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Natasha Bowler

White Helmets: Rescuing from the rubble of Assad's bombs

The White Helmets are often the only emergency force in rebel-areas [AFP]

Date of publication: 12 December, 2016

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When regime bombs falls on homes, hospitals and markets in Syria, the White Helmets are the first to the scene digging survivors out of rubble and administering first aid.

"Nobody is paying attention to what's happening in Idlib. I don't understand it. More than 15 people are killed there every single day," sais White Helmet volunteer Abdulrahman al-Mawwas. "It's time the world took note."

There are nearly 1.5 million people living in Idlib province in north-western Syria, a region held by a coalition of opposition fighters, including the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front.

Mawwas, 29, is a trained chemical engineer, but he has spent the past few years working for the White Helmets, a search and rescue volunteer force otherwise known as the Syrian Civil Defence. Working as the group's chief liaison officer, he connects with non-governmental organisations to assess areas in Syria most in need of help.

"The situation is so, so critical in Idlib," he explains. "We're all fearful that Grozny will happen again. If it doesn't happen in Aleppo, it'll happen in Idlib."

Between late 1999 and early 2000, Russian forces besieged and attacked the Chechen capital of Grozny. This followed a series of terrorist incidents in Moscow that the Russian authorities blamed on the Chechen people. In 2003, the United Nations called Grozny "the most destroyed city on earth".

Desperate for aid

This week, Mawwas and two other leading members of the White Helmets - Ahmed al-Youssef, 37, and Jihad al-Mahameed, 49 - were in Brussels calling on the European Parliament to allow humanitarian aid into all parts of Syria.

According to Mawwas, the last time international aid reached civilians in besieged parts of Aleppo was over six months ago.

"In besieged areas, civilians can't access food or fuel or medical supplies. We just want humanitarian aid to reach civilians everywhere," says Mawwas. "The Syrian government and its allies are currently dropping aid into ISIS (the Islamic State group) besieged areas. We ask that all humans in Syria are treated with dignity no matter where they live."

He adds, "To be frank, we're shocked and dismayed the international community is unable to provide help to a city with over 270,000 people."

On 5 December, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations resolution for a seven-day truce in Aleppo. This is the sixth-time Russia has done so, and the fifth-time China has.

"Aleppo is being butchered in front of the whole world to see," says Ahmed al-Youssef, head of the White Helmets for the Damascus region. "Civilians are being targeted anywhere that is outside of government strongholds. This includes, although is certainly not limited to Aleppo."

People are regularly detained, tortured or they simply 'disappear'...

Many of the Damascus suburbs that are outside of government-control are dangerous for civilians, Youssef explains. He said that hospitals, schools and homes are targeted in these areas by the Syrian army as punishment for not supporting President Bashar al-Assad's leadership.

"People are regularly detained, tortured or they simply 'disappear'." Youssef says. Forced disappearances are very common in rebel neighbourhoods. Civilians travelling across Damascus leave their home and are never heard from again."

He adds, "These are grave crimes against humanity."

In total, more than 400,000 people have died since the Syrian war began in 2011, and many more injured. And more than 12,000 civilians have been tortured to death at the hands of the Syrian government as of March 2016, according to statistics by the Syria Campaign, an advocacy group for Syria launched in 2014.

Struggling to save lives

The White Helmets, of which there are approximately 3,000 across Syria, work to save and rescue civilians buried under the rubble. For their work, the volunteer force was nominated for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

"We have rescued more than 70,000 people and lost 151 volunteers - almost 100 in Aleppo alone - and hundreds have been seriously injured," said Youssef. "These people are the heroes of humanity."

In the Damascus region, there are more than 500 White Helmet volunteers operating. Up until recently, the White Helmets in Damascus worked out of a total of 19 aid centres in Damascus. But, today, there are only 15 that remain as the regime destroyed four of them.

"We wish we could help our brothers and sisters everywhere in Syria, but Assad stops us from working in regime-controlled areas," said Youssef. "They accuse us of taking sides with extremists like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham by actively rescuing and caring for their fighters but this isn't true."

He adds, "We're a neutral organisation, the regime simply doesn't understand that."

Jihad al-Mahameed, who is head of the Syrian Civil Defence for Daraa, a city in south-western Syria, explains the White Helmets are regularly forced to move their head-quarters due to regime targeting of the centres.

Areas outside of regime control are being targeted with artillery, surface to surface attacks, gas canisters and elephant rockets. The international community doesn't even know these weapons are being used

"The regime deliberately targets our centres so we move as much as we can to stay safe," Mahameed says. "We've already lost 15 members in Daraa. We don't need to lose anyone else."

The humanitarian situation in Daraa, which was the birthplace of the Syrian revolution in 2011, is better compared to other regions in Syria, Mahameed explains. As an agricultural region, civilians have access to enough food and international NGOs are providing medicine.

"We do have a lack of fuel though. It's having to be smuggled in from Jordan," he said. "The biggest problem we face is that areas outside of regime-control are being targeted with artillery, surface-to-surface attacks, gas canisters and elephant rockets. The international community doesn't even know these weapons are being used."

Elephant rockets - named after the distinctive sound they make when they are launched - are improvised weapons made by attaching rocket motors to much larger bombs. This renders them highly destructive and inaccurate.

The White Helmets in Syria are the only light in a very dark situation," Mahameed says. "They are just good people who want to rescue as many people as possible, and as quickly as possible. They don't know or care about the political leanings of the people they're saving."

He added, "We're proud of the work we do but we certainly don't wish to do it. We hope every day will be the last."

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