FORT WAYNE, INDIANA — A group of Syrian-American doctors had anticipated a major chemical weapons attack in Syria and was planning for ways to help the victims. But they were unprepared for the enormity of the August 21 massacre during which the U.S. estimates more than 1,400 people were killed.
Now, their meetings in Fort Wayne, Indiana, focus on preparation for future attacks.
They meet in a “Chemical Weapons Situation Room” in a place you’d least likely expect to find it.
To get to its location, you have to drive up to a suburban American house. Go inside, and down to the family basement. There you will find a the "situation room" where the doctors meet and speak only in Arabic via Skype.
The 33 doctors that join the call are in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Turkey. Three doctors are inside Syria. Two are in the Damascus suburbs where the attacks took place, and one is in Aleppo.
Dr. Ammar Ghanem, who leads the meetings, says they are discussing building chemical weapons treatment centers and protecting medical personnel from future attacks.
Sixty-five people died at Dr. Majd's hospital in the August 21 chemical attack. To treat future victims, he says the centers would be made up of multiple buildings, each specializing in different conditions, and would be built underground.
The doctors use nicknames for security reasons. A doctor who calls himself "Chemical Hazam" joins the session from Aleppo. The group considers him its chemical weapons expert. He says they need a decontamination tent at the entrance to the centers.
“We receive war-injured people" he said. "So we don't want the hospital to be contaminated with a chemical agent, and we know decontamination is the first step in treating people.”
The group discusses the three centers to be built. The doctors in Syria want more. The U.S.-based doctors ask if they are able to staff that many.
Ghanem says the group planned how to help if there were a major chemical attack, but not soon enough.
“With all the difficulty we have, especially with logistics, it's hard to get equipment and medical supplies inside,” he said.
And there’s a never-ending need for donations. American doctors collect supplies with the help of assistants. The staff drives them to a Detroit warehouse where volunteers box them so they can be shipped to the Mediterranean and smuggled into Syria.
But the one item needed most - chemical protection suits - is not part of this shipment, says Hazam.
“We tried to look for it in Turkey. We asked France. I think they also asked the United States, and no one would help us with such equipment,” he said.
Doctors say 900 more people could have been saved in August if they had had chemical protection gear and sarin antidotes. Neither is available in Syria.