Early in the morning of 21 August 2013 the Syrian regime fired more than a dozen rockets, each containing 50 litres of the deadly chemical sarin, into the adjoining towns of Zamalka and Ain Tarma in East Ghouta, just outside Damascus. Two hours later another cluster of rockets bearing sarin hit the town of Muadamiyya 16 kilometres away. These attacks caused large-scale toxic poisoning with many victims dying immediately and thousands more in need of urgent medical treatment.
To make matters worse, the towns of Eastern Ghouta had been under bombardment and siege throughout the year before the attack. They had to face this crisis with very few medical facilities – there were only three hospitals left in the whole region. Fortunately the international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontiers had provided them with a stock of the drugs needed to treat toxic gas exposure – without this the number of deaths would have been far higher.
The final death toll is uncertain – the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) – based in East Ghouta – has documented records of 924 deaths. But given the chaos surrounding the attack the figure is almost certainly higher than that: probably between 1200 and 1500, with many thousands more suffering severe non-fatal symptoms.
In the year since the attack, the number of stillbirths and babies born with deformities in these towns has risen sharply. Sarin is not reported to cause birth defects directly, but it is likely that the trauma of the attack, combined with the difficulties of life under siege, are responsible for these continuing problems.