As the conflict nears its fifth year, Syrians are still risking their lives to save those left behind. Maria Khwaja Bazi speaks to the White Helmets.
Earlier this year, Alan Kurdi’s death captured and held the attention of the international community, shedding light on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the war in Syria. Yet while Europe deliberates over the thousands perilously trying to reach safety, America hesitates in fear, and a presidential candidate terrifies populations into comparing refugees to dogs, roughly 2,800 volunteers in Syria attempt to assist a population under siege.
Meet the White Helmets, a group of Syrian volunteers working in the aftermath of barrel bombs, airstrikes and warfare across Syria. The White Helmets, or the Syrian Civil Defense, formed as an ad hoc organization in 2013, trained by earthquake rescue workers in Turkey, and have now expanded across Syria to provide aid where there is none.
Manal is one of the female volunteers working in Deraa, a southern city known for its 2011 uprising. She speaks in lyrical Syrian Arabic on our Skype call, halting to let Gardenia, the White Helmets liaison in Istanbul, translate hurriedly.
A MOMENT OF PEACE
“In Deraa, we have a lot of bombardment,” she says, speaking so quickly she must stop now and then to catch her breath. “They are bombing Deraa with all the weapons—airstrikes, artillery bombs, barrel bombs, all the weapons you can imagine. Syrian Civil Defense is trying to save people from underneath the buildings, the rubble. They are trying to save people from all areas, the areas that we cover.
“To save people, this is our work—to provide medical assessment, evacuation, to do anything and everything to save civilians, to help people in general. Actually, we have 15 centers in Deraa; we provide medical assessment and help after bombardments.”
Manal is hesitant, like many women, to share her age. Before the war, she worked informally as a writer and helped take care of her niece. Now, she spends most of her time working with the White Helmets. Gardenia adds that, in total, there are 60 women in the Syrian Civil Defense and 23 in Deraa.
“They need women to take care of other women. Sometimes in our community people are very conservative. They need a woman to help sometimes,” Manal says. She pauses for a lengthy interval this time, perhaps hesitant when explaining cultural constraints to an outsider, then continues: “Not all the time, but sometimes. All the field hospitals have men and women, but they somehow facilitate the process if she is maybe uncovered, then another woman can help with the work.”
When asked why she joined the White Helmets to do such dangerous work, Manal responds immediately, without the pauses that characterize the rest of her replies: “I loved their work. I loved the work of saving people and providing medical assessment. It is out of humanity. It is a little bit hard because they do not have a lot of medical staff in these areas and they are always exposed to medical bombardment, but they need more people, as many in other hospitals are dead from double tap attacks.”
Double tap attacks, when a second bomb is dropped a short interval after a first, have proven deadly to the White Helmets and civilians. Rescuers are often caught in the second bomb when they refuse to leave the people they are rescuing or cannot escape the area in time.
Manal sighs when speaking about the deaths, and when asked why people simply do not leave Deraa, she says slowly: “The people are still there, even if they are exposed to heavy bombardment, but actually there is nowhere to go. All the villages have been bombed by all the weapons and there are no secure places in Deraa—not in the city or the villages or the countryside. I remember a lot of people fled from their village to another village to be safe and they have been killed by bombs in the second village.”
Children of Syria estimates roughly 5.6 million children are currently internally displaced in Syria, along with the more newsworthy millions who are fleeing desperately for Europe.
“It’s hard,” Manal says softly, “It’s very hard to see people killed in front of your eyes, the children, the women, all the people. You cannot do anything else. You can try to save them from under the rubble—you wish to stop this war, to save lives, to do something.
“After five years, we are used to this situation, but actually it’s bad that we are used to it. Actually, we cannot cope, but the only thing we can do is help people to decrease the hard times. But in the end, we cannot cope with this.”
When asked what she misses and hopes for, Manal asks Gardenia to translate the question, again. She says something, stumbling over her words, pauses for breath, and finally answers: “I miss everything. I miss Syria. I miss the simple things: to gather with my family, all of them, because now they are in many countries. We cannot have one hour altogether; I miss to be in one hour, one hour of calm, without shooting, without hearing a bomb. I miss my friends and relatives. I miss gathering with them and wish I had one hour with them.
“The world sees only ISIS or Islamic troops or groups; we are not all of us ISIS or the Islamic State. All I want is to stop the bombs, to find a solution for Syria.”
When she ends the call, Gardenia and I wait for a second connection with Abdal Kafe in Idlib. I wonder at how Manal manages to remain apolitical and ask Gardenia how she joined the White Helmets, not realizing from her name that she is also Syrian.
“I left Syria in 2014 for Istanbul,” Gardenia responds. “Most of the refugees in Istanbul are from the north. The ones from Deraa, in the south, fled to Jordan. In each country you can find Syrians, but here, in Istanbul, many are from Aleppo and other big cities.”
Like Manal, Gardenia does not attempt to parse out the conflict or choose a side, instead discussing refugees: “If you are in Syria and you have a family and they have been killed, and they have been bombing your friends and neighbors and your country,” she says, sighing, “are you going to stay there under the rubble?”
It becomes increasingly clear, as she speaks, that while media attention has been focused on the increasing desperation of refugees and the unwillingness of other countries to take them, the plight of those trapped inside Syria has been largely ignored.
“The whole situation is so difficult,” Gardenia says. “Everything is so expensive, the security situation is so bad; every time you are feeling scared of being arrested by the regime forces in the areas that were under the regime control, people were fleeing from ISIS in other areas. This is so bad, people don’t know what to do, there is nothing to do here, there is nothing for them.”
In the midst of this discussion, Abdel Kafe joins us. He is 29 years old, calling from a hotel in Adana with terrible Internet reception where he is temporarily staying. He currently works in Idlib at the Syrian Civil Defense Center. In his previous life, Abdal Kafe laughs wistfully, he was a teacher. “I studied history at Aleppo University in 2009 and was a teacher before the crisis in 2011. I couldn’t continue as a teacher.”
The hidden losses of the Syrian War—the growing university networks and almost 100% enrolment rate in primary schools before 2011—are often ignored. Save the Children estimates the cost of rebuilding damaged schools at almost $3 billion.
“It was my ambition to continue teaching, but most of the schools were exposed to bombardment. All the schools were bombed, so I felt like I should work to keep the children alive, to save them, because I couldn’t really teach them anymore in that condition.
“I was watching these things every day. I was sometimes walking in the streets and I could hear people screaming for help. I thought maybe I could be a firefighter. This is the situation that made me join the Syrian Civil Defense.”
When asked the political questions about who is bombing and whether the bombs are dropped on purpose on soft targets like schools, Abdal Kafe answers without hesitation: “To be honest, I am not definite on whether it was on purpose or not, but all of the places have been bombed: schools, markets, hospitals, all the people have been bombed by airstrikes and barrel bombs and everything.
“We have been bombed regularly. Khan Shaykhun, a city in the middle of Idlib province, it is bombed daily, like regularly. Just before one hour I had a call that they said that airstrikes are happening. This has been happening since 2012. There is no military here; all of the people are civilians. There is nothing to be bombed, to let this city be bombed. There is no reason for bombing.”
Abdel Kafe’s call is disconnected several times because of a shaky Internet connection, but he persistently calls back and continues where he left off: “The Syrian regime was bombing Khan Shaykhun every day; although another thing they are suffering from now are the Russian airstrikes, they are bombing them. It is different because the Russian airstrikes are very heavy—they caused a lot of people to be killed. We think 100% of the airstrikes are Russian now, not regime forces, but we don’t know for sure.
“We suffer from the double tap bombs, after five minutes or ten minutes they are bombing in the same place, and they targeted the Syrian Civil Defense hospital in Khan Shaykhun for the second time in six months. Soon we will not be able to do our work properly.”
When asked why people do not leave, Abdal Kafe responds, like Manal, with a heavy sigh: “They are still here. There are 80,000 people here, the population is so many people from Idlib, from Hama, and displaced people are there. There is no place to go for these people, they are there and there are so many. If you anywhere else, there is still bombing. They are trapped.”
“There is no military here; all of the people are civilians”
Abdal Kafe pauses as his connection crackles. “I will always remember,” he says in rapid Arabic, “when we were working during the night; you know the Syrian Civil Defense works during the night and day in shifts. One day we were there in the night. The people had been bombed all day. They tried to find shelter, they thought, they will not bomb us during the night.
“The people put all of the children into a place they felt was safe for them, but then, after indiscriminate bombs, they came to find all the children were dead. They could see only blood, the women were screaming, they couldn’t find their children, they couldn’t differentiate between them because of the blood and the bombs. We, the White Helmets, were crying because we couldn’t do anything for these people, and more than ten children from that place were all dead in one shelter.”
He needs a moment to think when asked what he hopes for and misses; Gardenia and I say his name several times, wondering if the call has been dropped. When he does speak, his Arabic is heavy with emotion. “I miss the feel of security, I miss living in peace. My dream was to be a teacher. I hope when this stops, I can go back to teaching and teach those children who are losing their education, compensate them for the loss. I miss feeling comfortable, to feel security, and I hope to get married and have a family as all people do.”
Abdal Kafe ends with a message spoken in metaphorical Arabic: “In the past, we used to look at the sky and see happiness, see stars, but now we look and we feel something worse will be there, the blood of the people. We see planes and we only see our blood when we look at the sky. My dream is to clear our sky, our sky in Syria, inshallah so we can dream again.”
He concludes with a typically Arab phrase—alhamdullilah—and then his call disconnects again. Alhamdullilah ostensibly means “All praise be to God,” but you’ll often hear it punctuate the end of a conversation. It is familiar across the Arab world, even in the midst of a bloody civil war: a cross between a helpless shrug and a hopeful prayer.
Gardenia pauses for a moment when his call drops, waiting for my frantic typing to stop, and then says: “He is young. So many of them, they are born in 1996, 1998, but some are also 60, some are 80—they are working without looking to their age. This is a positive thing, not negative. An adolescent or a younger guy, if he didn’t work with this humanitarian work, he will go fight in the battle. This is a positive thing, to draw their attention to something which is more peaceful, helping people, feeling like they are citizens, like they are part of this society.”
Amid all the dissension and fear surrounding refugees and in the midst of a messy, bloody civil/proxy war, Syrians are still attempting to help fellow Syrians. Even as the rest of the world spends time arguing in padded chairs and security councils, volunteers risk their lives to help those who cannot escape while those trapped inside attempt to find safety.
Perhaps the thing to note is that despite ethnic and religious tensions, interference from a dozen other countries and consistent fear of death and arrest, bravery still flourishes in Syria. Civilians inside Syria have done something “honorable,” as Abdal Kafe says, for themselves.
Perhaps rather than watching blockbusters about superheroes or arguing on social media about the likelihood of terrorists sneaking across the borders, the world might take a moment to voice respect for those who are truly heroic.
This article is published in collaboration with Fair Observer