My eyes were burning, my head was throbbing, and my throat was rasping for air. I was suffocating.
I tried my best to inhale – once, twice, three times. All I heard was that same horrible scraping sound as my throat blocked. The drumming pain in my head became unbearable. The world began to blur.
Suddenly my windpipe opened again. The air ripped through my throat and pierced my lungs. invisible needles stabbed my eyes. A searing pain clawed at my stomach. I doubled over and shouted to my roommates, “Wake up! It’s a chemical attack!”
Abu Abdo, my high school writing partner; Ahmad, a friend from middle school; and Alm dar, a Free Syrian Army field commander, scrambled out of their beds in panic. I rushed to the bathroom and slapped water all over my face. I heard a din outside – screams from my neighbours.
My friends were also fighting for breath and coughing with all their force. We staggered around the room, panting and retching as we tried to put on our clothes as quickly as possible. Even before we could finish, we heard rapid and urgent bangs at the door. Ahmad ran to open it. It was our neighbour Um Khaled. “Help, please, they’re dying,” she gasped. She was carrying her children, four and six, one under each arm. Both were unconscious. Their faces were blue and yellow and they were vomiting an ugly white froth from their mouths.
Alm Dar ran downstairs to get his old white truck. Ahmad and Abu Abdo picked up the children and followed. I raced through the building to make sure no one else was hurt.
I hurried downstairs to the street, rushing past blasted-out windows, crumbling walls, pockmarked floors and piles of rubble. When I reached the front door and looked outside, I stopped short and stared in terror.
Dozens of men, women and children were writhing in pain on the ground. Other people were shouting for doctors, praying and calling to Allah in the heavens, pleading for their fallen loved ones to start breathing again.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a large lump lying in the dirt about fifty metres to my left. As I moved closer, I realised that it was a small boy with his face to the ground. I ran to turn him over.
The sight of his face made me forget every horror I had seen in the past three years: the burned and rotting corpses after massacres, the woman and children shredded into pieces by shelling, the cries of my friends as they lay wounded from combat – I forgot them all. All I could focus on was the innocent face of this boy stained with grotesque shades of red, yellow and blue. His eyes returned an empty, glassy stare. White vomit oozed from his mouth, and a grating sound rasped from his throat as he struggled to breathe.
I took off his shirt and tried to blow air into his mouth. I pressed his chest and tried to pump the white poison from his lungs. I screamed for help, begged Allah for mercy. None of it helped.
After two or three minutes Alm Dar pulled up in a truck over owing with injured women and children. He stared blankly at the boy, turned to his overflowing truck, turned back to me. I sat in the back with the boy. He was still struggling to breathe, that horrible grating sound still coming from his throat. We drove past more bodies and wailing survivors. I held him and cried.
When we pulled into the field hospital, I lifted the boy down. He seemed heavier than before. I could barely keep my balance and had to use all my strength to lay him on the ground. Then the world began to shimmer and turn grey, and the ground rose up to meet me.
I woke to find a man holding me and yelling that I was alive. He had a long wet black beard and red-brown eyes. I knew him: Ahmad. My friend, my housemate, Ahmad.
I looked around. I was in a building – no, a basement, with only small high windows to the outside. There was no electrical power, only a few candles, flashlights and dim rays of sunlight creeping in through the windows. All around me people were crying, wailing, throwing water on bodies, giving injections and pumping chests. The floor was wet and cold and covered with blood.
Three men approached, two carrying buckets of water and one holding a syringe. The two men splashed water across my body as the doctor injected me with a clear liquid. I was in great pain, but as the liquid coursed through me, I began to feel stronger. I tried to push the men back when they bent down to pick me up. “Let’s go upstairs,” they told me. “The air is starting to get poisoned in here.”
They helped me up a set of broken, rusty stairs into the open air. I shielded my face as a red ray of sunlight hit my eyes. It was morning, and the sun was rising. All around me people were crying, trying to revive their friends and relatives.
I took a few steps to a burned-out bus in the middle of the street. The bus seemed familiar; I had a clear memory of seeing it on fire. I stopped and looked around. I knew this place. I’d been here before. This was the field hospital in Moadamiya. People ran over and hugged me. “Praise Allah, you’re alive! Kassem, you’re alive!”
I began to recognise my friends and neighbours. Here was Mouawia, my next-door neighbour; here was Ahmad, Abu Abdo and Abu Malek, my football buddy since seventh grade. The people I had grown up with, in what seemed like aeons ago.
But I still couldn’t understand what had happened to me. Why did i feel so cold? I looked down at my body and realised that i was wearing only my boxer shorts.
“Where are my clothes?” I asked.
“We can’t bring you your clothes, brother,” said Abu Malek. “They’re covered in water and sarin. Assad hit us with sarin gas.” He left to get me something to wear.
The past few hours came flooding back to me. I remembered gasping for air, inhaling the most painful breath of my life. I recalled running to the street, seeing bodies everywhere, and the horrible, glassy stare of that little boy.
Abu Malek returned with a jacket and a blanket. “Now you should be –”
A huge explosion shook the ground and swallowed the rest of his sentence. More explosions followed in rapid succession around us: tank shells, mortars, heavy artillery, missiles and other weapons I didn’t recognise. A desperate effort to evacuate the hospital began. A group of Free Syrian Army fighters sprinted past me. Abu Jabal, a young fighter I knew, urged everyone to take cover, to fight. His pale face turned red as he yelled louder and louder. His wet brown beard bobbed up and down. I stared at him, rooted to the ground.
I heard a distant roar overhead: Assad’s warplanes were approaching. I craned my neck towards the sky, watching for them and waiting for the sound of bombs. Was this really happening? I looked in all directions, surveying the ruins of my neighbourhood, searching for something, anything that would help me make sense of it.
Alm Dar was shouting to get my attention. I listened and stared but did not reply. I just couldn’t process what was happening. He slapped me across the face.
“Are they trying to invade?” I asked dumbly.
“Everywhere! We need everyone at the front lines. Can you fight?”
In truth, i had never fought before.
He helped me into his truck. I still don’t know how we made it to his headquarters, with bombs falling around us in every direction. When we arrived I went into a bathroom and splashed myself with water. Someone knocked on the door and handed me pyjama trousers and a t-shirt. I put the clothes on and returned to the sink to try to wash the burning sensation out of my eyes, but I couldn’t recognise the reflection in the mirror. Whoever – or whatever – this was, it was not Kassem. This was a monster, a beast, with bloodshot eyes and a wild face contorted with fury and pain, an image of anger personified.
I had never before wanted to be a fighter, but in that moment of my life it was all I wanted to be.
Excerpted with permission from My Country: A Syrian Memoir, Kaseem Eid, Bloomsbury.