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Syrian heros exist and I’ve met them – they wear white helmets

Syrian heros exist and I’ve met them – they wear white helmets

23.03.2015 Syria •

In Syria, there are some 2,147 people, men and women, who risk their lives every day to extract bodies and help the wounded, but also to build temporary shelters, mend the roads, restore electricity supplies, etc.

Three heroes. In Paris last week I met three heroes – three men, young and not so young, but all three impressive.

First there was the expression in their eyes – a rare intensity, draped in a nameless distress, that communicated more eloquently than any words could achieve the indescribable horrors that has been their daily companion.

When suddenly the expression of one of them, Raed, after a question, seemed absent, as if he was already back in the north of Syria amid the ruins of the houses in Sarmin over which Syrian planes had dropped barrels of chlorine just two days earlier. The umpteenth slap in the face that the United Nations Security Council has suffered at the hands of Bashar al-Assad – just ten days earlier the Council had adopted resolution 2209 condemning the use of chlorine gas and chemical weapons in Syria.

Raed was there in Sarmin. He details the 90 wounded, including 20 serious cases, and the 6 victims, a complete family – three children and a grandmother. His voice is calm, and his words are precise. The anger is kept in check, under control, but palpably present. Doubtless permanently engraved in his memory.

How many times have the hands of Raed, Jehad and Farouq closed the plastic bag containing the body of a child crushed under the ruins of his home? How many stretchers bearing agonising victims have those hands carried?

It’s then that one notices the hands, those hands that, since the regime has resorted to punishing the civilian population with barrels of explosives, have been upending beams, lifting concrete walls, removing blocks of cement in the search for victims, in the hope of finding some survivors buried under the rubble in the devastated districts.

How many times have the hands of Raed, Jehad and Farouq closed the plastic bag containing the body of a child crushed under the ruins of his home? How many stretchers bearing agonising victims have those hands carried? How many times have those rough and calloused, but Oh so reassuring, hands comforted a terrified baby huddled and screaming beside his parents’ lifeless bodies.

Raed, Jehad and Farouq are part of the 2,147 Syrian white helmets who have saved the lives of several hundred people since the organisation was created.

87 of them have already perished whilst dispensing their help. Syrian aviation selected their headquarters in Aleppo as a target in September 2014.

On this particular morning, we were a small Arabic-speaking group sat around a long wooden table.  My three heroes seemed at a loss to find a use for their hands, as if they had become an embarrassment, as if their spending a few moments of relaxation in Paris far from the horrors back home was just too much to bear.

The white helmets are one of the tansiqiyat, civilian ‘associations’ which were set up at the beginning of the revolution four years earlier.  They have since extended their reach to the newly-liberated areas which the Damascus regime has now singled out for collective punishment – closing down public services, cutting off electricity, interrupting the water supply, and incessant bombardments since 2013.

They are all unpaid volunteers.  At immense risk for their own lives they extract the bodies and help the wounded, but also build temporary shelters, mend the roads; reconnect the electricity supply, and so on. Moreover, the women have learned providing first aid and how to strengthen and protect the temporary shelters.

Their golden rule – help all those injured whoever they are, local militias belonging to the regime and jihadists included.

Raed Saleh relates the events surrounding the explosion in the Darkouch souk in the Idlib region on the 14th October 2013. This has left the most permanent and distressing impression on him:

“When we arrived we were simply powerless.  The flames were gigantic and we had absolutely no equipment to attack the blaze – no water cannon, no vehicles and no ladders. And we spent six solid hours to find and extract the 60 bodies, 20 of which being totally burnt, and the 128 wounded from the inferno”.

In 2011, this 30 year-old father of two first went to install his wife and children safely in Turkey before returning to commit himself to civil defence activities. He goes on:

“The Darkouch tragedy was a brutal wake-up call for us and served as a lesson.  We realised that we needed to create a civil defence organisation from among the local population. Everything started from there.”

Capture d’écran 2015-10-19 à 17.48.58

Photo from the Facebook page Support Syria Civil Defence




“We have fought for those values that the West proclaims and we thought that this would be well received. But you have abandoned us.” (Farouq Abo Salem) 

In his early days, Farouq Abo Salem, with his spectacles and slick-backed hair, had a promising future as a young banker. But then, as a member of the revolutionary committee in Homs, he was imprisoned and tortured, but finally was able to flee to a safe haven in Turkey

Farouq took quite unreasonable risks to help foreign journalists get pictures and secure interviews concerning the events in Syria. And despite this, he says, the international community closes its eyes or prefers simply not to wish to know what is really happening in Syria.  As he says this, his eyes mist over with the conviction that the West has betrayed them: “We have fought for those values that the West proclaims and we thought that this would be well received. But you have abandoned us.”

Jehad Mhameed is from Daraa.  He wears a light pink shirt and a sky blue jacket that you suspect he has just bought at a knock-down price on one of Paris’s commercial arteries in order to be ‘presentable’. But also because he has no desire to appear gloomy, despite that the fact that he has experienced Assad’s jails and torture and, having been sentenced to death, owes his life only to it being the subject of an exchange of prisoners – his for the lives of two Syrian officers held by the Free Syrian Army.

Still marvelling at the thought, Jehad recalls how he found a little two year-old girl crouching under the ruins of her house and how she clung to his hand for several hours, simply refusing to let go. Although Farouq is clearly disappointed and saddened by the attitude from the West, there is something indefinable that shines out, particularly from Jehad, that can perhaps best be described using a somewhat old-fashioned concept – goodness.

There is something indefinable that shines out that can perhaps be described using a somewhat old-fashioned concept – goodness.

And then, all of a sudden, Jehad, seeing the man sitting next to me, cries out:

“Don’t you recognise me?”

He is speaking to Najati Tayara, a Syrian writer and renowned militant Human Rights fighter who was imprisoned, before being released in 2012 and given refuge in France.

“It was I who helped you to get out of Syria, I who hid you for 24 hours and then got you across the country into Jordan!”

Najati Tayara looked Jehad carefully up and down and hesitated before he said, almost in a whisper:

“I have difficulty recognising you – you know, with the war, faces change….”

At that moment, Jehad’s, scarred and battered face just lit up.  Here he was, thousands of kilometres from Homs and totally by chance, speaking again to a symbol of the Syrian resistance, an activist and intellectual, whom he had helped, at enormous risk to himself, to get out of the country.  You could read in his face that here was a man who, seeing the living proof that those risks had not been in vain, was (almost) happy.

That day I met three genuine heroes, and you can’t imagine how good that makes you feel.

Ariane Bonzon

Photos: DR

Original French version (dates back to 23.03.2015) :

Les héros syriens existent, je les ai rencontrés: ils portent des casques blancs

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