The morning of Aug. 21, 2013 began like most mornings in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya since the revolution began. With explosions.
But on this morning, according to the U.N., the rockets that landed there and in the nearby towns of Ein Tarma and Zamalka, were different.
They contained deadly Sarin gas, killing more than 1,000, eventually leading the Obama administration to threaten military force against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Heba Sawan, 24, says she was in the basement of the house she shared with her cousin’s family in Moadamiya when the rocket hit that morning. The next few hours, she says, were “like doomsday.”
Saturday, at the University of South Florida Marshall Student Center, Sawan, her cousin Amineh Sawan and Anas al-Dabas will tell their stories about living through a conflict that began March 15, 2011 and has taken more than 130,000 lives. The three are touring the country as part of an effort by the Syrian Opposition Coalition to bring awareness of the horrors, and to spur greater U.S. action against the Assad regime ahead of a second round of peace talks that kick off Monday in Geneva. The event is being co-hosted by Students in Solidarity With Syria, an anti-Assad group at USF.
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Sawan says she has few memories of life before what she calls “the revolution” began, when Assad security forces fired on protestors seeking the release of political prisoners.
“We were watching what was going on in the Arab Spring and hoping for a miracle to start, to get our freedom,” she says Thursday afternoon on a whirlwind day of speaking to Congress and media. “We started existing that day.”
But the existence in the predominantly Sunni town of Moadamiya, a short 10-minute ride by car along Highway 7 southwest of Damascus, soon became “hellish.”
“They shelled the city every day,” she says. “And there were MiGs and artillery.”
Death was constant, she says. So was hunger and fear among those who survived.
“There was no food,” she says. “No medical care. We tried to find safe places to live in.”
Some who did live were carted off by government forces, says Sawan, never be seen again.
“They took my father,” says Sawan, who hasn’t seen Abdul Sawan since.
Through it all, the people still tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Sawan says she fell in love and was planning a wedding.
But that never happened, she says. On Jan. 25, 2013, an artillery shell exploded, taking the life of her fiance, Muhammad Adnan Sawan.
“It was four hours before the wedding,” she says. “The next day, when I went to the graveyard, I was injured by shelling.”
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The horror, says Sawan, was ceaseless.
But early in the morning of Aug. 21, 2013, it got even worse.
Sawan says she and her cousin Amineh were already up, preparing activities for the children and listening to reports on the internet of a chemical attack in one of the nearby towns.
That’s when she says she heard an explosion and began waking up the other people in the house.
“I asked them to put scarves on the mouths and noses,” she says, explaining that was the advice provided over the internet.
Sawan says she and her cousin, who had both volunteered as nurses, rushed down to the town medical center.
The trip usually took about five minutes by foot, but “because of the shelling,” this time it took about 20 minutes, she says, adding that she was having trouble breathing, and that her eyes were tearing up.
When they arrived at the medical center, “it was an indescribable situation.
“People were on the streets,” she says. “Dead people, People were suffocating. Their faces were red or green. Some were foaming at the mouth.”
After more than two years of constant bombardment and direct fire, the medical center had little medicine and nothing to cope with what Sawan says she saw.
“We put vinegar and lemon on their mouths,” she says of limited ability to help the dying men, women and children. “We don’t have anything that we can do for these people.”
Sawan says she spent the next two weeks mostly sleeping, waking up crying.
“I couldn’t stand all these dead people I saw in my nightmares,” she says.
It would not be until later, after U.N. inspectors arrived, that Sawan would learn that her town was attacked by Sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent.
Sawan, her cousin and al-Dabas began their tour of the U.S. Jan. 17 with an appearance before the United Nations and will end 6 p.m. in the Oval Theater at the Marshall Student Center, 4103 USF Cedar Drive.
As horrific as it was, Sawan says the Sarin attacks caused just about 1 percent of deaths in a conflict with no end in sight.
“I would choose chemical weapons to die,” she says. “It is more peaceful than dying from hunger, day after day.”