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Syria’s White Helmets Didn’t Get the Nobel. But Their Rescue Work Continues

6 minute read

The girl comes screaming out of the rubble, pulled by her purple shirt from the wreckage of the house, destroyed by an airstrike five hours earlier. A rescuer hoists her up and places her into the arms of another man. “Get an ambulance!” he yells. An excited shout goes up from other rescuers and bystanders—“Allahu akbar!” “God is great!” The girl’s hair is matted and her face is smeared with blood. For a second, the camera captures her tiny face, anguished and confused. Later, the rescuers pull out a young boy, alive and waving a bloody hand. Then the rescue team pulls out two more children. Their bodies are lifeless, their faces white with dust. The men of the Civil Defense, Syria’s volunteer rescue organization also known as the White Helmets, lay the children in blankets. The onlookers murmur and cluck their tongues in dismay.

That scene was captured on video after an alleged Russian airstrike in a small farm town called Bashqateen, in the rebel-held countryside West of the city of Aleppo on Sept. 23. For the volunteer rescue worker, it was another daily rescue. Mohamed Ateeq, a 35-year-old civil defense worker, who appears in the video hoisting the young boy from the wreckage, says in a Skype interview, “We’re used to seeing dead people under the rubble. We’re used to seeing people crying from under the rubble.”

Read More: The White Helmets of Syria

After rescuing an estimated 60,000 people, the White Helmets had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize which was instead awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Friday, for negotiating peace with the FARC rebel group. After Colombian voters rejected the peace deal in a referendum in September, some observers considered the White Helmets the frontrunner for the prize. Instead the Nobel committee lauded Santos’ efforts to end his country’s decades-old conflict, and the Syrian rescue workers reacted with grace. “Congratulations to the President of Colombia for the @NobelPrize and we wish the people of Colombia peace,” they tweeted, shortly after the announcement. The group followed with sad news: a civil defense volunteer had been killed in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. In Hama province, shelling targeted another civil defense center, apparently destroying it.

The White Helmets head back to work at a moment when President Bashar Assad’s regime is engaged in an escalating military campaign against rebel-held areas of Syria. Backed by Russian airpower, the regime has unleashed devastating airstrikes in recent weeks on the besieged opposition-held section of the city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians and destroying hospitals and other vital infrastructure. On Thursday, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned that if the bombing continues at the current pace, all of eastern Aleppo could be destroyed within two and a half months. “The writing on the wall is if this continues to be the pattern, at this rate this cruel, constant use of military activities, bombing, fighting, destruction will continue,” he said, saying the world needed to act to avert “another Srebrenica, another Rwanda.”

Read More: What Comes Next For Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia?

In Syria, every day presents new traumas, and many of them are captured on videotape. In addition to rescuing other Syrians, civil defense workers also exhaustively document their work, providing a record of the life and death drama playing out inside Syria. The Sept. 23 rescue in Bashqateen was no different.

At least some of the children had been sleeping when jet came roaring in low over the rebel-held countryside west of the city of Aleppo that morning, Friday Sept. 23. The air raid targeted a two-story house, shared by four families who fled the fighting in Aleppo city, settling for the moment in Bashqateen. The airstrike flattened the house, killing fifteen people. Five others survived the attack, which civil defense officials believe was a Russian airstrike.

The strike took place around 9.a.m., and three civil defense teams arrived within fifteen minutes. The rescue workers say they labored for more than eight hours to recover the bodies and pull out the survivors, including the eight-month-old girl in the video, named Shams Mohamed Ali. The boy is her two-year-old cousin, Ali, whose mother was killed by the attack as they both slept. “The girl was almost dead,” says Mohamed Ateeq, a 35-year-old civil defense worker, who appears in video footage plucking the young boy from the rubble. In an interview later conducted over video chat, he said he now considers the kids “like my own children.”

The rescue of the children in Bashqateen was little noted by the outside world, but the same day, footage appeared online of another dramatic rescue, in the besieged rebel-controlled section of Aleppo city. Rescuers plucked another young girl, Rawan Alowsh, from the rubble of yet another building smashed by yet another an airstrike. The video went viral, sparking a fleeting moment of attention from the world’s media.

Child victims become icons for a day in this long and exhausting war. In August there was Omran Daqneesh, the “boy in the ambulance” whose bloody face appeared on front pages in Europe and America. In 2014, there was the so-called “miracle baby,” 10-day–old Mahmud Ibildi, somehow pulled from the rubble of an airstrike alive. The boy’s rescuer, a Civil Defense worker named Khaled Omar Harrah, was hailed as a hero—until he was killed during a mortar attack in Aleppo in August 2016. Under shelling and airstrikes by Bashar Assad’s regime and now that of his Russian allies, Syrian civil defense workers in Aleppo and elsewhere have rescued many miracle babies. Some of them go viral. But most fade into obscurity.

In September, airstrikes knocked two of the White Helmets’ four facilities in Aleppo out of service, but Syria’s rescue workers say they have no choice but to press on. The bombs continue to fall, and the White Helmets continue to rush in to save civilians trapped in the rubble. “God willing keep doing our work, our humanitarian mission to save the souls of innocent people,” said Ismail Mohamed, 31, a rescue worker in besieged Eastern Aleppo, in a phone interview in late September. “Other than that, we don’t know what to do.”

On Sept. 30, yet another airstrike destroyed a civilian house in Syria’s Idlib province, adjacent to Aleppo. Civil defense spent two hours digging through the wreckage of a civilian house, and eventually pulled out a woman and two children, including a one-month old baby girl. As they left the scene in a vehicle that appears to be an ambulance, a 26-year-old rescue worker named Muhammad Dieb Al Hur held the girl in his arms and wept. The girl, bleeding from the forehead, made tiny noises. The White Helmets filmed the scene, a moment of pure emotion. She was the latest miracle baby, and she will not be the last.

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