The most dangerous job in the world

Conflict
Syria
Society
Work
Rescuers after a Syrian air raid

Rescuers gather at a site in Aleppo after an air raid, January 2014. Freedom House under a Creative Commons Licence

Muhammad Zikra and Ahmad Hamade, both aged 40, are finishing a traditional game based on Arabic poetry. As they take time out from a training day, team joker Ahmad demonstrates that he can speak nine languages – if saying ‘I love you’ counts.

Loving life and its people is what motivated Muhammad and Ahmad to sign up to one of the most dangerous jobs in one of the most dangerous of countries in the world: they are Syrian Civil Defense volunteers in Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib, 325 kilometres from the capital Damascus.

Amid the horror of Syria’s three-and-a-half-year civil war, during which by even the most conservative of estimates, 191,000 people have been killed, Syrian Civil Defense is an organization compiled of teams of unarmed civilians, also known as the White Helmets. Volunteers train to be first responders in areas where few emergency services remain.

Idlib province, apart from Idlib city, is under rebel control, meaning that civilians suffer daily bombing campaigns at the hands of the Syrian government.

Ahmad and Muhammad are just two volunteers out of 270 in the region. Some 1,100 civil defenders work across the country in cities such as Aleppo, Hama and Atareb, and this number is set to rise. The volunteers’ main role is to carry out search and rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of government shelling.

Muhammad was a team leader for the fire service in Idlib for 13 years before he became a White Helmet. ‘I always believed in the message of saving people and I was already doing that before the war started,’ he says, speaking through Alia, media support officer for international organization ARK, who is translating. ‘When government forces left my town I defected from the regime and started working with Syrian people like I used to do.’

Former electrician Ahmad joined Syrian Civil Defense after witnessing the worsening effect of the war: ‘I saw the destruction that was happening and the amount of people that were trapped under the rubble and I thought it was necessary to have some kind of team to try and save those people,’ he explains.

Daily life is a harrowing mix of dodging and responding to airstrikes but also a basic struggle for survival, according to Muhammad. ‘We have no water or electricity; we have to stand in lines for several hours to get bread. But the main thing is that the kids have not been able to go to school for so long.’

The work of civil defenders includes public services such as digging wells to enable local communities to access clean water. After rescuing people from bombed buildings, they help clean up the dangerous debris from the roads and put out fires.

‘We can’t leave’

‘The bombing is continuous, at unexpected times and includes different types of bombs,’ Muhammad explains. Barrel bombs – bombs packed inside large oil drums filled with explosives, steel and oil, missiles and ‘vacuum bombs’are designed to not only cause maximum death but maximum horror when recovering the bodies of the dead and dying.

Two weeks ago ‘there was a horrible accident that happened in a town called Ehsem near Idlib,’ remembers Ahmad. ‘There was a vacuum bomb. Three families were living next to each other – brothers with their families. The whole building went down and was destroyed; 33 people died immediately. Only two children were still alive. It was good that they were saved but they now have nothing and they have nobody to look after them. It was very confusing for us; how can something like that happen?’

‘We know that any day we may get hit by a barrel bomb or a missile and just die. But we choose not to think about that. The only way we cope is to think that when we stay fewer people die’

Asked how they cope, Muhammad and Ahmad agree that they have a humanitarian duty not to leave. ‘We know that any day we may get hit by a barrel bomb or a missile and just die. But we choose not to think about that. The only way we cope is to think that when we stay fewer people die.’

Syrian Civil Defense started organically; some firefighters like Muhammad moved from working for the regime to volunteering in liberated areas, and from the beginning of President Bashar al-Assad’s bombing campaign, small groups of civilians around Syria began trying to rescue people – without training, transport or equipment, but with a desire to help.

In the summer of 2013 Idlib city council began working with ARK to establish civil defence centres; there are now several in the province. The first courses were held in Turkey to teach basic search and rescue. A year later, the project has expanded to include medical training as well as media, administration and leadership courses so that the organization can become sustainable. ARK, along with Turkish non-profit AKUT, now teaches most courses inside Syria. But resources are limited and equipment is constantly destroyed. ARK delivers medical kits, equipment and vehicles [donated by foreign governments] but it's not enoughh, says Alia. ‘As much as we can give it’s still not enough.’

The volunteers work in shifts. ‘When I go there [to Idlib’s Syria Civil Defense team office] at 8am, the first thing we do is check the equipment and the cars so that everything is ready,’ says Muhammad. ‘Then we wait to hear from the spotter who works in the areas around Idlib. The spotter tells us where the aircraft is going so we can get ready. When we know where the incident has happened we go and try to rescue people and then come back and get ready again.’

‘Every day this happens. Every day there is a bombing and every day there is something to respond to,’ adds Ahmad.

‘We’re a family’

Many civil defenders have lost relatives, or have stayed when loved ones fled to neighbouring cities or countries. ‘Everybody lost their family; we are not sure any more where they are living because of the displacement. They are refugees,’ says Muhammad.

For all volunteers the long, uncertain hours mean that they form close bonds with each other. ‘We are a family. We all have solidarity with each other,’ the two explain. One of their teammates was killed in Ibdid at the end of September. Ahmad says that he feels more pain and sorrow in losing their colleague than when one of his brothers died.

Syria’s civilians are increasingly under attack by opposing forces, although in Idlib, at least, the present danger comes from the regime. Ahmad and Muhammad emphasize that they do not belong to an establishment or opposition and that they help anyone who needs rescuing.

On whether they believe that outside governments or coalitions should be involved in Syria, the pair are sceptical. ‘Everybody you see in the media, everybody else is winning except the Syrian people. The only losers are the Syrian people. This is what we care about the most.’

The future is mysterious, they say. ‘It’s too hard to determine who is supporting Syrian people and what they think the Syrian people are. We don’t understand anything that is going on but we will keep on with our humanitarian duty until things get better.’ The ominous alternative is left unspoken.

How can we help? I ask. ‘As civil defenders we would ask anybody to support us in getting more equipment, better equipment, better solidarity, advocacy… that would be great.’ Ahmad and Muhammad are keen to thank people around the world who have already helped them. ‘But this [support] will only reduce the number of people who die; it will not stop the death. What will actually stop the death is for anyone to find a way to stop the war. This is what we want. We want to stop working. We don’t want better equipment; we want to not work at all.’

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