The Visual Evidence of a Chemical Attack in Syria Is Overwhelming and Disturbing

Warning: Many of the photos and videos in this post will be disturbing to some readers. They feature numerous images of dead bodies and people in distress, including young children and infants.

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Warning: Many of the photos and videos in this post will be disturbing to some readers. They feature numerous images of dead bodies and people in distress, including young children and infants.

The alleged chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria today has been an unusually moving event, not just due to the brazen level of cruelty and violence, but also the large amount of devastating visual evidence that has emerged. The government has officially denied using any such weapons, but the United Nations inspection team that arrived in the country on Sunday (to investigate previous claims of chemical weapon attacks) has been denied access to the site. As a result, the images below are the only evidence we have of the devastation — and there is a lot of evidence.

Various opposition groups began reporting early this morning that the Assad regime had launched some sort of chemical weapon attack, possibly involving a nerve gas or poisonous gas, in the area of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus. The wildly inconsistent casualty reports (observers announced anywhere from a few dozen to over 1,300 killed) made it hard to grasp the real truth of the situation.

But as the day rolled on, a growing number photos and videos from both professional journalists and local eyewitnesses have surfaced online. Amassed together, they created an usually powerful and voluminous record of what happened on the ground in Ghouta today. The numerous haunting images in this post only scratch the surface of what has been shared.

While we wouldn't normally wallow in a collection of such heartbreaking and disturbing images, in this instance the photos and videos coming out of Syria today are the most vital part of the story. One reason why is the sheer number of them; more perhaps than we've seen on any other day of the Syrian conflict. With a death toll that crossed 100,000 in July, by the U.N.'s estimate, the Syrian civil war has been an unending series of tragedies that often captured in a few fleeting YouTube clips or Facebook pictures. The Syrian war in particular has been exceptionally difficult for journalists to cover, but today's attack has produced dozens of photos and videos that demonstrate the full scope of this disaster. They also completely undermine Russian and Syrian claims that the rebels did this to themselves.

Rather than one photo being shared repeatedly, we've seen numerous images taken at different times by different people, but ultimately telling the same tragic story. As a result that story has also gotten the attention of the United States and its allies at the United Nations, many of whom have called for a full investigation. 

The other reason these images are important is that they are not just the story of an attack: they are the only proof that it happened. The photos show dozens, if not hundreds, of dead bodies, almost all of them unmarked by bullet wounds, shrapnel, or other obvious signs of external injury. The videos show victims sprawled out on floors struggling to breathe, bewildered by what has happened to them. (Brown Moses, an anonymous pseudonymous blogger who has built a reputation as an expert on weapons and Syria, found 75 videos related to today's attack and posted them all into a YouTube playlist.)

These are not deaths from traditional weapons. When a car bomb levels a block in Beirut or an airborne missile destroys a village, there is usually little left of the victims. You only need to see one Egyptian protester bleeding out on the sidewalk to know what happened in Cairo last week. Seeing dozens and dozens of unbloodied bodies laying side-by-side tells a much different story. And when dealing with chemical weapons, the victims themselves are often the only evidence available to prove the case.

While the United States, France, and Britain, aren't willing to say it officially, all signs in these videos and pictures point to a chemical weapon attack. Even with this current evidence, they must tread lightly and qualify their statements carefully. Without the evidence, the powers that be wouldn't even be having the discussion at all.

MUST WATCH: a victim of chemical attack in Damascus suburbs closely examined by doctor, he's still alive #Syria

— Nuff Silence (@NuffSilence) August 21, 2013

Finally, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the entire ordeal is the huge numbers of children who were killed today. Young people are usually not on the front lines of the fighting, and they are rarely targeted by even the worst soldiers, but poison gas attacks do not discriminate. No matter what side of the fight you're on, no one can argue that dead Syrian children were not innocent victims of this event.

British Foreign Minister William Hague said today that he hopes this attack "will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime, to realise its murderous and barbaric nature." The previous chemical attacks that the United States suggested were a "red line" and which Russia found "unconvincing", were easier to ignore, but because of the videos and pictures you see here, that may no longer be the case.  This may truly be a turning point in the war, at least from the standpoint of world opinion. The decision to use chemical weapons (on the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama's original "red line" threat, no less) suggests that Bashar al-Assad believes he has nothing to fear from the rest of the international community. Now we'll truly see if his hunch is correct.

Image credits (top to bottom): REUTERS/Hadi Almonajed; AP Photo/Media Office Of Douma City; REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah; AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen; AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen;  REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh; AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.