I Was Gassed by Bashar al-Assad

Posted: August 22, 2014 by Mariam Hamou in Uncategorized

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.
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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.

I was looking at the most amazing scene I had seen since I arrived in the States – the flowering cherry blossoms.  My God, it felt like heaven.  The sun was sneaking through the shy clouds.  Poems of unconditional love were being recited by the light wind playing with lovers’ faces while they were standing there holding hands enjoying the beauty of an early spring day.

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I was taken by the scene.  I looked at my cold hand – no lover’s hand to hold you today.  I am sorry. Let me warm you and my freezing lips up with a cigarette.  Yes my beloved cowboy killers – it’s time for you again.

Rushing down the steps to the street, calling a taxi to get me to a meeting at the State Department to brief some officials about my experiences inside Syria and my beloved Moadamiya, I tried to get myself together to focus. I took out a mint to erase the smell of tobacco from my breath.  “Looking good,” my friends who were escorting me to the meeting said, “now let’s go get ’em.”

We went inside the State Department building and started talking about the chemical attack, the brutal siege, the constant shelling and massacres, Assad’s use of starvation as a weapon, barrel bombs, blackmailing the rebels to surrender through the civilians and calling that a truce, and my great escape.  As I spoke, it seemed to me like they really cared about what I was telling them. They asked a millions questions – hard ones and surprising ones.

Cherry blossoms – what a view.  The image remained in my thoughts during the meeting.  I started telling the officials that you need to act before it’s too damn late and how could Obama keep looking the other way about all that Bashar and Iran and Putin are doing in Syria?

I told them that since I’ve arrived here, all I’ve seen on CNN or NBC was news about the Malaysian airplane over and over.  With all due respect for it, I think there are much more important things going on in the world – like Assad’s using chemical weapons dozens of times in limited doses during the past few weeks, barrel bombs destroying what’s left of Aleppo and Syria, or how about how Bashar fulfilled his promise that he made in the middle of 2011 and turned Syria into a new Afghanistan, or how Hizballah and Al​-Qaeda are getting more experienced and stronger, while both of them  are fighting side by side against the free Syrian army, above and below the radar.

The officials told me that were doing their best and left. Then others approached me and told me to keep it up because I am right and there is much more that the US can do.

I felt a bit disappointed, but as we left the State Department, I remembered that someone as important and as pretty as Angelina Jolie had visited the Syrian refugee camps dozens of times and that she is somewhere here in the States and that she is standing with the Syrian people.  Angelina’s support gave me hope, especially when she called Kim Kardashian a witless bimbo after Kim misinformed people about Syria on Twitter.

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Suddenly it hit me in the face.  Why the hell doesn’t she run for president?  Imagine Angelina in the White House as the President of the United States of America. That also means that we would have Brad Pitt as the First Lady (man).

I think Angelina is like me.  She can see just how pretty the cherry blossoms are but she also sees the beauty of the Damascene jasmines and recognizes that they are worth saving.

I thought about that as I lit another cowboy killer to warm my cold hands and freezing lips and returned to the park with the cherry blossoms. My God, what a beautiful scene? And my God, how I love Angelina!

Today the hunger strike begins

Today the hunger strike begins

I am a 28-year-old Palestinian Syrian who serves the civilian Local Council of Moadamiya, Syria, protecting my family by using the pseudonym Qusai Zakarya. 

Moadamiya, where I grew up and live, has been under siege for over 365 days. There are still 8,000 civilians living here, and our food supplies have run out. As a citizen journalist, I am now documenting my townspeople dying of hunger. Seven children and four women have already died of malnutrition. 

Numerous humanitarian organizations have pleaded to no avail with the Assad regime to break the savage siege against civilians in cities throughout Syria, including Daraya, Yarmouk Camp, eastern Gouta, and Homs. Assad continues to use food and medicine as weapons of war.

I declare a hunger strike beginning on Tuesday, November 26, until the siege against the townsfolk of Moadamiya is lifted. 

I call on people of conscience everywhere to pressure their governments to act to break Assad’s siege and let humanitarian agencies bring food and medicine into besieged areas.

Your support is my only weapon.

My Video Announcement in Arabic, subtitled:  

My Video Announcement in English:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Qusai, in Moadmiya, Syria

Qusai, in Moadamiya, Syria

MOADAMIYA, SYRIA. Nov. 26, 2013:  Qusai Zakarya, spokesperson for the civilian Local Council of Moadamiya, Syria began a hunger strike to build pressure on the Assad regime to let food and medicine into his town and all besieged areas.

“I declare a hunger strike beginning on Tuesday, November 26, until the siege against the townsfolk of Moadamiya is lifted.

I call on people of conscience everywhere to pressure their governments to act to break Assad’s siege and let humanitarian agencies bring food and medicine into besieged areas. Your support is my only weapon,” said Zakarya.

Qusai Zakarya is a Palestinian Syrian born in Damascus who has lived since infancy in the town of Moadamiya, Syria. Moadamiya has been under siege by Assad forces since October, 2012. Zakarya, a 28-year-old who has advocated tirelessly for his hometown, is now witnessing his townspeople starve to death.

Zakarya cannot bring himself to eat cats, as some desperate residents are doing. “Not a chance. I used to raise three beautiful cats,” he says, before regime bombing destroyed his home on top of them.

Women have kept the community alive. Like country women the world over, Moadamiya women yearly pickle and preserve everything they can. When reserves ran out months ago, townswomen squeezed nourishment out of foliage, adding spices to make broth of boiled leaves more appealing, and banding together to take care of neighbors. Zakarya, who in better times enjoyed kickboxing, soccer, and bodybuilding, has lost 37 pounds.

Assad forces are blockading the city of Homs, Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, and most towns in the eastern Ghouta area, where Modamiya is located. Just southeast of Damascus, the town once full of 52,000 inhabitants has an agriculture based on olive groves. Gleaning olives has helped to keep remaining townsfolk alive, but winter is approaching.

Seven children and four women have died of malnutrition in recent weeks, despite numerous appeals for food by the city’s Local Council. Zakarya, who works under a pseudonym to protect his threatened family elsewhere in Syria, is the Council’s spokesperson. There are 128 councils across Syria, community self-governance structures developed by civilians active in the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The regime alternately claims either that only Free Syrian Army militias are left in the town, or that local FSA brigades are responsible for holding remaining citizens hostage. In fact 8,000 civilians remain and it is the regime which has sealed off access to the town, Zakarya says, and remaining residents now fear being subjected to what they consider to be forced displacement—with good cause.

The regime reneged on its promises and imprisoned scores of evacuees after four evacuations in October, which Zakarya helped to negotiate. Worse, during the last evacuation, regime army fired on civilians as they tried to reach Red Cross busses. Many townsfolk fear that if regime army breaks through FSA defensive barricades, civilians will be slaughtered in collective punishment similar to massacres perpetrated by the regime in other towns during the uprising. Moadamiya’s local FSA contingents are moderates, not Islamist extremists.

Before the uprising began, Zakarya worked in an urban hotel to support his siblings. There, he met his girlfriend, Dalia. When grassroots protests broke out, the two confessed their love to each other—and Zakarya became a citizen journalist documenting regime atrocities. Then Dalia stopped contacting him, out of fear.

“No cigarette to smoke, no sugar to sweeten my tea, and she is far away… somewhere in Europe, not talking to me because she is scared that one day she might call and find out that I am dead, that I have left her with a broken heart,” reads Zakarya’s diary entry for November 3, 2013.

Zakarya was exposed in the chemical weapons attack on Moadamiya and other Ghouta towns last August, and was nearly left for dead. “If my friend hadn’t started crying and shaking me…after the doctors thought I was dead and placed me with the deceased for 30 minutes, I wouldn’t be here thinking about all this.” Zakarya notes in his diary.

Zakarya’s hunger strike has one goal: Food, now.

Food and medicine are not weapons of war. Support the hunger strike of Qusai Zakarya by demanding safe passage of food and medicine convoys into Moadamiya and other blockaded cities in Syria.

And Dalia, call your boyfriend!

 

Please follow Qusai’s daily hunger strike updates at:

https://stopthesiege.wordpress.com/

 

Like the Facebook page for Solidarity with Qusai’s Hunger Strike::

https://www.facebook.com/qusaihungerstrike

Media Inquiries, Contact:

stopthesiege@gmail.com

 

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