Saraqeb, Syria. April 29, 2013
Just before the start of afternoon prayers, the Syrian guns fell eerily silent. Throughout the hot midday, as Saraqeb’s residents sweltered in darkened houses, artillery shells shrieked and crashed as gunners demolished a row of apartment buildings near the highway, creating palls of smoke and dust on a day bereft of even the small mercy of a wind. And then, abruptly, the shelling stopped. Rebel lookouts peered warily from their posts and strained for the sounds of tanks on the move, but nothing stirred. Instead, from above the town came the faint whir of a lone helicopter, drifting down from the north, unhurried and very high, well beyond the reach of ground fire. From the barricades it appeared small and almost beautiful, a tiny pearl of reflected sunlight, floating above the ruins and squalor of an ordinary Syrian town under siege.
Then, as the rebels watched, something fell from the chopper and began hurtling toward the ground in a slow tumble, like a piece of furniture jettisoned at 10,000 feet. Some who saw it raised their cell phones to take video of the falling thing, not yet aware that they were witnessing a portent. For more than a year, the battle lines had whipsawed through Saraqeb, a northern city of 34,000 that the rebels had seized, then lost, and then captured again. Entire families with small children lay entombed under the rubble of collapsed houses. Now something new was coming, and men watched and took their photos, murmuring an all-purpose supplication: Allahu Akbar. God is greater. And when the helicopter disgorged a second parcel, and a third, they prayed again.
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
And then—nothing. The strange objects hit the ground in a straight line along Saraqeb’s western fringe, yet none of them exploded. The first one crashed onto a deserted intersection and broke into pieces. The second thudded into a swampy field next to a retention pond. The third fell into a residential neighborhood of tidy middle-class homes and disappeared from sight. Although no one knew it yet, it had sliced through a grape arbor and landed smack in the middle of the walled courtyard of the house where Maryam al-Khatib, a fifty-two-year-old wife and mother, had huddled with her children to wait out the day’s shelling.
From the barricades the helicopter appeared small and almost beautiful, a tiny pearl of reflected sunlight, floating above the ruins and squalor of an ordinary Syrian town under siege.
The mistress of the house was a heavy woman with a round face and black hair cropped sensibly above the shoulders. When the fighting began, she had converted her basement into a makeshift bomb shelter for the extended family, stocking it with preserved vegetables she canned herself and whatever meager pickings could be found in the local markets. The house itself was encased inside a thick wall of rough-hewn limestone with a solid steel gate, painted bright blue and wreathed in Maryam’s grapevines, guarding the entrance to the narrow alley that ran along the front of the house. It felt safe, as much as any dwelling in Saraqeb could be regarded as such, and on this day, the pause in the shelling had seemed to suggest that the immediate danger had passed. Maryam’s husband, Ibrahim, a farmer and a devout man, decided to risk the four-block walk to the local mosque for prayers, leaving his wife and pregnant daughter-in-law, Ahlah, to begin to contemplate what to prepare for the evening meal.
A terrific thunderclap shook the dwelling, as though lightning had struck very close by. From the basement it felt as though the house itself had been hit; yet the walls still stood, and all seemed quiet above. Was it a dud rocket? Pieces from a falling airplane? Maryam crept up the stairs and saw, through a window, a pile of smoking rubble in her courtyard. The thing lay halfway between the steel gate and the rosebushes, having just missed the wooden toddler swing and the freshly jarred pickles Maryam had set out. She slipped on sandals, pulled her silk scarf over her head, and padded outside to investigate, with Ahlah trailing closely behind her.
The strange object that had fallen into Maryam’s courtyard was not a bomb; it wasn’t even metal. It appeared to be a crate of some kind, made of wood and wire and what might have been gypsum board, now smashed into thousands of chalky pieces. The impact had kicked up a cloud of dust, snapped off tree branches, and gouged a hole in the stone tiles, but otherwise it seemed to have caused little damage. As Maryam inspected the debris, she also noticed a small white canister, about the size of a coffee thermos but crushed nearly flat by the fall. There was a strange odor: pulverized cement mingled with something else, unpleasant but undefined, and Maryam felt her eyes starting to sting.
Just as she turned to go back inside, she was seized by a sudden, unimaginable pain, as though the upper half of her body were being crushed by an invisible vise. The breath of poison that had entered her lungs had already begun to do its work, hijacking her central nervous system and causing a million neurotransmitters to short-circuit in a single second. Tears and mucous began streaming in rivulets from her eyes and nose. There was a strange sensation—a feeling of being suffocated and intensely nauseous all at once, as though something big and dead had lodged itself in her stomach. Maryam fell heavily onto the stone floor, gasping, gray eyes wide with panic, unable to speak or cry out.
The breath of poison that had entered her lungs had already begun to do its work, hijacking her central nervous system and causing a million neurotransmitters to short-circuit in a single second.
Only a few minutes had passed when Ibrahim, returning from prayers, rounded the corner to see neighbors and militiamen clustered around the blue gate. He pushed his way through the crowd and stepped into a vision of incomprehensible horror. Sprawled across the kitchen and living room was half his family: Maryam, Ahlah, three other children, and a sister-in-law, each gasping for breath, as though in the death grip of some invisible malevolence. The militiamen were organizing a relay, and Ibrahim rushed to help, grabbing his stricken loved ones by the arms and legs and hauling them to cars outside. It was clear already that Maryam was worse off than the others. Unable to speak, she looked up at her husband with frightened eyes, the lower half of her face obscured by a mask of white froth. The convulsions were now coming in waves.
Ibrahim was growing increasingly frantic. He ran into his son, Mohammad, who had been outside the house and saw what had happened.
“Something fell from the sky,” Mohammad said.
The rebel soldiers raced through deserted streets to arrive at the makeshift medical clinic that had been set up as a triage station for wounded guerrillas. Inside, workers lifted Maryam and Ahlah onto examining tables while those with lesser injuries—a group that now included militiamen who had merely touched the victims—lay on the bare floor. An orderly splashed the women’s faces with water while a pair of doctors scoured the clinic for vials of atropine, a drug kept on hand in Syrian villages to treat farm animals in cases of accidental pesticide exposure. A frantic rescue attempt lurched into gear, punctuated by desperate sounds: the retching and wheezing of the victims, pleading instructions from the doctors, cries and prayers from onlookers.
“Hold his legs! Come help me—anyone!” one of the doctors yelled as he tried to strap an oxygen mask to the face of a youth in camouflage who was gagging and flailing like a drowning man. A rough hand held the legs steady as a voice recited the prayer of the dying: “I bear witness,” the voice said, “there is no god but God.”
Others, sensing the magnitude of the events, again took out their phones to record the moment. They clustered around one of the doctors, a young man with a trim beard who ran through a list of symptoms that by now were obvious to everyone.
“We have all the indications of poison gas,” the doctor was saying, spitting out a rapid-fire assessment as he put a bystander to work as a human IV pole. “The foaming, the tiny pupils, the suffocation, the seizures.”
What kind of poison? No one knew. There was not much that the tiny clinic could do anyway. Behind the doctor, men took turns squeezing manual oxygen pumps and wiping foam from the faces of the injured. “We do not have antidotes for these kinds of weapons,” the doctor said.
The older woman’s breaths now came in shallow gasps, and her eyes, still wide open, with the same look of frozen terror, no longer moved at all, except for a steady, reflexive blinking.
The doctors squeezed more atropine into her IV tube and turned up the oxygen in her respirator, yet there was no change. She lay for an hour under a dirty blanket, her hair still tucked modestly under her floral head scarf, eyes fixed on the ceiling, making no sign or sound, but only blinking. Blinking. Blinking.
Twilight was approaching, and an anxious Ibrahim al-Khatib conferred with the doctors about what to do. They decided at last to gamble on what was clearly the victims’ only remaining chance: a risky dash to the Turkish border. There was a hospital in Reyhanli, the nearest Turkish city, about ninety minutes away by car.
Maryam and Ahlah were gently lifted into ambulances, and Ibrahim climbed in next to his wife to begin the dangerous trek north. The drivers clung to back roads, where they were less likely to encounter patrols and checkpoints, and arrived just after dark at the slatted steel fence that marked the international boundary. At the border crossing, Turkish guards peered into the vehicles and conferred with one another. Minutes later, a supervisor delivered the heartbreaking news: The Turkish border authorities were not equipped to deal with a pair of sick women who had been contaminated with something no one could identify. There would be no entry into Turkey on this night.
Ibrahim refused to give up. The small caravan waited for an hour, and then two, as desperate calls were made to refugee groups on the Turkish side. At last, the guards relented. The gates opened, and the ambulances roared along the final five-mile stretch to Reyhanli and its Health Ministry State Hospital. It was now 10:15 pm, and by that hour, the emergency room’s staff had been alerted to the imminent arrival of poisoning victims and was ready for them. Ahlah was wheeled into the emergency room, where doctors began an infusion of antitoxins that would ultimately save her life and ensure the survival of her unborn child.
For Maryam al-Khatib, there would be no such attempt. Sometime during the journey’s final leg, in the minutes between the border crossing and the arrival at the Turkish hospital, the blinking finally stopped. Of the Saraqeb townspeople sickened by the mysterious objects that fell from the sky on April 29, she was the only one to die.
A Turkish doctor noted Maryam’s death at 10:45 pm, of chemical poisoning. The nature of the poison, and who manufactured it, remained officially unknown.
Maryam al-Khatib had not yet died when news of the strange attack exploded across rebel-held northern Syria. Thousands of mobile phones lit up as a relay chain of social-media activists, rescue workers, students, and citizen-journalists leapt into action. The alert spread to local medical clinics and hospitals, including in the city of Aleppo, some thirty miles from Saraqeb, where a harried young physician in bloodstained scrubs paused to study the news.
Houssam Alnahhas was just 25 and technically not yet a doctor, though he had completed medical school and was in his final year as an intern when the civil war broke out. His lack of a certificate didn’t much matter, because no amount of training could have prepared him for what he faced on his inaugural day in a war-zone trauma center. His first patient was a man with both legs blown off. The second had suffered a gruesome abdominal wound that left his intestines exposed. Alnahhas cleaned and patched as best he could and then moved on. Each day after that, he worked until the triage room emptied out, then flopped onto a hospital bed for a few hours of sleep before repeating the cycle. Despite perpetual dark circles under his eyes, he was a handsome youth, with thick black hair and scholarly glasses, and he stood out in the hospital’s grim wards because of his irrepressible cheerfulness. Other doctors slept with pistols, not for self-defense but to avoid capture in case of an assault on the hospital. Not Alnahhas. “We’re not going to die,” he said. “We have something else to do.”
In the Aleppo of 2013, that optimism was ever harder to sustain. Syria’s largest city had been spared the worst of the violence in the civil war’s first year, but then, in mid-2012, thousands of rebel militiamen poured in from the north and south in an attempt to capture the city. The army mounted a fierce counterattack, backed by helicopters and artillery, and over the next four years this ancient, culturally vibrant metropolis of 2.5 million was slowly ground into rubble, neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block.
Syrians died every day from bullets, blast wounds, and shrapnel injuries, but to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas or cockroaches—this, to the young doctor, was a different order of savagery.
In its effort to dislodge the rebels and their supporters, the Syrian army attacked residential neighborhoods with ballistic missiles and then with barrel bombs, a type of crude munition dropped by helicopter that consisted of an empty canister packed with explosives. Iran, Syria’s closest ally, sent reinforcements in 2013 in the person of Major General Qasem Soleimani, the legendary commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who proceeded to direct a new force of about four thousand Hezbollah militiamen from neighboring Lebanon. Then, when the rebels still refused to give up, the Syrians began to experiment with new kinds of weapons, looking for ways to frighten the resisters and drive them from their barricades.
There had been a half-dozen reports of poison-gas attacks by mid-2013, and the stories were usually vague and unconfirmed. But to Alnahhas they were profoundly troubling. Syrians died every day from bullets, blast wounds, and shrapnel injuries, but to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas or cockroaches—this, to the young doctor, was a different order of savagery.
As he always did, “Chemical Hazem” gathered as much information as he could, and he tried to make sense of the strange details, especially the small canister, encased in a boxlike object dropped from a helicopter. At least two amateur investigators from within the broader network of activists hurried to Saraqeb to see what they could find. One of them got extraordinarily lucky. He was led by local residents to the swampy spot near a pond where one of the devices still lay, unexploded. It was gingerly picked up, examined, and placed in a plastic bag. The thing resembled a tear-gas grenade, with an inscription in English imprinted on the metal lid. The liquid contents were still inside.
The investigators also managed to track down Maryam al-Khatib’s husband, Ibrahim. They accompanied him into his empty house and took video as he kicked at the broken patio tile, marking the spot where the deadly parcel had fallen into his courtyard.
Several days passed, and no word reached Aleppo on whether the investigators had made it safely across the border. Finally, Alnahhas began to pick up fragments of a story about one of the young volunteers who had transported the evidence from Saraqeb. The youth apparently had nearly made it to Turkey when his car was stopped. The border region was regularly patrolled by the shabiha, the pro-government thugs who functioned as a self-appointed home guard in Syria’s contested provinces. According to the story, the militiamen had pulled the driver out of his car and, without provocation, shot him dead in the street. The fate of the evidence trove he carried was unknown.
Alnahhas was shaken. The young volunteer had taken great risks and achieved a remarkable success, apparently all for naught. By now, the hard-won evidence of the crime had surely disappeared, and that meant, as far as Syria’s rulers were concerned, that there had been no crime at all.
But proof did still exist, though no one in Aleppo knew it.
It existed because Ibrahim al-Khatib, in his frantic bid to save his family, crossed into Turkey seeking medical help. Maryam died in a Turkish hospital, and under Turkish rules her body would remain there indefinitely, in the hospital’s morgue. Thanks to Maryam and her family, there remained within reach a vitally important clue:
The Turkish facility lacked the necessary equipment to test for traces of a chemical nerve agent, so its report was inconclusive. But the analyses from each of the European labs contained the same striking result. In the tissues collected from the brain, skin, and other organs, the tests found a number of chemical by-products—residues, essentially—that occur when human cells are exposed to a nerve agent. And in the lung samples, there existed small amounts of a compound denoted on the lab sheets simply as “GB,” the code name created by US scientists in the late 1940s for the exceptionally lethal poison developed by Nazi Germany just before the start of World War II. Two months after her death, Maryam’s lungs still contained tiny droplets of pure, military-grade sarin. Who made the poison, and who ordered its use? There were dozens of unanswered questions, including a puzzling discovery of an unexpected element in the sarin, a chemical compound often found in explosives. It was called hexamine, and its presence in the sarin baffled the investigators at the laboratory that conducted the analysis. A fuller accounting was likely still weeks, perhaps months, away, but Åke Sellström and his “good standard” had yielded results. Now his team could turn its attention to Syria itself, and to all the evidence—mystifying, heartbreaking, infuriating—that was still to be found there.
From Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World by Joby Warrick, published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Joby Warrick.