Robert Fisk’s bombshell first-hand account for the UK Independent runs contrary to nearly every claim circulating in major international press concerning what happened just over week ago on April 7th in an embattled suburb outside Damascus: not only has the veteran British journalist found no evidence of a mass chemical attack, but he’s encountered multiple local eyewitnesses who experienced the chaos of that night, but who say the gas attack never happened.
Fisk is the first Western journalist to reach and report from the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack widely blamed on Assad’s forces. Writing from Douma in eastern Ghouta, Fisk has interviewed a Syrian doctor who works at the hospital shown in one of the well-known videos which purports to depict victims of a chemical attack.
Importantly, the report, published late in the day Monday, is causing a stir among mainstream journalists who–minutes after the Saudi-sponsored jihadist group Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) accused the Syrian Army of gassing civilians–began uncritically promoting the “Assad gassed his own people” narrative as an already cemented and “proven” fact based on the mere word a notoriously brutal armed group who itself has admitted to using chemical weapons on the Syrian battlefield in prior years. Also notable is that no journalist or international observer was anywhere near Douma when the purported chemical attack took place.
Controversy ensued immediately after Fisk’s report, especially as he is among the most recognizable names in the past four decades of Middle East war reporting, having twice won the British Press Awards’ Journalist of the Year prize and as seven-time winner of the British Press Awards’ Foreign Correspondent of the Year (the NY Times has referred to him as “probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain” while The Guardian has called him “one of the most famous journalists in the world”). An Arabic speaker, Fisk became famous for being among the few reporters in history to conduct face-to-face interviews with Osama bin Laden, which he did on three occasions between 1993 and 1997.
Fisk says he was able to walk around and investigate newly liberated Douma without Syrian government or Russian minders (in part this is likely because he has reported from inside Syria going back decades, in war-torn 1982 Hama, for example), and he begins his account as follows:
This is the story of a town called Douma, a ravaged, stinking place of smashed apartment blocks–and of an underground clinic whose images of suffering allowed three of the Western world’s most powerful nations to bomb Syria last week. There’s even a friendly doctor in a green coat who, when I track him down in the very same clinic, cheerfully tells me that the “gas” videotape which horrified the world– despite all the doubters–is perfectly genuine.
War stories, however, have a habit of growing darker. For the same 58-year old senior Syrian doctor then adds something profoundly uncomfortable: the patients, he says, were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.
Fisk goes on to identify the doctor by name – Dr. Assim Rahaibani – which is notable given the fact that all early reporting from Douma typically relied on “unnamed doctors” and anonymous opposition sources for early claims of a chlorine gas attack (lately morphed into an unverified “mixed” chlorine-and-sarin attack).
The doctor’s testimony is consistent with that of the well-known Syrian opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which initially reported based on its own pro-rebel sourcing that heavy government bombardment of Douma city resulted in the collapse of homes and underground shelters, causing civilians in hiding to suffocate.
According to SOHR, which has long been a key go-to source for mainstream media over the course of the war, “70 of them [women and children] have suffered suffocation as a result of the demolition of home basements over them due to the heavy and intense shelling.”
Though outlets from The Guardian to The Washington Post to The New York Times have quoted SOHR on a near daily basis throughout the past six years of war, the anti-Assad opposition outlet’s reporting of mass asphyxiation due to collapse of shelters has been notably absent from the same publications.
Watch | Robert Fisk: There was no chlorine attack in Douma
Fisk details the Syrian doctor’s testimony, who is adamant in his emphasis that civilians were suffocating en masse, and were not gassed:
It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic–“Point 200”, it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city–is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye.
“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night–but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia–not gas poisoning.”
In addition to interviewing a doctor while standing in the very hospital featured in White Helmets footage of the events, Fisk cites the testimonies of multiple locals in the following:
Before we go any further, readers should be aware that this is not the only story in Douma. There are the many people I talked to amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories–which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups.
These particular jihadis survived under a blizzard of shellfire by living in other’s people’s homes and in vast, wide tunnels with underground roads carved through the living rock by prisoners with pick-axes on three levels beneath the town. I walked through three of them yesterday, vast corridors of living rock which still contained Russian–yes, Russian–rockets and burned-out cars.
And further fascinating is that the veteran British war correspondent comes upon local Douma residents who have so long been trapped in an isolated ‘fog of war’ battlefield environment, that they are not even aware of the international importance that the town has played in the US coalition decision to bomb Syria:
So the story of Douma is thus not just a story of gas–or no gas, as the case may be. It’s about thousands of people who did not opt for evacuation from Douma on buses that left last week, alongside the gunmen with whom they had to live like troglodytes for months in order to survive.
I walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook. I sometimes had to clamber across 20-foot-high ramparts, up and down almost sheer walls of earth. Happy to see foreigners among them, happier still that the siege is finally over, they are mostly smiling; those whose faces you can see, of course, because a surprising number of Douma’s women wear full-length black hijab.
…Oddly, after chatting to more than 20 people, I couldn’t find one who showed the slightest interest in Douma’s role in bringing about the Western air attacks.Two actually told me they didn’t know about the connection.
But it was a strange world I walked into. Two men, Hussam and Nazir Abu Aishe, said they were unaware how many people had been killed in Douma, although the latter admitted he had a cousin “executed by Jaish el-Islam [the Army of Islam] for allegedly being “close to the regime”. They shrugged when I asked about the 43 people said to have died in the infamous Douma attack.
Concerning the White Helmets, who have played a dubious role throughout the war while presenting themselves as “impartial” and “neutral” rescue workers and film-makers, though known to operate exclusively in al-Qaeda and other jihadist-controlled areas of Syria, Fisk reports the following:
The White Helmets–the medical first responders already legendary in the West but with some interesting corners to their own story–played a familiar role during the battles. They are partly funded by the [British] Foreign Office and most of the local offices were staffed by Douma men.
I found their wrecked offices not far from Dr Rahaibani’s clinic. A gas mask had been left outside a food container with one eye-piece pierced and a pile of dirty military camouflage uniforms lay inside one room. Planted, I asked myself? I doubt it. The place was heaped with capsules, broken medical equipment and files, bedding and mattresses.
Of course we must hear their side of the story, but it will not happen here: a woman told us that every member of the White Helmets in Douma abandoned their main headquarters and chose to take the government-organised and Russian-protected buses to the rebel province of Idlib with the armed groups when the final truce was agreed.
And Fisk further narrates the strangeness of some of the reporting now happening far outside of Douma which flatly contradicts the testimonies of civilians still inside Douma that he encounters:
How could it be that Douma refugees who had reached camps in Turkey were already describing a gas attack which no-one in Douma today seemed to recall? It did occur to me, once I was walking for more than a mile through these wretched prisoner-groined tunnels, that the citizens of Douma lived so isolated from each other for so long that “news” in our sense of the word simply had no meaning to them.
Syria doesn’t cut it as Jeffersonian democracy–as I cynically like to tell my Arab colleagues–and it is indeed a ruthless dictatorship, but that couldn’t cow these people, happy to see foreigners among them, from reacting with a few words of truth. So what were they telling me?
They talked about the Islamists under whom they had lived. They talked about how the armed groups had stolen civilian homes to avoid the Syrian government and Russian bombing. The Jaish el-Islam had burned their offices before they left, but the massive buildings inside the security zones they created had almost all been sandwiched to the ground by air strikes. A Syrian colonel I came across behind one of these buildings asked if I wanted to see how deep the tunnels were. I stopped after well over a mile when he cryptically observed that “this tunnel might reach as far as Britain”. Ah yes, Ms May, I remembered, whose air strikes had been so intimately connected to this place of tunnels and dust. And gas?
For a prime example of what Fisk references as refugees in Turkey “already describing a gas attack which no-one in Douma seemed to recall…” CNN aired a segment from one such refugee camp which is absolutely bizarre and stunning in its claims.
During the segment which aired “hours after” the US-led airstrikes on Damascus, CNN’s Arwa Damon began sniffing a 7-year-old Syrian girl’s backpack while concluding, “I mean there’s definitely something that stings…” – with the implication that empirical proof had been found of government chemical weapons use against the little girl and her family.
And in the full segment, Damon attempts to subtly introduce the idea of a nerve agent used against the family (though initial claims were widely reported to be chlorine) by awkwardly including the account of the girl’s escape from Douma: “She could barely breathe… she felt as if her entire nerves basically released.”
Though it’s unclear what the strange phrasing of “her entire nerves basically released” actually means, CNN’s Arwa Damon is ultimately claiming to be able to safely and comfortably handle and sniff a backpack which contains residual sarin and chlorine agents, while simultaneously presenting the backpack as “proof” of a chemical attack which happened a week prior (to say nothing the clearly unscientific and bogus nature all of the above).
Notably, in addition to Fisk’s bombshell report filed from ground zero of the claimed chemical attack in Douma, cable network One America News has also issued a report from on the ground in the newly liberated town, finding “no evidence” – in its words – that a chemical attack took place there.
Robert Fisk’s report for The Independent and the One America News segment constitute the first major international media reports from the location of the alleged chemical attack. But it will be interesting to see the extent to which international chemical and weapons experts either validate or refute their conclusions once the site is inspected.
Meanwhile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team arrived in Damascus on Saturday, April 14th – after the US-led overnight strikes which primarily hit government buildings in the capital.
Top Photo | Robert Fisk in one of the miles of tunnels hacked beneath Douma by prisoners of Syrian rebels.” (Photo: Yara Ismail/Independent)
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