Conflict & Justice

Syrian Conflict: This is What it's Like to Lose Family Members to Chemical Warfare

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A photo of children, relatives of the Hourani family, killed in the apparent chemical attack in Syria. (Photo by Daniel Estrin.)

I sit in a large, bright living room with three generations of the Hourani family. Khansa, dressed in black and a long white veil, flips through the first few pages of a photo album. She's staring at pictures of relatives who were gassed to death in Syria.

"My uncle. His wife. His daughter. Her son. Six children," she says.

Then she flips back to the first page and describes the same photos again. It's like she's in a daze.

"His wife, daughter, son," she says.

They're pictures of Khansa's visit to Syria in 2010, a year before the war broke out. It was the first and last time she would ever see her uncle Daher's family.

Khansa's husband Abdallah tells the story from the beginning: In the early 1960s, young Daher left the West Bank to look for work as a carpenter. Daher found his way to Syria, got married, raised a family there, and never moved back.

The West Bank is occupied by Syria's archenemy, Israel, and visits between the West Bank and Syria have been mostly forbidden. But in 2010, the West Bank branch of the family got visas to visit Syria, and see Daher and the family.

"It was a surprise," Khansa says. "They didn't know we were coming."

Only Daher's son knew, and they wanted to surprise the rest of the family.

"They were just sitting there, and Daher said, 'Who's that?'" Abdallah recalls. "They were really, really happy. We stayed up until one or two in the morning. We went downtown to Damascus, to the park. That's what it was like the whole week. On our last day there, we stayed up sitting together until three in the morning."

That was 2010. A year later came the fighting. The family in the West Bank would call their relatives in Syria every few months. They never spoke about the war. They didn't want to get their family in trouble for saying something on the phone that Syrian officials who might be listening in wouldn't like. So Abdallah says they don't know what their family in Syria thought about the war, or what things were like in their neighborhood. They don't know anything.

"It was only, 'Salaam Aleikum, how are you,'" he says. "We called just to see if they were alive or dead. That's it."

All they knew is that the 75-year-old Daher refused to abandon his house. He had left his Palestinian home once; he wasn't going to leave his second home. So the whole family in Syria moved in with him. They all lived together in one house.

When Abdallah in the West Bank saw on the news that a chemical attack had taken place in the family's neighborhood, he called Daher's youngest son, who described what happened. He'd left the house just a few hours before, and came back to find the whole family there, dead.

When Daher left the West Bank for Syria a half century ago, his brother Ahmad was 26. Today Ahmad is 78. His face is leathery, his eyes are milky, he walks with a wooden cane.

I asked him if he could describe his brother. What was he like?

"Praise God, he was good," Ahmad says. "What can I say about him?"

I ask if they know any special stories they can share about Daher or his family. Something funny, something nice, so people can know about them better.

But they can't think of any specific anecdote to share. Ahmad's niece Khansa says their trip to meet the family was really short. They didn't really get to know the family.

The muezzin begins his call to prayer from the mosque next door. Ahmad holds a photo of his late brother's young, smiling grandchildren, and rubs his eyes. Khansa holds a picture of her cousins.

But who were they? They struggle to describe them. Borders of war and suspicion had kept them apart. They've even forgotten the name of one of the kids who was killed.

That's one of the most devastating parts about this family tragedy. They didn't really know the family that they lost.

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