'During the first attack, in the spring of 2013, Eman Shelh didn’t understand what was happening. It was the middle of the night and someone was shouting from the minarets to close your doors, close the windows, and cover your mouths.
Then came the screaming and the ambulance sirens and the bodies of men, women and children with no injuries or blood — but with blue lips and swollen hands, some foaming from the mouth. There were so many bodies that they had to be buried together in tunnels, she said.
“It was like a dream, at that moment I was in disbelief,” said Shelh, 37. “You see the dust and the people suffocating. Even now sometimes I think — was it a dream or was it real? There were people dying in front of me.”
That first attack on Harasta would be followed by three more on the suburbs of Damascus, commonly known as Ghouta, each one more intense and widespread than the last. The fourth, on August 21, 2013, using the nerve agent sarin, would kill more than 1,000 people.
According to UN inspectors, it was the deadliest use of chemical weapons since 1988, when Saddam Hussein turned them on civilians in Halabja in 1988.
Though Wikipedia still lists the perpetrators of the Ghouta attack as “disputed,” it would force Syrian president Bashar al Assad to give up his chemical stockpiles — or at least pretend to do so.
But for Shelh and her family, the attacks also precipitated their hasty exodus from Syria to Jordan and finally to Montreal, where they landed three weeks ago — to safety and comfort, if not peace of mind.
At home on a quiet street in N.D.G., Abeer, Shelh’s eldest daughter, now 15, serves mint tea, complaining in jest of having to do all the housework while her mother nurses a sprained ankle.
“At least we can still laugh,” says her mother, speaking through an interpreter.
The family’s sponsors — St. Monica’s Catholic parish — have furnished the apartment and filled the fridge. The only personal item on view is a black and white photocopy of a family portrait taken in Jordan and thumbtacked to the wall. Ziad Jr., now 13, appears so much older than his years.
Like many of the Syrians who have arrived in Canada since 2015 — at last count more than 40,000 across the country and almost 10,000 in Quebec — Shelh’s family had to leave everything behind. But as the fourth anniversary of the Ghouta attack approaches, they still carry with them the memories of the horror and mayhem.
At the time of the second attack, a few days after the first, which they believe was using chlorine gas, it had been a year since President Obama had drawn a red line at the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. If that line was crossed, Obama had said, the U.S. would intervene.
Already there was little bread, water or electricity and Shelh could no longer visit her father and siblings who lived only one street away, for fear of being hit by snipers near the security checkpoint. Finally, she thought, the international community will be forced to react.
Instead, the red line kept shifting, further and further into irrelevance.
Shelh’s husband, Ziad Alrayes, who was an ambulance driver and paramedic in Syria, says everyone had expected the United Nations or the foreign diplomats in Damascus to intervene.
“When we went into homes after the attacks to try and give first aid, we saw whole families who looked like they were sleeping. The most difficult part was seeing the children. … What did they do to deserve this?”
They didn’t expect the third attack, one month later, this time using sarin gas.
For Shelh and Alrayes, it was the last straw. Both Yousef, 6, and Ziad Jr. still suffer from that attack, with ongoing respiratory problems. Yousef, who was 2 at the time of the attack, was too little to understand how to cover his mouth or try not to breathe. Ziad Jr., who helped bury the bodies, has suffered psychologically as well, they said.
The family waited until after dark and walked four hours into the night, Alrayes carrying Yousef in his arms, until they reached a car and driver who would drop them off 20 kilometres from the border of Jordan.
Mariam, who was five years old, was very tired, they recalled. Abeer, then 11, got separated from the family as they joined a throng of other Syrians walking the last few kilometres.
“I was following a woman who I thought was my mother but it wasn’t her,” she said. “I was crying and looking for my mom for an hour before I found her.”
By the time the fourth attack hit, they had made it to the Mrajeeb Al Fhood refugee camp, run by the United Arab Emirates and the Red Crescent society, where they stayed for three months, before moving into a one-room apartment in Zarqa.
Life was hell in Jordan, the family says. Alrayes was not allowed to work, and when he worked illegally, he was often not paid. The boss would send him on his way, daring him to complain to authorities, at the risk of being sent back to Syria.
Ziad Jr. was the only one working, at a vegetable stand on the street. The girls went to school sporadically, but only from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., after the Jordanian children had left the building. Meanwhile the Jordanian hospitals refused to treat Yousef for his respiratory problems. It wasn’t until their church sponsors in Canada sent money for treatment in a private hospital that he started to improve.'