DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The United States believes the Syrian government is behind a reported chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma. The U.S. is so convinced, it launched military strikes against the Syrian regime. Now, the facts of what happened that night, April 7, have not been independently established. But what we do know is that after that, rebels surrendered and tens of thousands of people boarded buses to be exiled to refugee camps in the north of Syria. NPR correspondent Ruth Sherlock and Beirut producer Lama Al-Arian have gained rare access to northern Syria. They crossed from the Turkish border to hear the stories of people from Douma. They're now safely back in Turkey, and Ruth joins us.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.
GREENE: So how exactly did you meet these people who had escaped from Douma?
SHERLOCK: We met them in refugee camps that are run by Turkey, in northern Aleppo province in Syria. They had just arrived on buses after surviving years of siege and bombardment in Douma, and now they're exiled from their homes. Everyone was just thin and shellshocked. And when we arrived, there was this huge thunderstorm and people were waiting in the rain to take supplies - food, water, diapers - back to their tent. They were walking in sandals through the mud.
GREENE: What stories did they bring with them about what happened in Douma?
SHERLOCK: Well, we heard many stories, but I want to share with you some of the interview with one of the people we met, Seena (ph). She's 19 years old, and she's sitting in a tent with three other women and lots of small children. They haven't even had a chance to unpack yet, and already there's heavy rain seeping into the tent. We start to talk about the night of the apparent chemical attack, and she says on that night, there was also very heavy conventional bombing, airstrikes. And then these barrels hit that had a strange smell. There's thunder outside as she talks.
SEENA: (Through interpreter) I called them. They smelled it. My children started to turn blue so we tried to go upstairs to get some air, and then the bombs were shelling us. So we had to go back downstairs, and we had to take some vinegar and rub it in our noses.
SHERLOCK: What did she smell, exactly?
SEENA: (Through interpreter) We smelled as if it was a barrel of chlorine just spilled everywhere.
GREENE: It was the kids who were among those really noticing this first.
SHERLOCK: That's right. So most people were hiding in a basement because of the heavy airstrikes, but some kids had gone upstairs, and they were the first that alerted her to the attack. She says that they started yelling, chlorine, chlorine. I asked her, how did children recognize a chemical attack? She said, these are the children of war. They've experienced this. They know.
GREENE: How did this all fit with other interviews you've been doing?
SHERLOCK: Well, it did seem from the people we met that there was a pattern here. Several people said they were witnesses to the attack. Some of them were still sick. We met Imani (ph), a woman in a medical clinic whose lungs are very damaged. Her condition has worsened since that night, and now she has to go to hospital. And there was a man in a tent who's so ill that he couldn't sit up and was using an inhaler to help him breathe as he spoke to us. Most of the people describe the chemical attack as being chlorine gas. Now, chlorine was not one of the chemical weapons that was removed from Syria by international weapons inspectors a few years ago because it has so many civilian uses. But it's been weaponized often in the war, and in high doses it turns to acid that burns your lungs.
GREENE: Did you talk to people, Ruth, about what some, you know, Russians and others are saying that this was all a hoax?
SHERLOCK: I did. I asked Imani, the woman whose lungs were damaged, about what she has to say about that, and she just started sobbing. She said, it happened; I saw it with my own eyes. What's not clear exactly is the death toll. And, you know, and exactly the facts still need to be independently established. Over the weekend, investigators for the world's chemical weapons watchdog went inside Douma to try to start that investigation.
GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from Turkey. Thanks, Ruth.
SHERLOCK: Thank you.
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