REYHANLI, Turkey — Kutaiba al-Zouhoury was delivering food and medicine to trapped Syrians in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun last week when airstrikes hit the area.
In a nearby house, children were dropping everywhere, some foaming at the mouth, and al-Zouhoury said he soon began to have trouble breathing. The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital in this town on Syria’s northern border.
“I can’t describe what it is like to see all those people on the ground,” al-Zouhoury, 33, said as he recovered in an apartment. “But (Syrian President Bashar Assad) kills women and children. … There are attacks everyday. Why does the world only care when there are chemical weapons?”
That was a common question asked by other survivors of the April 4 chemical attack that left at least 86 dead, including 27 children. A civil war has seen immense brutality and destruction in Syria over six years.
Yet, the world only occasionally pays attention when there are high-profile atrocities. Even President Trump had largely ignored the conflict until images of dying children prompted him to order a retaliatory missile strike.
“The international community’s silence has been a crime. People care more about animals than Syrians,” said al-Zouhoury, whose wife and three daughters remain in Khan Sheikhoun.
Since the start of the war in 2011, at least 450,000 Syrians have been killed, and half of the pre-war population — about 22 million — have fled their homes in search of safety.
Human rights groups and foreign governments, including the United States, accuse the Assad regime of indiscriminate bombing, torture and other inhumane tactics like starvation against civilians in rebel-held areas.
“We were happy (for the U.S. airstrike), but they told Russia that they would strike Shayrat (airfield) before they did it,” said Abdulrazak Alatwa, a Syrian who fled to Turkey in 2012. “Trump did this for his own political reasons, not because he cares about Syrians,” he added, as he sat in his home here with his brother Mohammad Alatwa.
Some family members were injured in the chemical attack and treated in Turkey. One of the injured nephews, Deaa Alyousef, 12, recalled vomiting after the attack, passing out and waking up in Turkey.
“He has trouble remembering what happened,” said Mohammad Alatwa.
Mohammad Alatwa, 31, scrolls through photos on his phone showing green fields and olive groves at his family farm in Khan Sheikhoun. One shows him in front of rubble of a dwelling. “This is the damage from when our home was bombed the first time” in 2012, Mohammad Alatwa said. Eighteen family members survived the government airstrike.
In 2014, another bombing hit the farm and killed three workers. “This is my friend who was killed,” he said, pointing to another picture.
“America and Europe allow Assad to kill his people using any weapons, any guns, as long as it’s not chemical weapons,” said Abdulrazak Alatwa, 40.
On Saturday, Khan Sheikhoun was hit by new airstrikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group. Activists also reported government strikes in other areas but no chemical weapons were used.
Rami Jarrah, 32, a Syrian activist who fled in 2012, said children were also killed in the latest strikes but there was no international outrage. “Syrians at this stage are so desperate in pointing out that chemical attacks are the least of their worries,” he said.
“If I were going to die in Syria and had to choose, I’d prefer Sarin (nerve gas),” he said of the lethal agent Syrian forces allegedly used last week. “At least then I won’t go unnoticed and justice might be taken for me.”