For Ammar Salmo, his daily bid to save lives as bombs and artillery shells fall from the skies on Aleppo is caught up in a daunting barrage of obstacles: the barrel bombs that tumble from the backs of Syrian Army helicopters, the airstrikes that collapse apartment blocks and houses, the lack of medical facilities even as more than 300 people reportedly have died in the city in the past two weeks alone – turning all sense of humanity on its head.
“In Aleppo right now … day is like night because we are attacked at every moment. And we are so exhausted,” says Mr. Salmo, the Syria Civil Defense chief in Aleppo, speaking with a breathless urgency via Whatsapp from his headquarters in the city. “We are exhausted because we cannot sleep at night because of the [sound] of the clashes, the [sound] of the war, of the aircraft that are all the time in the sky…. It is so hard and difficult right now, but we will work as long as we can breathe.”
Amid the bloodshed and destruction that has ravaged Aleppo, Syria’s second city, a group of volunteer activists face a Sisyphean task, risking their own lives to save lives, pulling the dead and wounded alike from the shattered ruins of buildings toppled by barrel bombs, missiles, and artillery fire – taking on roles for which nothing they experienced before Syria dissolved into civil war could have prepared them.
They belong to the Syria Civil Defense, popularly known as the White Helmets for the color of their protective headgear. When bombs turn buildings into piles of dust-coated rubble, the White Helmets – both men and women – are ready to deal with the grim aftermath, providing the only search-and-rescue asset operating in many areas outside government control. So far, the group claims to have saved more than 60,000 lives.
But the intensity of the airstrikes and artillery shelling in the past two weeks and the humanitarian conditions that result make it a near impossible task.
“In the past six years we have seen nothing like this. There is nothing to eat, no water, and there are a lot of attacks and they have been hitting hospitals… You can’t imagine the situation in Aleppo,” says Abdelrahman Hassan, a White Helmets volunteer from Aleppo.
Learning from earthquakes
The Syria Civil Defense has its origins in early 2013, when a need arose for search-and-rescue teams to help extricate casualties from bombed buildings. James Le Mesurier, director of Mayday Rescue, was working with ARK, a Turkish NGO, at the time, promoting good governance and civil society support in areas of northern Syria that were under rebel control.
“We would meet with local leaders and offer them support, to which their general response was, ‘What am I supposed to do with a laptop when I’m being bombed. I don’t want civil society training,’ ” he says.
Instead, ARK decided to offer more practical support in training teams of Syrian volunteers in search-and-rescue techniques, a skill prevalent in earthquake-prone Turkey.
“So we thought, if you can rescue someone from a building that’s been hit by an earthquake, you can rescue someone from a building that’s been hit by a bomb,” Mr. Le Mesurier says.
Today, nearly 3,000 Syria Civil Defense volunteers are scattered across the country in 121 teams. So far, 145 of them have been killed. Although it operates in areas outside government control, the group says it is a humanitarian, nonpolitical organization that is willing to provide assistance to anyone who needs it.
Salmo, a 32-year-old who was an English teacher before the war, joined the group as it was just getting off the ground. He took over the command of the Aleppo branch of the White Helmets in May 2014. Some 11 million people have fled during the course of the war, but the White Helmets volunteers say they have a duty to stay and help their fellow citizens.
“It is so dangerous, and we knew that from the beginning, but our motivation is [that] to save one life is to save [all] humanity, and that’s a duty on us religiously, even nationally and even on a humanitarian [level] because our brothers in Syria … need help, because no one can help them but us,” says Salmo.
Beyond the terrible job of extracting ruined bodies and casualties from beneath the rubble of bombed buildings and the ever-present risk of death, the volunteers face an emotional pull from their families.
“My mother and my wife want me to leave this job because it is so dangerous,” says Salmo, the father of a year-old baby boy. “That’s so hard for me. I become torn between my duty, my mission, and what I believe in and my family’s fears.”
Admiration – and smears
The battle for Aleppo has garnered international attention for the White Helmets. In August, they saved the life of Omran Daqneesh, pulling him from a building that had been destroyed. A photograph of the 4-year-old child, his face coated in dust and smeared with blood as he sits in the back of an ambulance with a dazed expression, riveted the world. Last week, a video went viral showing a sobbing White Helmets volunteer who had helped pull a one-month-old baby girl from a bombed-out building.
“We were searching for two or three hours. God willing,” said Abu Kifeh, the nickname of the volunteer, his face wet with tears. “One month. Her age is one month. Oh God.”
The work of the first responders has featured in a Netflix documentary, “The White Helmets,” and they were a leading contender to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which instead went Friday to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts to conclude a peace deal with FARC rebels after a half-century of conflict.
But the group lately has also been on the receiving end of an online smear campaign by supporters of the regime of President Bashir al-Assad, who accuse them of being in the pay of the West, faking their rescue work, and of being allies of extremist factions like the so-called Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
'A shame on us'
Following the collapse of a US-Russia-negotiated cease-fire agreement two weeks ago, the Assad regime, backed by Russian air power, has intensified its assault on the rebel-held area of Aleppo, once Syria’s economic hub. The munitions battering Aleppo have escalated to bunker buster bombs, incendiary phosphorous shells, and cluster bomblets, according to eyewitnesses and activists.
“These [weapons] exterminate not only the people but also exterminate even the stones, the buildings, the streets,” says Salmo. “And right now, Aleppo lives in hell, in the full meaning of the word. And that’s a shame on us because it is 2016.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month said that the situation in Aleppo was ”worse than a slaughterhouse.” Some 275,000 civilians lie trapped in the eastern pocket of Aleppo, suffering from chronic shortages of food, water, and fuel, as troops loyal to the Assad regime gradually gain ground.
“In the last two weeks, we lost three fire-fighting trucks, we lost two vans and three service cars,” says Salmo. “We have lost a lot of equipment because the aircraft attack our centers and two of them are out of service and also six of our volunteers have been injured and one of them right now is in a critical condition.… We have faced more than 2,000 attacks on the city and a lot of the attacks are on medical facilities. Even now we don’t know where we can take the injured from the rubble, because even the medical facilities and the hospitals were attacked. Three of Aleppo’s hospitals are out of service like our centers.”
The White Helmets volunteers share the same hardships as the civilians they live alongside and have little protection.
“We have our centers but they are not safe places,” says Hassan. “When they [the regime] attacks, we go underground into the shelters. But they use now the bunker busters and these can reach to the shelters. There’s no difference between Civil Defense and the civilians. It’s the same [conditions] for all of us.”
The 'Hunger Games' in Aleppo
The Syrian military said on Wednesday that it would reduce the number of airstrikes on eastern Aleppo, having encircled rebel forces, “to allow civilians that want to leave to reach safe areas.” The same day, the United Nations said that around 50 percent of the civilian population in eastern Aleppo is prepared to leave because of the dire humanitarian conditions.
On Thursday, Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, urged the militants of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to leave Aleppo so that the Assad regime and Russia would no longer have an excuse to continue bombing part of a city that he estimated could be “totally destroyed” in little more than two months.
The battle for Aleppo appears to be reaching a climax with the pitiless tactics employed by the Assad regime and Russia against the city beginning to have an effect. For the civilians and the White Helmets volunteers trapped in Aleppo, the silence and inaction of the international community provokes intense bitterness, anger, and despair.
"You know the film called the Hunger Games?" asks Hassan, referring to the hit movie series about a dystopian future in which teens participate in televised fights to the death. "Now in Aleppo, it looks like the Hunger Games. The humanitarian community has not done anything for us until now. They are just watching how they [the Syrian Army and its allies] are killing, how houses are destroyed. The world watched by camera what is happening. We are dying, and they are just watching us."