can do a lot of things, but they are not doing.
INSKEEP: If you had an opportunity to get on Skype, or however you could communicate with your friends who are back home, and they said to you: There you are. You're in America. You've been talking with hundreds, if not thousands, of different people in different cities. What are Americans saying? What are they thinking about us? How would you answer that question to your friends back in Syria?
SALWAN: It's really hard, because the people inside think that everybody knows what's going on, and they're not moving. But what I figure out here, that, yeah, the governments know everything, but the people of America doesn't know.
INSKEEP: The people don't, by and large, know how bad it is.
SALWAN: Yeah. Yeah.
INSKEEP: Do you think if everyone knew, that the U.S. policy would be different?
SALWAN: Yeah. Absolutely.
INSKEEP: Amineh, thanks for coming by.
SALWAN: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Syrian chemical attack survivor, Amineh Salwan.