I am from a small town in northwestern Syria called Jisr al-Shughour. Before the war I used to buy and sell electronics. In 2013, I joined a small group of fellow Syrians to form the Syrian Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, a group of volunteers who rush to the scene of recent bombings to try to save people trapped beneath the rubble. In 2014, my colleagues, now numbering 3,000 men and women, elected me to lead the organization.
Together we have saved more than 60,000 Syrians. Our work is guided by an Islamic principle, written in the Quran: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved all of humanity.” We take pride in this work, and every day we risk our lives to save others and serve our country.
I have been part of dozens of doomsday missions. I remember one of my first, three years ago: A car bomb detonated in a busy marketplace in the town of Darkoush, near the border with Turkey, burying many civilians beneath the rubble. Back then, we didn’t have the right equipment to remove the rubble fast enough to rescue them, and many people whom we could have saved perished. This year, an airstrike targeted the same market. Thanks to training and newer equipment like jackhammers and concrete-cutting saws, we were able to rescue many more. But there are also many we could not save, including 142 of our own civil defense volunteers who have been killed in the line of duty.
I recently spent a week in the United States, meeting with policy makers and officials. I was often asked: “What can we do to support you to continue your work?” I tried to explain that, even if people viewed it as heroic, we didn’t want to continue. I do not want to keep pulling babies from beneath the rubble, not knowing if perhaps the next child I find will be my own son or daughter. The White Helmets were honored to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. We are glad that our work has been featured on the cover of Time magazine. But we are not happy to do what we do. We abhor the reality we live in. What we want isn’t support to continue, but rather support to end this work.
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When the so-called cease-fire ended in Aleppo last month, a new, vicious aerial campaign began. Russian and Syrian warplanes began pounding the city with a ferocity and brutality we’d never seen before. In just 21 days, we counted 2,400 airstrikes in Aleppo. Of these, more than 20 involved the use of bunker busters, weapons that collapse entire buildings and are new to Syria’s war. These horrific bombs destroy the underground hospitals, schools and basement shelters where civilians have sought reprieve from barrel bombs and airstrikes. In addition, we’ve documented around 200 Russian attacks that have used cluster bombs and incendiary munitions.
These attacks have killed or injured more than 2,000 Syrians. This number will rise, because many dead bodies are still trapped beneath the rubble. We now have so many airstrikes that we don’t have time to reach all of the bombing sites.
I heard a story recently that is emblematic of all of the suffering in Aleppo right now. A gravely wounded man arrived in a hospital, and there were no more spaces on the floor for new patients. The doctor told the nurse: “This man will only live for two more hours. Take him out of the hospital so that we can admit those who can possibly be saved.” The man was put in a body bag while he was still alive, and placed in the street to be buried. This is the horror that we face in Aleppo.
When hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in 2011, they did so because they had aspirations for a better future for themselves and their children. They did not demonstrate against the government because they wanted to try every kind of death possible. But since then we have tried death by chemical weapons, by barrel bombs, by mortar shells. We have tried death by drowning in the Mediterranean, by freezing in refugee camps. We have tried death by bunker busters and cluster bombs and incendiary weapons. There is no death that the Syrian people have left to try.
I used to walk through the streets of Jisr al-Shugour, my hometown — streets full of happiness, where we would sit in cafes with our friends and family for hours. These streets are now destroyed; every time I pass by I remember one of my many friends whom I used to have coffee with, who have now been killed or maimed by barrel bombs. I want my children to experience what it was like before, when life was normal and when kids could go to school. I hope that one day I can rescue civilians from fires caused by candles or cigarettes, not by shelling. I want to enjoy the weekend, to have fun with my family, and not to smell the scent of war in the air. And most of all, I want to live long enough to never again have to pull a dead child from beneath a building hit by a barrel that fell from the sky.
Raed al Saleh is the head of the Syrian Civil Defense.