Fire fell 'like rain' in Syria

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Story highlights

  • Eyewitnesses of the attack: Incendiary like devices dropped from a government fighter
  • These are "any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to set fire to objects"
  • Rola Hallam treated victims, some of whom suffered burns over 80% of their bodies

It started with a baby.

Within minutes, dozens of teenagers and children staggered into an emergency room on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria.

Rola Hallam, a British Syrian doctor, describes what she saw there in late August while working with the charity Hand in Hand for Syria.

"We had had, you know, over 30 who had arrived, all within about 10 or 15 minutes, all with just heartbreaking, extensive burns," she said.

The patients were victims of an August 26 attack in Awram al-Koubra, outside Aleppo, where eyewitnesses described incendiary like devices being dropped from a government fighter jet onto a private residence, and then a school.

Incendiary bombs are not chemical weapons, but their effects can be just as devastating.

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They are identified as "any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target," according to the United Nations.

British emergency doctor Saleyha Ahsan describes them in less clinical terms, in the terms of her patients.

"The descriptions were fire falling like rain, just falling like rain, plumes of flames and then balls of flames falling out of the sky," she said.

"Their clothes had just been stripped off them from the power of heat and the incendiary device, covered in burns and some of them very shocked and quiet, and not sure where they were and what was going on."

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The day of the attack, she, Hallam and others treated about 40 victims, some of whom suffered burns over 80% of their bodies.

By chance, the doctors were filming with the BBC's Panorama program to highlight medical conditions in Syria. The cameras kept rolling as patients poured in.

'I wanted their faces seen'

The video is disturbing to watch. It shows people sitting on the floor, their skin peeled and hanging like ripped clothes.

'I felt like I was in a horror show or something on a movie set. It was so surreal," said Hallam.

"All walking in, with a really bewildered look on their face, an absolutely awful smell of burning flesh mixed with a very weird synthetic smell that I've never smelled before."

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Eights students died in the attack and 50 other people suffered burns, according to the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry, which investigates alleged violations of human rights law in Syria. It will issue a report next month.

The United Nations says more than 100,000 people, including civilians, have been killed since the start of the country's two-year-old civil war. Conventional, not chemical weapons, are believed to be responsible for the vast majority of those deaths.

Both Hallam and Ahsan said they would expect very few of their patients to survive for any amount of time.

"I wanted their faces seen," Hallam said.

"I wanted the whole world to know that what is happening in Syria is happening, and I don't want anyone to say I never knew because you all know. And the world needs to act."