The horrifying images of children’s bodies piled high after an alleged nerve gas attack in Syria have shocked the world.
Resistance fighters claim the Syrian government launched the gas attack during a dawn rocket strike last week, killing up to 1,700 people while they lay sleeping in their beds.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime branded the claims ‘baseless’ – but Free Syria Army officials in France said more than 6,000 survivors still have difficulty breathing.
If true, it would represent the worst known use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds in Iraq in 1988.
For two doctors working at Royal Preston Hospital, this latest atrocity is the continuation of a nightmare which has ripped their country apart and claimed the lives of their family and friends.
Cardiology consultants Samir Alchaghouri, 43, and Ziad Makhzoum, 44, both moved to England in the late 1990s to further their medical training.
Samir returned to his city of Homs in 2010, with the intention of passing on his experience of working on UK wards.
But after enduring 10 months of war, he fled back to Preston in December 2011.
Ziad, who is originally from Maarat al-Numaan, a small city to the north of Homs, also abandoned plans to go home.
And he watched from afar as the conflict claimed the life of one of his brothers, Ahman.
Ahman was killed in a rocket strike on a mosque last October, at the age of 43.
Ziad says: “He was a scholar, he was a teacher. He was not an army man or a defector. He was a humanitarian helping victims, getting aid to people. But it’s the same in the eyes of the regime if you have bread in your hands as if you have weapons.
“He was arrested and tortured for 40 days in prison.
“They released him and after a few months he was killed in a bombardment. People take shelter in mosques and schools, 1,800 mosques have been destroyed by the regime.
“My brother was in a mosque with 13 people. They hit the mosque twice. None of them survived.
“We communicate with people through Skype and we hear the news on Facebook as well. Because the media are not allowed inside Syria, normal people have become journalists.
“When it happened I just read the mosque had been hit. I knew my brother went frequently to this mosque, so I contacted people to find out what was going on. They knew he was inside.
“They could not find my brother’s body. They got pieces of flesh and they put them all in one grave.
“I have four brothers and four sisters. None of them live in their houses, they have all fled to small villages where they are living with other people.
“The city is mainly empty, but my parents had to go in the city to bury the bodies.”
When the wave of demonstrations and protests named the Arab Spring began in December 2010, leading to revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yeman, Samir says people in Syria did not believe change could come about in their country.
He says: “Nobody thought about it, because we all as Syrians knew what it would take and the fact our regime was the most brutal regime in the region, probably in the world.
“We had experienced this brutality before. I was 12 in 1982 at the time of the Massacre of Hama, after an uprising 25 miles from Homs, where within three to four weeks 35,000 people were killed. Neighbourhoods were completely destroyed and families wiped out by the regime.
“Some of my family, my uncles, were killed. The Assad family managed to shut the people up and nobody dared speak or say anything afterwards.”
However, change did materialise, when large-scale violence began in Syria in March 2011.
Locals in the city of Deraa took to the streets to protest after 15 schoolchildren were arrested - and reportedly tortured - for writing anti-government graffiti on a wall.
The protests were peaceful to begin with, but when the government refused to release the children and the army opened fire on protestors, unrest spread across the country.
Ziad says: “We did not think this would happen because we were so scared. We lived in fear.
“Even in this country we could not speak about the government in front of people we didn’t trust, because when you go back home your family could be in trouble.”
At the time, the regime’s security forces only allowed people to gather in groups at mosques and football matches.
Samir was in a mosque in Homs when a large uprising began.
He says: “You could feel it building up.
“A few people who are very, very brave went to Friday prayer, just to say ‘Allahu Akbar’. I remember being in the mosque and two youngsters sat up and started saying ‘God is great’.
“When these two people started shouting, you could feel that adrenalin rising in your body.
“Hundreds then thousands of people started responding with the same. It was not planned, it was spontaneous.
“Two security force plants in the mosque wanted to shut them up and ran after them. These men were beaten up.
“Suddenly in the main square at Homs, around 10,000 people gathered demonstrating. This was an absolute shock to the regime.”
He says the violence escalated in April, when the regime sent snipers into local neighbourhoods where demonstrations were being held with orders to ‘shoot to kill’.
The dad-of-three became caught up in a sit-down protest in a large square after one funeral.
He recalls there was an “amazing feeling that we were getting our freedom back”, but after he went home for the night, armed security forces arrived, gunning down nearly 300 civilians.
He says: “Homs became the leading town in the revolution, an example if you like.
“From that day on everything changed. People were very angry and we had demonstrations every week, then every day, clashes with the security forces. People fought with stones and they would reply with bullets.”
An estimated 80,000 people have died in the civil war.
In October 2011 a demonstration near Samir’s home saw four people killed – three of them his closest neighbours.
He says: “One was 22-years-old, Tahir Gazwan. He was a student at university.
“A 12-year-old, Abdul Rahman, was shot in the abdomen. They used explosive bullets. He died in hospital.
“When security forces kill somebody they come immediately after the body and take it away, even if they are at hospital or at home, because they don’t want funerals the following day, because every time more people come to the demonstrations. We had to smuggle his body out of the area.
“Tahir was one of the best people in my street. He was loved by absolutely everyone. He was always smiling.
“He had two brothers and his father and you would think they would stop participating in demonstrations, but the following day all three of them were out demonstrating again.
“All that fear we had over the years completely collapsed, like the Berlin Wall when it collapsed, we had that wall in our hearts.
“When it collapsed we were out on the street despite the fact the regime continued to kill people. It was realising this was a huge opportunity to get rid of the regime.”
Many soldiers began to defy the orders of their commanders, refusing to kill unarmed civilians and joining rebel groups before forming the Free Syrian Army.
Ziad says his family in Syria told him of raids on people’s houses, during which security forces would destroy possessions and food supplies, because “they wanted to break the will of the people”.
Samir says: “Thank God at no time did they raid my house but I know people whose houses were raided.
“They would come to your house, beat you in front of your wife and children, steal whatever you have, money, gold, break your fridge or freezer, turn off electricity and water supplies, seize you for three or four days - rape a wife in front of her husband’s eyes.
“Even civilians after a while started to take arms.”
Samir says they call the revolutionaries “freedom fighters”, but he feels some extremist groups have started to take advantage of the situation for their own motives.
He is appalled by claims a Syrian Roman Catholic priest was beheaded by jihadist militant rebels - although it has been suggested Father Francois Murad was in fact shot dead.
He says: “I’m not defending these actions at all, I can’t because it’s disgusting.
“Sadly a person who has two or three brothers killed, who watches his wife raped by security forces - you don’t become a human being during the war.
“We just want to tell people the truth. My family are still in the occupied area of Syria, but their lives aren’t any more important than anybody else’s in Syria.
“The regime’s tactics are satanic. Many funerals have been targeted. They have destroyed mosques, schools and churches.
“Electricity and water supplies have been cut. People are relying on wells and rivers and dirty water.
“But a lot of people still don’t want to leave the city. A lot of people have the attitude if you leave you’re doing what the regime wants.”
“The Americans and the international community say they want a political solution, where Assad may go, but the regime must stay.
“But the Syrian people say ‘these are the people who have been killing us’, so they say ‘no’.
“The people of Syria know if they surrender things will be much, much worse. They will be slaves. There will be more torture. That’s why they don’t think they should stop.”
The duo believe the violence and suffering will only end if it is met with firm intervention from the international community.
The United Nations (UN) sent peace monitors into Syria in April last year as part of a peace plan, but they had to pull out after it became too dangerous.
The security council has been unable to agree on how to try and end the war, as Russia and China have consistently resisted attempts to introduce sanctions on the regime.
Russia in particular has strong ties with President Assad and has helped the Syrian government by supplying weapons.
The US and the UK have supported the anti-government rebels, and in June 2013 a ban was lifted to allow European countries to send arms to help them.
A UN team is now in Syria investigating allegations that both rebels and army forces have used poison gas in the past.
Britain has joined 37 countries in demanding weapons inspectors be given access to the site of the Damascus raid.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said he hoped the latest incident would “wake up some who have supported the Assad regime, to realise its murderous and barbaric nature”.
Samir says: “We don’t feel the international community are doing enough. We feel they are doing the opposite. They are trying to maintain the regime and increase their power.
“How can these atrocities keep happening without any intervention from the international community, that talk about democracy and human rights?”
Ziad adds: “Surely America can put more pressure on Russia and China and the regime in Syria itself?
Samir says: “They went to Iraq without a UN resolution - if they wanted to do something they could.
“It’s as if somebody is killing you and another person is holding your hands back.
“We’re not calling for military intervention in Syria. What we’re trying to say is remove this embargo and get the people of Syria the arms to defend themselves.
“Otherwise put pressure on Russia, China and Iran to stop them sending arms to the regime.
“But the repeated message is ‘sorry, we can’t help’.
“There should be some sort of law to say this regime can’t be supported by any state.
“We’re talking about this because if people here know the scale of it, they might put some more pressure on the British government to intervene.”
In July three Preston men embarked on a 3,000-mile trip to Syria to take £15,000 of aid to war-stricken refugees.
Irfan Patel, Hamza Nakhuda and Rizwan Vaez, from Frenchwood, joined a 25-vehicle convoy carrying medical and baby supplies.
Mosques in Preston have also collected funds for an orphans and widows project in Syria, with one mosque raising more than £80,000.
Samir says: “Whatever human aid we get from the UK won’t be enough to fulfil the whole need, but it’s very, very appreciated and we’re very thankful to everybody helping.
“I know from my friends and family in Syria that when they see the aid coming they have this feeling that people are with them and feel their pain - and that actually brings a little bit of relief to their suffering.”