What an ISIS chemical strike did to one Syrian family
GAZIANTEP, Turkey: The
warning from the front lines came by walkie-talkie. An Islamic State artillery
position had boomed to the east, signalling that an incoming round was
whistling toward Marea, a town on northern Syria’s agricultural flatland. “One
shell fired!” the voice on the radio said. “Be careful!”
Inside the house he
shared with his family, Abu Anas Ishara, a rebel fighter defending his
hometown, knew the routine. Usually 10 to 15 seconds passed before shells
landed and exploded.
But Marea had been
struck so often that Abu Anas had wearied of it all. He did not seek cover.
Nada, his wife, kept feeding their infant daughter, Sidra, delivered by
cesarean section five days before. The shell hit the roof of their home.
As the couple was enveloped
by dust and foul-smelling smoke, Shahad, their 3-year-old daughter, cried out. “Papa!”
Abu Anas and Nada
staggered outside, each carrying a child, all seemingly unharmed. It was the
morning of Aug. 21. Their descent into the confusion and scorching pain of a
chemical warfare attack had begun.
Struck from afar by a
blister-agent shell, the family would suffer from an agonizing form of violence
that since the 1990s, when the Convention on Chemical Weapons took force in
much of the world, had seemed to fade into the past, only to be revived by the
Since the spring, the
group has used two types of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria multiple times,
according to international arms analysts, victims, local activists and Western
officials, joining Syria’s government as a party in the conflict that has used
The weapons have
included improvised bombs containing chlorine, a toxic industrial chemical that
Sunni militants in Iraq have crudely weaponized in vehicle and roadside bombs
for roughly a decade, and artillery or mortar projectiles containing a blister
agent that appeared this summer after being fired from Islamic State battlefield
These projectiles have
delivered sulfur mustard, an internationally banned chemical warfare agent,
according to American officials familiar with the analysis of soil samples,
ordnance and victims’ clothing collected after several attacks. Two American
officials said items analyzed from the Aug. 21 attack on Marea were among those
that confirmed the agent’s use.
A 120-millimeter mortar
shell struck fortifications at a Kurdish military position near the Mosul Dam
in June, arms experts said, sickening several Kurdish fighters who were nearby.
ISIS Has Fired Chemical Mortar Shells, Evidence Indicates JULY 17, 2015
Chlorine and sulfur mustard
are typically less lethal than high-explosive ordnance and other common
instruments of battlefield violence. But they are difficult to defend against
and fundamentally indiscriminate. Moreover, because they are regarded by their
victims as poisons that can be carried on air, the outrage and fear surrounding
their use lends them potent psychological and political power.
The appearance of
distinctly different chemical weapons across a long section of Islamic State
territory has led private and government analysts to venture that the world’s
most violent jihadist organization has developed at least a small-scale
chemical weapons program, and may have manufactured low-quality blister agent
or obtained chemical arms from undeclared or abandoned government stocks.
How much chemical
warfare capacity the Islamic State has organized, and its militants’ ambitions
for its use, remain publicly unknown. Often boastful, the group has offered
little clear and verifiable insight into its unconventional weapons. But a
commonly held view is that it could attack with such weapons again, perhaps in
more spectacular fashion.
Many chemical attacks
to date have been against Syrian rebel or Kurdish militia positions. The
attacks on Marea, which began on Aug. 21 and continued intermittently into the
next week, were more complicated.
shells sailed past rebel lines and landed in neighborhoods, medical officials
and activists in Marea said. Some struck homes.
As is common in areas
of Syria beset by fighting, most houses in Marea were empty. The town’s former
residents had abandoned them, choosing the indignities and uncertainties of
life as refugees over the dangers and dimming prospects for peace at home.
Abu Anas, who along
with his family was wounded when an artillery shell thought to contain a
chemical agent hit their home in Marea, Syria. He now spends much of his day in
bed, coughing, at the small apartment his father-in-law rents in Turkey. Credit
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
But some homes remained
occupied, often by people too proud, too stubborn or too poor to leave, or by
families of rebels who stayed to fight.
Several dozen of
Marea’s remaining residents were exposed, many of them mildly, local medical
Abu Anas and Nada, and
members of their extended family, agreed to be interviewed about their much
heavier exposure on condition that their surnames not be published, because
they feared retaliation from the Islamic State.
Abu Anas — a Syrian
former police officer who provided Turkish medical documents and three photo
identification cards that showed his full name — is a member of the 13th
Division, a rebel group that has received support from Turkey and several Arab
and Western nations, including the United States.
The last word in the
name he is known by in Marea — Ishara — is not a surname; it means “signal,” a
reference to his duties until the chemical attack as a battlefield spotter and
tactical radio specialist.
In the minutes after
Nada and Abu Anas dashed from their home with their children, the astonishment
of being in a small building struck by an artillery shell gave way to relief,
then to curiosity.
The wreckage of a car
bombing in Marea, Syria, believed to
have been carried out by the Islamic State in April. Credit Zein
Al-Rifai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The war in Syria was
past familiar. In the bloody years since the uprising began in 2011, the Sunni
rebels who organized in Marea had fought Syrian government forces and Shiite
militias, then the Islamic State. The town’s people had seen many kinds of
They had survived
crackdowns, tanks, infantry attacks, airstrikes and cluster munitions.
Ballistic missiles had slammed down on nearby fields, shaking the earth and
heaving towers of soil into the air.
Abu Anas had heard of
the evidence and allegations of previous chemical use, including of nerve agent
and chlorine, by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. He had not
suspected the militants of having chemical weapons, too.
Something about this
shell was different. It hit the roof’s slab of reinforced concrete, but only
smashed a pear-shape hole a few feet across. It did not explode, as most shells
do. The flash of fire, pressure and hot shrapnel, which together can instantly
kill people, had not occurred.
Instead, Abu Anas said,
as the dust fell on him, he felt as if he had been coated in warm sand. Soon an
odor filled the home. It smelled, he said, like “rotten eggs or rotten garlic,
something rotten.” It rose from his clothes, too.
Sulfur mustard causes
burns that can damage the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. Carcinogenic and
extremely toxic, it can also cause invisible internal damage, including to bone
marrow, reducing blood-cell production. Heavy exposure can cause death within
But its effects are not
immediate. Symptoms usually appear after an hourslong delay.
Nada, too, wondered
what had happened. She suffered no early symptoms. After taking shelter with a
neighbor, she and her husband returned to the house several times to gather
belongings, not realizing the risks. Abu Anas recorded a cellphone video of the
broken ceiling and pocked walls, as if they were lucky to be alive.
But as hours passed,
Nada could not console Sidra, her newborn, though she found no marks or bruises
on the child. The baby was falling ill, and Nada did not know why. “I tried to
wash her little body,” she said. “I washed her face and her body, but she kept
In the afternoon, other
residents visited and asked to see where the shell had hit. Abu Anas stepped
inside again to show them the hole in the ceiling. The stink was so intense it
drove him back. “I threw up in the street,” he said.
By then his eyes were
starting to burn. He showered at a neighbor’s home, he said. In what he now
knows was a mistake, he dressed again in the same clothes.
As the afternoon passed
the family became unmistakably unwell. Shahad complained of pain in her throat.
The baby fell quiet, awake but disturbingly sluggish, almost still. Abu Anas’s
eyes were searing. Tears ran down his face. He felt nauseated.