New, inconsistent, “napalm bomb” account goes viral

A new video describing the alleged incendiary attack featured in the BBC Panorama programme Saving Syria’s Children contains a number of striking discrepancies with previous accounts and has gained millions of views on social media.


In the video, from the annual Women in the World Summit in New York, British-Syrian medic Dr Rola Hallam describes the arrival at an Aleppo hospital in August 2013 of victims of an alleged incendiary attack on a nearby school. Dr Hallam and another British medic, former army captain Dr Saleyha Ahsan, were being followed by the BBC Panorama team of reporter Ian Pannell and cameraman Darren Conway and the events related by Dr Hallam form the climax of Saving Syria’s Children (from 30:38).

Dr Hallam’s new account was posted on the Facebook page Now This Politics on 7 April [1]. An annotated transcript follows.

Yeah, that was the worst and hardest day of my life.

Ummm…we had just come out of the basement of the hospital because a warplane was flying above so we were all advised as we always do to go to the lowest part of the hospitals in case they target it.

Dr Saleyha Ahsan, who was also present during the alleged incident, has stated that prior to the arrival of the first victims she “was enjoying a rare moment of peace…  …sitting on the hospital balcony overlooking the olive groves”. [2] Dr Ahsan made no mention of a warplane flying over Atareb Hospital and equally there is no mention of this highly salient fact in Saving Syria’s Children or in any other reports of the alleged incident of which I am aware. 

So we’d just come out, and one by one we were seeing these ghoulish-looking children walking in.

 In a 30 September 2013 BBC News article, Ian Pannell wrote:

“Within an hour of being there we received the first sign of what was to come. A seven-month old baby boy arrived, his pink face was blistered and raw. His father was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son as the staff rushed to help. The British doctors were hearing rumours that there were more cases on the way. Soon, dozens of people, mostly teenagers, were being rushed in on stretchers with napalm-like burns.”

This version of events, in which the first victims of which anyone at the hospital were aware were a baby and his father, with other alleged victims arriving only subsequently, is also depicted in Saving Syria’s Children [3] and appears in accounts given by Dr Hallam’s colleague during the alleged crisis, Dr Saleyha Ahsan [4]. At a November 2013 debate Dr Hallam herself stated (from 22:17):

“We were working in the emergency department when a baby, a seven month old, came in with 80% burns, with his dad who also had a burnt face, and we thought it was an isolated case, he was telling us about how a plane had flown over their house and suddenly his house caught fire. So were dealing with the baby thinking it’s a case in isolation and suddenly within literally a few minutes we were inundated with many severely burnt teenagers who had come in saying that their school had just been attacked by the same aeroplane, by the same incendiary weapon as the father and his baby, and so we ended up in a kind of a mass casualty event where a very small team of doctors and nurses working in a makeshift hospital were trying to deal with about 40 injured teenagers and family members that arrived all within about half an hour.” 

Dr Hallam’s new claim that the first victims of which she was aware were “ghoulish-looking children walking in” would therefore appear to contradict the BBC’s footage of the event, her colleague on the ground and her own previous account. 

You know that really infamous Vietnam photo of, of the girl um, coming, um, from the napalm bomb coming like this. They were all literally coming in one by one, clothes are hanging off them, covered in white powder dust, umm, with the most heart-wrenching smell of burnt singed flesh coming in.

Dr Hallam’s choice of phrase at this point is strikingly similar to that of Dr Ahsan at 32:04 in Saving Syria’s Children: “there’s dozens of people that have just been rushed in covered in burns and some white powder dust, their clothes are hanging off them”. 

Google returns a mere 14,600 results for the oddly constructed phrase “white powder dust”, as opposed to 402,000 results for “white dust” and 7,340,000 for “white powder”. It is hard to avoid the sense that Dr Hallam is recalling the script of Saving Syria’s Children rather than her own experience.  

And I remember just looking and I felt like I’d been moved or transported to a Hollywood horror show or a horror scene. Umm, we were, it was, it was at the time when the last big chemical weapons attack had happened in Damascus. It was five days afterwards, so we didn’t know what was happening, we thought ‘is this a chemical weapons attack?’. So we started to treat them as if they were, until we got the intelligence that it was a big incendiary weapon which is basically a big ball of fire that was dropped from the aeroplane.

In the BBC News report of 29 August 2013 Ian Pannell stated “We don’t know for sure what was in the bomb, but the injuries and debris suggests something like napalm or thermite.” Other accounts have suggested white phosphorous. Some of the varying accounts are compiled here. Others will be better placed than I to assess which of the competing claims are most consistent with Dr Hallam’s reference to “a big ball of fire”. 

Dr Hallam’s reference to “the aeroplane” seems to suggest that the plane which allegedly attacked the school was the same “warplane” which she claims in the opening part of her statement was flying over the hospital. Again, this would be an entirely new claim, absent from all other accounts, including Ian Pannell’s reports for the BBC.  

Onto a, umm, a school yard where ten to sixteen year-olds were waiting after school to be picked up by their children, by their parents.

A contemporary Daily Telegraph report compiled from a “detailed account” given by Dr Saleyha Ahsan states “ the jet’s deadly payload had exploded outside their classroom in the middle of a maths lesson.”  Ian Pannell states that alleged victim Siham Kanbari “had been in a maths class when the blast ripped through the window” and at 42:32 in Saving Syria’s Children claims that alleged victim Anas Said Ali had “been waiting to pick up his little sister from school”. A display at the launch of the The Phoenix Foundation, a charity established in 2015 by Dr Saleyha Ahsan and others, claims a “French class was taking place just as the bomb was dropped”.

All of these claims indicate that a class or classes were taking place at the time of the alleged attack, with at least one relative waiting for school to end, and so would appear inconsistent with Dr Hallam’s statement that “ten to sixteen year-olds were waiting after school to be picked up by their children, by their parents“. 

There’s one boy who sticks in my mind and, and he’s etched into my mind. He, he walks in and he is so burnt he looks like a tree bark. Never ever seen anything like it before. And he’d lost all his hair, everything, he literally walked in solid, like so solid, he couldn’t bend his arms. And I was so stunned, the only thing I could think to say was “How are you?”. I didn’t know what else to say, I’d never seen anything like that before. And he went “I’m okay” [mimicking hoarse whisper] ’cause he was all completely burnt on the inside.

Dr Hallam’s description does not appear to match any of the adolescent male alleged victims who feature most prominently in Saving Syria’s Children: Anas Said Ali, Lutfi Arsi, Mohammed Kanas, Mohammed Asi or Ahmed Darwish. [5] 

Unless Dr Hallam, who spent part of her childhood in Syria, is expeditiously translating from Arabic, the boy’s use of English in such circumstances would appear odd and recalls the jarring use of English (“I’m so bad, so bad”) by alleged victim Anas Said Ali at 36:53 in Saving Syria’s Children.

And I remember knowing, you know my mass-casualty training, we know that these patients, there is just, they’re gonna die, like there’s, there’s no hope and in, in trying to treat them. But I knew that the way he would die would be to suffocate and that’s why yesterday I was completely paralysed because seeing that those images and those kids suffocating to death was what I saw in so many of those children on that day and I knew he was going to suffocate to death so I did treat him so that he would slip away rather than kind of suffocate.

And yeah, ten of them, ten, ten died in our hospital and on the way to Turkey and another ten just arrived charred and completely burnt.


Further inconsistencies in accounts of the alleged events of 26 August 2013 by Dr Saleyha Ahsan and Ian Pannell are compiled in graphic form here and here

On 1 March 2017, in response to challenges made by film, television and radio producer Victor Lewis-Smith, current Panorama editor Rachel Jupp issued a statement regarding Saving Syria’s Children. Lewis-Smith has announced his intention produce a feature documentary investigating the programme. Lewis-Smith’s interest was sparked by this interview:

Notes

[1] The video has also been posted on You Tube.

[2] Dr Ahsan provides a similar account here.

[3] In the sequence commencing 30:53 in Saving Syria’s Children, Drs Hallam and Ahsan are in the same room as Dr Ahsan attends to the infant. Panorama reporter Ian Pannell’s narration states (31:01):

“A seven month old baby boy has been brought in with severe burns. No-one’s quite sure what’s happened.”

Then, with the baby and father in shot behind her, Dr Hallam states (31:45):

“There are more ambulances coming.”

[4] In The Independent of 29 September 2013, Dr Ahsan wrote:

The sudden screech of a truck pulling into the hospital courtyard was the only alert we got that a patient had arrived. I ran down the stairs to the sparse “re-sus” room – the patient was an eight-month-old baby. His face looked scalded and the left leg was red. The exact cause of injury was unclear, the initial translations mentioned a car crash.

As I worked a young boy appeared to my side. He looked ghostly covered in a white ash moving slowly and quietly. On the right side of his head a large laceration so deep his skull was exposed. “Where shall I go ukhti (sister)?” A multiple pile-up, I wondered? Holding him upright, looking for another trolley I turned the corner of re-sus. This was bigger than a car crash – we were in the middle of a mass casualty situation. Within minutes the hospital was overflowing. The only space left for patients was on the floor, propped up against the wall in the reception area.

In The Romford Recorder of 11 October 2013, Dr Ahsan is quoted as follows:

“The day of the bombing was actually quite quiet. Then an eight-month-old baby came in with nasty scolds on his legs. My Arabic is limited so I wasn’t able to communicate with the parents about what happened.

“Then within two or three minutes everything went crazy, it was absolute mayhem. Children were coming in left, right and centre and there was a lot of panic. About 40 people were injured and 10 were killed.

[5] In previous accounts Dr Hallam has indicated that she found another, adult, victim, most memorable. At 38:56 in Saving Syria’s Children, Dr Hallam states:

“We lost a gentlemen on transfer to Bab Al-Hawa. I’ve never seen a burn that bad. I think his face is going to actually stay with me for quite a long time.”

And in a 30 September 2013 BBC News article by Ian Pannell, Dr Hallam is quoted as follows:

“We lost a gentlemen on transfer to Bab-Al-Hawa, he had extensive third degree burns. I’ve never seen a burn that bad. I think his face is going to stay with me for quite a long time.”

In both cases this would appear to be a reference to the adult “Victim X“. Victim X arrived and departed on a gurney, unlike Dr Hallam’s “new” memorable victim who “walks in”. However, both Victim X and the boy Dr Hallam describes in her new account allegedly suffered difficulty breathing (Victim X is pictured seemingly being assisted to breathe).

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