Syria's first responders: 'Most dangerous job in the world'
BEIRUT >> It took Mahmoud Fadlallah and the team of seven rescue workers 30 minutes to reach the middle-aged couple trapped beneath the rubble of their apartment building in the contested Syrian city of Aleppo. They had been notified a rocket had struck the building, and they had to wait for the debris to fall and the dust to settle.
"We called out: 'We are the Civil Defense, is anyone able to hear us?'" Fadlallah said of the rescue operation earlier this summer. "They were on the first floor, with four floors above them, but they were protected by the ceiling, which had collapsed at a slant."
It was routine work for the 3,000-strong Syrian Civil Defense, which mounts search-and-rescue operations under the unforgiving atmosphere of war in the shattered country's opposition areas, and whose supporters have nominated its first responders for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
Their rescuers were among those who pulled 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh and his family from the rubble of their apartment building Wednesday night. A photo of little Omran, sitting alone in an ambulance, confused and covered in debris and blood, has become the haunting image of the battle for Aleppo.
The group's global following, which includes dozens of Syrian civil society groups operating in opposition areas as well as international organizations, says the Civil Defense rescuers — known as the White Helmets for their trademark headgear — is engaged in "the most dangerous job in the world."
"People are dying, and we run toward death," said Fadlallah, whose team was able to rescue the trapped couple in June and also pulled four corpses from the rubble, including one whose limbs had been blown off by the force of the blast. He has since lost two of his colleagues from that rescue mission.
Rescue workers are targeted with such regularity by government forces that they have come up with a name for the tactic: "double tap" attacks.
After an initial strike, government warplanes circle around and hit the target a second time, or lay siege to the area with overwhelming artillery fire.
It was in such circumstances that Fadlallah lost a teammate last week. Khaled Omran Harrah had earlier captured international media attention for his dramatic 2014 rescue of a 10-day-old infant trapped in rubble for 16 hours.
Harrah was on the job again last week, called along with Fadlallah and five other White Helmet rescuers to the scene of a blast. The men were working to extract a survivor from the rubble when they came under second attack.
"They must have seen us coming, and they started striking us with a tank, mortars, and airstrikes," Fadlallah said.
The group cowered in a building that could not provide enough cover, and Harrah was killed. Five others, including Fadlallah sustained shrapnel wounds. They were stuck for two hours, and the man they came to rescue died.
The next day was a scheduled day off for Fadlallah. He returned to his duties for a standard 24-hour shift the day after that, his wounds still unhealed.
The White Helmets have lost 134 rescuers in the line of duty, says director Raed Saleh, while participating in rescues the group says saved 60,000 lives. The figures could not be independently verified.
Government sympathizers accuse the group of aiding "terrorists," a catch-all term the government uses to describe its armed opponents.
Such associations are inevitable, however, in the Syria war, where after more than five years of fighting practically all sides have been fingered for war crimes. In many opposition-held areas where the White Helmets operate, they come under the jurisdiction of unsavory rebel factions, including the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in northwestern Idlib province. But civilians — 1.5 million by the pre-war population estimate — live there, too.
The White Helmets grew out of networks of volunteer first responders who were rescuing victims from government shelling and bombardment in opposition areas.
Since 2013, the group has grown to operate 119 centers across Syria, receiving substantial organizational support from Mayday Rescue, a Turkey-based NGO that grew alongside the White Helmets to organize training and deliver equipment to the first responders.
Against the backdrop of the stalemated Syrian war, the group's international following says it's time it receives the recognition it deserves.
"Honoring a group of brave, and for the most part, anonymous humanitarians represents the true values of the Nobel Peace Prize," said Wendy Chamberlain, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, who nominated the group to the Nobel committee, which will announce its selection in October.
Saleh says winning the Peace Prize would be a "morale boost," though greater priorities loom.
"Whether or not we win, we call for an end to the killing of civilians through indiscriminate attacks in any area in Syria," he said.
Politicians around the world have praised the group's courage. Still, Saleh was denied entry to the United States to receive a humanitarian award in April, an incident supporters blame on a social media smear campaign connecting the group to al-Qaida.
After that incident, the U.S. State Department said the U.S. government provides, through USAID, $23 million in aid to the White Helmets.
Fadlallah was a construction worker before the war, but now nearly every able-bodied Syrian has become a rescuer. The White Helmets come from diverse walks of life; there are among them carpenters, students, lawyers, and doctors.
"God watches over us," Fadlallah said. "And the best organization there is, is the Civil Defense."
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