An update from the White Helmets
By Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets
For years, we at the White Helmets have tried to save every life we could, pulling families from beneath the rubble after bombs dropped by Syrian and Russian warplanes exploded onto homes, hospitals, and schools. I hoped that the international community would match their words with deeds and take serious steps to protect civilians in Syria, but after each horrific crime the only response the world’s most powerful countries could muster was empty words of condemnation and outrage.
And on Friday the indifference has reached a new level when Russia and China blocked one of the last lifelines — cross border aid from Turkey, meant to help four million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The crisis for civilians trapped in Idlib is about to get even worse.
This veto comes at a time when the city of Maarat al-Numan and surrounding areas in southern Idlib are witnessing some of the heaviest attacks of the conflict. 144 people have been killed in December alone, including 34 children. In just three days more than 25,000 families have fled their homes. The warplanes are targeting everyone even those fleeing. This is part of a brutal escalation by the Syrian regime and Russia that started in April. More than 1,600 civilians have been killed as a result, 392 of whom are children. 68 hospitals and medical centres and 55 White Helmet centres have been targeted.
These attacks have made it increasingly difficult for our volunteers to ensure injured civilians get the medical attention they need immediately. With many hospitals bombed out of service, our teams often have to transport the wounded for more than 100 kilometres to the nearest functioning hospital.
For our volunteers in Idlib, 2019 has been like a long day of judgement. We mourn 16 volunteers who lost their lives this year, most in double-tap airstrikes, where warplanes return to bomb for a second time after our rescue workers have gathered to help the injured. Russian reconnaissance aircraft monitor our missions and target them, destroying life-saving equipment and ambulances.
Everything is calculated and designed to make life as unbearable and horrific as possible so that people have no option but to flee. We’ve seen it before in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and elsewhere. But while previously civilians fled to Idlib, this time the people of Idlib have nowhere left to flee.
All of this has taken a heavy toll on our volunteers, many of whom are among the most affected by the bombs. As I write these words, my teammate Anwar is mourning the loss of his three little girls and his wife. He received an emergency call while on duty about bombing and artillery shelling on his town. When he arrived to the site of the attack to rescue the injured, he found his own house bombed and completely destroyed, his entire family killed.
The humanitarian crisis–the worst we’ve seen in eight years of conflict–continues to worsen. The aerial attacks have forced more than a million people to flee their homes to the relative safety of areas close to the border with Turkey. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe. On November 20, the Syrian regime carried out a horrific massacre in al-Qah camp for internally displaced persons, leaving at least 16 civilians dead and 50 wounded.
The funding cuts by international governments have only exacerbated the crisis. Many families are sleeping in the open with only olive trees as their shelter, or in makeshift camps with no electricity, running water, or adequate sanitation. The existing camps are overwhelmed, and while our teams and partners in local organisations are doing everything they can to help, the scale of the crisis is far beyond their capacity.
It seems that 2019 was the year the international community and the United Nations completely abandoned Syria and politicians have even run out of words of condemnation. My biggest fear as the year comes to a close is for the attacks to intensify further causing new waves of displacement. There is nowhere left for people to run to. Every olive tree has become a tent and every camp has exceeded its capacity ten times over.
I still cannot understand how the world’s most powerful nations can meet those horrors with silence and inaction. But I know that as long as we can save a single life, we will continue to dig for it from the depths of death and destruction. Every man and woman of the White Helmets has made that pledge when they joined.
Our group has saved 4,530 lives this year and more than 120,000 since our formation. For us, this is our greatest accomplishment: offering a glimmer of hope for the Syrian people in the face of utter failure from politicians and world leaders. I hope 2020 will be the year the world finally steps up to end the suffering of Syrian civilians and hold all war criminals to account. It’s not too late to save lives.