It was right after morning prayers and still dark, recalls 28-year-old Qusai Zakarya, when the alarms started to go off and rockets hit his suburban neighborhood outside Damascus last August.
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Though the country had been engulfed in war for over two years, this was different. “It was something we never witnessed before,” Zakarya said, and since he could not see the gas he was not sure what was happening.
“You can barely smell it. It’s like heavy air. It’s like you take a breath and you feel you breathed something heavy,” he said. The reality of a chemical weapons attack did not sink in until his neighbor arrived with two young children who were vomiting. They rushed to the hospital, but Zakarya collapsed along the way. His heart stopped and he was pronounced dead. He awoke almost an hour later, only when a mourning friend shook him.
“For me it is always like one minute ago,” he continued. “It's like a printed image in my mind. Every detail, every breath that I took, every woman or children I saw dying for suffocating.”
“This is something I cannot forget and just look the other way.”
On Thursday, he participated in a demonstration in front of the White House to mark the anniversary of the attack.
“I think my duty, so the world will know someday how brutal and terrifying that day was,” he said.
Lima Sergie Attar, a Syrian-America who lives in the Washington, D.C., area and helped organize the memorial demonstration, agreed. “Our first goal is to remember and remind people what is going on in Syria and as well as the consequences of inaction,” she said, motioning to symbolic red banner the group had created with the names of the more than 1,400 people killed in the chemical weapons attacks last summer. Prior to the attacks, President Obama had referred the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “redline,” which, if crossed, may trigger military retaliation from the international community.
“People forget the humanity behind the numbers,” Attar said.
The decision not to respond more forcefully following the chemical weapons attack has been back in the limelight this summer, as the U.S. engages in airstrikes just across the border in northern Iraq. Zakarya still hopes for more support for the Free Syrian Army, an organization he says is fighting two enemies--President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS--but he is adamant that group has never asked for American troops on the ground in Syria.
“All we asked for is to help us take away the Assad ability to using barrel bombs… and especially chemical weapons to keep punishing the Syrian people for asking for their freedom.”