Every time I see President Barack Obama speak on television, I have horrible flashbacks. My eyes are burning, I struggle to breathe, and when I inhale, the air stabs my lungs like a thousand daggers. A young child lies glassy-eyed in my arms, I load him into a truck, and then the world turns sideways and goes black.
Then, someone is shaking me, kissing me, crying over me. Suddenly, the world comes back into focus, and I see my friend, shouting: “You’re alive! You’re alive!”
I am a survivor of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks of Aug. 21, 2013. One year ago today, my heart stopped for 30 minutes after I inhaled nerve gas launched by Assad regime forces on my hometown of Moadamiya, a suburb of Damascus. The scene outside my front porch that morning was like something from Judgment Day:
Neighbors I had known my whole life were running, screaming, and writhing in agony as an invisible killer claimed their lives.
Today, a year later, I remember my dear friends with sadness, knowing that the man who killed them was spared punishment for the atrocity he committed that day.
But the worst sadness of my life did not come the day my friends died. It came three weeks later, while watching a livestream of President Obama. I learned from that speech that the United States would make a deal with Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, instead of striking at Assad for his atrocities. I had to translate this news into Arabic for my friends — we cried harder than we had on Aug. 21, because we knew that Assad now had a green light to kill all the Syrians he wanted, so long as he did not use sarin gas.
The past year has played out as I feared. Assad may have relinquished most of his sarin gas, but he has also found a new weapon to replace it, which also kills invisibly on a massive scale. Americans might recognize this weapon because fanatics from the self-styled “Islamic State” recently used it to kill Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. That weapon is starvation.
Over the past year, Assad has killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held areas across the country by denying them food, water, or medicine until they succumb to starvation. As with the Islamic State’s pretend “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Assad’s only goal with starvation is to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on innocents until they assent to his bloody rule.
In my hometown, there are few extremists. Emissaries from al Qaeda who came to our town to scout for recruits left Moadamiya after concluding in one day that we were “apostates.” We are locals fighting for democracy in Moadamiya — and for this reason, Assad is slowly starving us to death.
I was in Moadamiya until February, and I saw the full impact of Assad’s “starve and surrender” weapon myself. In October 2012, Assad’s forces commenced a total siege on Moadamiya, blocking all food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies from entering the town. While we initially found sustenance from a bumper crop of olives, food began to run out as winter set in, and residents were reduced to eating weeds and stray animals.
Once more, I held infants in my arms as they lay glassy-eyed and dying, this time from malnutrition. I consoled parents on the deaths of their young children — such as my friend Abu Bilal, who was a grocer before the siege but could not even save his own daughter during it. Another friend of mine was desperate to get medicine for his dying daughter, but was caught by regime intelligence. We found him with his throat slashed and the skin peeled off his entire body.
These are daily realities for tens of thousands of Syrians. Entire towns are slowly dying of starvation, and the U.S.-Russian chemical weapons deal made it possible. I know that the United States can save my friends and family in Moadamiya, just as it saved the poor Yazidis on Mount Sinjar.
Obama recently dismissed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as “former doctors, farmers, [and] pharmacists,” incapable of fighting Assad and the Islamic State at the same time. I know the FSA fighters in my hometown, and the president couldn’t be more wrong to write them off: Before I blacked out a year ago today, I watched with my own eyes as they repelled a massive attack by Assad troops in full chemical gear. The “farmers and pharmacists” of the Free Syrian Army have defended Moadamiya from everything Assad has thrown at them, and they deserve America’s support.
Last November, I initiated an indefinite hunger strike to draw attention to the horrific daily realities in my hometown. The hunger strike garnered international attention, and Congressman Keith Ellison even fasted for a day in solidarity. But it also drew the attention of regime authorities, who began to seek ways to kill me. With death possibly just around the corner, I entered into “negotiations” with the regime and managed to trick Ghassan Bilal — the chief of staff for Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother and feared enforcer — into thinking that I was ready to work with him. This allowed me to escape to Lebanon, and from there to Turkey, before I finally found refuge in the United States.
Since coming to the United States, I have been shocked at how little citizens of the world’s most powerful nation discuss global affairs. But I have also been pleasantly surprised by Americans’ generosity and love of liberty. I see statues all over Washington celebrating the American Revolution — a revolution that could not have happened without the many farmers and doctors who took up arms. I am confident that, once Americans realize what is happening in Syria, they will come to the aid of the Syrian “farmers and pharmacists” who power our revolution as well.
Obama must realize that we are fighting for our liberty, and that his inaction while we are being slaughtered will go down in history as a moral stain on his presidency.