Strength in the Face of Terror
Qusai Zakarya is by all definitions an incredible human being. After surviving the 2013 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya, he became a tireless public opponent of the oppressive Assad regime and rallied worldwide support during a 33-day hunger strike that called attention to the illegal siege of cities across Syria. This week, I heard Zakarya speak, accompanied by Kenan Rahmani – a Syrian-American human rights activist from the Syrian American Council.
It was an early August morning when Zakarya heard the distant air raid siren alerting the presence of incoming missiles. Seconds after sarin gas erupted from the first explosion, he lost the ability to breathe. Feeling extreme tightness in his lungs and unable to scream, he beat his chest until he was able to gasp for air. After regaining consciousness, Zakarya made his way to the Moadamiya field hospital.
The field hospital, a basement in an abandoned building staffed by six physicians and two medical students with no access to medical equipment, has been serving 15,000 citizens since the three hospitals in Moadamiya were destroyed by government attacks. The destruction of hospitals and targeting of medical staff is not a new feature of the Syrian conflict. The withholding of medical supplies and attacks on field hospitals and ambulances have become commonplace, the consequences of which have been devastating. After he was administered several shots of atropine, he made his way back up to the street.
Zakarya described the scene on the streets of Moadamiya as chaotic, with women and children falling on the ground while fleeing in panic. Amidst the chaos, he said there was a young boy lying in the street.
“I will never forget his wide blue eyes almost staring at another dimension,” Zakarya said. “He was suffocating and vomiting but looking as if into another world. I always try to forget, but cannot.”
The tragedy of Moadamiya seemed like an open wound for Zakarya. You could tell this was a story he had to relive many times over, but it was too important not to tell. He lost consciousness while bringing the boy back to the field hospital and awoke during the government invasion. Government soldiers wearing protective chemical gas masks marched into the city but were miraculously held off by the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). Viagra and condoms were found in the pockets of government soldiers killed by the FSA, which Zakarya and the FSA believe were intended to facilitate rape.
As an intern at Physicians for Human Rights, I have worked closely with the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones and know that all too often rape and sexual violence are employed to intimidate and frighten during times of conflict. Rahmani stated that sexual violence is used as a weapon to further terrorize the Syrian people.
“They [government soldiers] will frequently rape the wives and daughters of activists in front of them in order to terrorize them,” Rahmani said. “I know a lot of Syrian activists who – out of fear for their female relatives – remain silent. It is used as leverage by the government and is a way to spread fear to women and their families.”
Despite the desperate situation inside Syria, Rahmani and Zakarya remained hopeful for the future. They noted that the support of the international community is the biggest strength for the people of Syria. I wondered how many more times Zakarya would have to share his story with us before we became impassioned enough to demand action and publicly stand #WithSyria.