On Monday 16th March 2018 Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent of The Independent, took a call from Spirit Radio, as pre-arranged the previous week. We did not expect that he would have just been to Douma, the city close to Damascus at the centre of the alleged gas attack controversy, or that he would be the first foreign journalist to have found the clinic filmed in the video that shocked the world.
There has been a lot of interest in the interview, and although Mr Fisk has talked to other media outlets since, this interview may be of particular interest as it is something of a ‘hot debrief’ of what he had just seen in the previous few hours.
Below is a transcript (to the best of our ability) of the full interview. We are grateful to Robert Fisk for taking our call.
TRANSCRIPT – Robert Fisk interview with Spirit Radio (Ireland) 16th April 2018 (approx. 3pm Syria time)[RF] – Robert Fisk; [SR] – Spirit Radio [RF] Look, I’ve just been in the town of Douma where the videotape of people apparently suffering from gas poisoning was what originally produced the strikes. And the real question is whether in fact gas attacks and even if there were it’s not something that’s unusual since gas was used to kill thousands of Iranian soldiers and civilians during the war of 1980 to 88.
But in fact, what I did manage to find today as I went around the town of Douma, which of course now is in the hands of the government as opposed to the various Islamist militias, is that some considerable doubt in my mind about what actually happened there, the infamous ‘gas attack’ which provoked Trump and Theresa May and Macron to bomb three separate targets in Syria at the weekend.
I found the clinic where the film of the children frothing at the mouth and having water thrown at them was made. But the senior hospital doctor, who actually spoke very good English, who was there told me that the video is real, the video is 100% authentic, but they were not suffering from gas poisoning; they were suffering from (?) and hypoxia because of the amount of dust in the tunnels in which they lived. All (these) years, people in the Douma area have been living beneath their own homes in tunnels and basements. And that night there was a lot of shelling by the Syrian Army and by the Russian Air Force and it produced a huge amount of dust and debris and many people were finding it difficult to breathe. And when they reached the clinic, according to the doctor, someone shouted “Gas” and they panicked.
But he did confirm that the film, the videotape, was indeed taken in the clinic there, the same clinic where I (literally) interviewed him in. So that raises the question again of just, you know, was it in fact a gas attack?
War has a habit, and you remember (the extent of) that destruction in Iraq, of not quite producing the proof first time round.
Now the Russians have said of course that there wasn’t gas used. The Syrians, well they would say that, wouldn’t they? But the doctor in question whom I interviewed, and it clearly was the same clinic, I could recognise it, he was at his home in a basement 300 metres away on that night. And the doctors who were there on the night when the video was taken are in fact in the city of Damascus, where I’ve just arrived, giving evidence to a chemical warfare commission and we don’t know at the moment what they’re saying. Although he told me they’ll say exactly what he told me. He sounded a very credible man, I can point out. And after talking to perhaps twenty, twenty-five people in the whole area of where the gas was supposed to be used you couldn’t find anyone who had any record of it.
What I did hear from another doctor is that many people believe they can smell gas because poor people here, like poor people in many countries in this part of the world, use chlorine in their washing water to clean children’s clothes and so on, trousers, pullovers. And some people, including the doctor’s wife, said that they had believed that they could smell gas when in fact they were smelling un-deodorised chlorine for washing.
This has made for a very unromantic story but nonetheless one that has to be taken into account because it does partly account for the terrible things we saw.
People do suffer when you live under ground for days, weeks, months at a time. And that is what the people of Douma have been doing. Now of course, I went into (one of the?) tunnels and they are covered in dust and after a while you start coughing, not frothing at the mouth of course, but it does have an immediate effect on you.
So that’s what I can tell you. I’m the first journalist to find that clinic since the videotape was taken, which was taken anyway, as you know, by a medical group called the White Helmets. I tried to see the White Helmets, but I was told by people in the hospital that they had in fact left on the buses that the Syrian Government and the Russian Army had arranged for Islamic fighters to be taken to Idlib. In other words the White Helmets, which was partly funded by the British Foreign Office, appear to have chosen to leave on buses alongside Islamic fighters. Now what that tells you, I’m not sure.
I’ve literally just got back, I’m going to have to write my story up.
But that’s what I learned so far. I did go into huge underground tunnels and prisons which the Islamic groups had done. But they actually got prisoners who they’d kidnapped to hack away at the walls. Some of the tunnels are three stories deep and you can drive cars through them. A quite extraordinary experience to witness it today.[SR] Robert, it was reported that forty people were killed in this alleged chemical gas attack. Did you hear anything about victims? [RF] Forty-three was the figure, wasn’t it? Eh, no, I could not discover where there was a graveyard… I was not being shadowed by policemen or soldiers or minders. I was free to move around. I did pick up rumours from several people that a mass grave had been found containing hostages who had been murdered by the groups, you know, the various armed groups who were holding Douma. But I did not find anyone who knew or had anyone who had died among the forty-three in the (?). [SR] Having gone to Douma, Robert, how do you feel about people like Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump taking military action on the assumption that these deaths were caused by a chemical gas attack by the Assad Government? [RF] Good point. I’m asking myself that in the story, which I’m going to have to write. I think the point is, I don’t believe, frankly, that what Trump and May and Macron did had much to do with that gassing was ‘normalised’. It has been used by Saddam a long time ago. (You’ve had various attacks already here).
I think it is generally to try and help Trump out of his pornographic problems in the United States; it was to help May out of her ‘Brexit fix’; it was probably to help Macron support for France more arms deals to Saudi Arabia. I’m very cynical about these things. If you’re not going to intervene in the Syrian War to save the people and you’re just going to bomb three buildings, one of which may have had a chemical connection, though it’s not (clear?) yet, it has a rather strange (long) name to it that they didn’t like … (?)
But I think that Trump and company were very lucky that their air raids didn’t kill anyone. The danger would be we’re going to have more videotapes of alleged gassing and more air raids. And so, it’s the air raids (that will) become normalised as well.[SR] What do you expect from this independent investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons? That’s started now, is that right? [RF] Yes, they’re actually interviewing the doctors from Douma, not more than a few hundred metres from where I am talking to you. But I don’t know what the evidence they are receiving is. It will be important to listen to it. You’ve got to remember, you see, that when you live in the Middle East, I’m sure it’s the case in Europe as well, no one has forgotten ‘weapons of mass destruction’, which was the reason for going to war in Iraq, and led to the death of, what, half a million people and a war that lasted for almost nine years. I think you better realise that, and talk about ISIS of course… So if you could go to war for ‘weapons of mass destruction’, I suppose we can, you know, bomb people when we feel like it because of reports of chemical gas use.
But again I don’t think we’re going to get a final conclusion to all this. All I can tell you is what I saw and what I managed to do. I made a point of keeping away from any form of authority so that I could move around freely. Had I gone to the Mayor’s office, for example, I might have been able to find out where bodies were taken – the forty-three we heard about. The clinic doctors said no bodies had been brought to them. There were not any dead people. There were people who were suffering and they were foaming at the mouth because they believed they were being gassed because they heard this person shouting “gas, gas,” but the doctor said there was no evidence of gas poisoning at all.[SR] Middle Eastern correspondent with The Independent, Robert Fisk, thank you so much for talking to Spirit Radio today. [RF] You’re welcome
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