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OPCW Team Visits Syria To Probe Chemical Attack Site


We begin this hour with Syria and the testimony of people who say they were wounded in a chemical attack on the town of Douma near Damascus. The U.S. says it believes the Syrian government is behind the apparent attack. And last week, President Trump responded with missile strikes on government military targets in Syria. But the facts of what happened in Douma April 7 are still unclear. The world's international chemical weapons watchdog has launched an investigation, and they've just finally reached Douma. And slowly, eyewitness testimony is starting to emerge.

NPR's correspondent Ruth Sherlock and Beirut producer Lama Al-Arian gained rare access to Syria. They crossed from the Turkish border to meet with Syrians who have just escaped from Douma. Now they're back in Turkey. And Ruth joins us on the line. Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ruth, just briefly - where is the OPCW investigation at right now? They gained access to Douma. What did they find?

SHERLOCK: That's right. They went in on Saturday. But now, you know, it's a full two weeks after the attack happened. They've had some problems accessing the site before, and there's also been accusations that Russia - the regime's - Syrian regime's ally may have tampered with the evidence at the site. Russia denies that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In your trip inside Syria, you met with people who told you that they were affected by what they called a chemical attack. Tell us about what they said.

SHERLOCK: Well, we met several people who said they'd experienced the attack. Some of them were visibly ill and they said it was from the chemical gas that they'd inhaled.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in Arabic).

SHERLOCK: In one of the tents, we met a man who identified himself as Abu Faisal. He was pallid and thin and clearly very sick. He lay under a gray blanket on a thin mattress in his tent, and he struggled for breath as he talked to us. At one point, he had to stop to use an inhaler. He says he was caught in the thick, yellow smoke of what he thinks was a chlorine gas bomb.

ABU FAISAL: (Speaking in Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Here, he says he was taken to a medical clinic that was in chaos from the flood of patients. He says, "I heard one doctor tell the others, this person is finished. And then I realized he was talking about me." He says the doctors moved on to other patients but had very few medicines. He said they had to treat about 15 people with one normal asthma inhaler just like the one he was holding in our interview.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been years of violence in Douma. Did he talk to you about that? Who is he?

SHERLOCK: Yes. So he was a rebel fighter in Douma. But he said that one of the most frightening things was actually leaving the front line and going to his home to see if his family was safe because there was so much bombing - those barrel bombs that seemed to hit indiscriminately across the area. And he tells us that he also experienced another chemical attack a few weeks ago that was different from this most recent attack. He says he believes it was launched by the regime. And as he talks to us about this through an interpreter, he breaks down into tears.

FAISAL: (Through interpreter) They used the chemical attack at the beginning of the military campaign when they started targeting Ghouta. It was, like, unbelievable. It's like hell what we faced in Douma.

SHERLOCK: Like so many of the people who we spoke to from Douma, he just looked physically and emotionally broken.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock. She and producer Lama Al-Arian were just in Syria. Thank you so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.