JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: Virtually every day, the skies over Northern Syria are filled with Russian and Assad regime jets, and, often, the bombs they drop land on civilians.
There is no 911 to dial, and no one to call for help. But people do come rushing to save them, and more often than not, the rescuers are Syrians wearing white helmets. They are ordinary men and women who’ve chosen to stay, pressed into service by circumstance, charged with saving their fellow Syrians amid a brutal war.
We meet some of them now, thanks to special correspondent Marcia Biggs, who reports from Turkey.
MARCIA BIGGS: We all saw this heartbreaking video, 5-year-old Omran pulled from under the rubble of his flattened home, his photo going viral. Stunned, bloodied, and caked with dust, his face a symbol of so many others.
But the faces you didn’t see in this video are of those who have been pulling people out of the rubble for five long years. This is the call to work for the brave members of the Syrian Civil Defense, an ad hoc grassroots first-response unit within rebel-held Syria.
Nicknamed the White Helmets, they rush toward the scene of a bombing to save victims, many of whom are trapped under rubble, once tailors, bakers, pharmacists, these 3,000 ordinary Syrian men and some women now unwitting heroes.
Twenty-three-year-old Radi Saad was a topography student at Aleppo University itching to get out of Syria, when the revolution began and his life changed. He now lives in Turkey, but travels back and forth to Syria to volunteer.
RADI SAAD, Liaison Officer, Syrian Civil Defense (through translator): I never thought about being a search-and-rescue worker. That idea didn’t exist in Syria. During shelling or after an airstrike, all the people come out to save lives. When someone in need comes to you, would you say, I have nothing to offer you? So then why am I here? This is a question I asked myself.
That was three years ago, and I have been working in civil defense ever since.
MARCIA BIGGS: They work under the harshest of conditions to claw through the remains of buildings flattened by the Syrian regime’s weapon of choice, the barrel bomb, a crudely made drum packed with explosives and nails, indiscriminately rolled out the back of a helicopter over civilian areas, the slow and silent descent a cruel harbinger of the devastation it creates.
RADI SAAD (through translator): The hardest part is to get people under the rubble out. It’s exhausting, and you don’t have technical equipment to use. You have simple equipment. Often, the process of searching and rescuing takes 30 or 40 continuous hours.
You get tired, but the hope inside you makes you forget, and you just keep going to try to reach the person who needs your help.
MARCIA BIGGS: Not all stories have a happy ending. Radi remembers searching in vain for 25 hours for a 2-month-old child.
RADI SAAD (through translator): His father came to me, and I was the team leader. He was begging me, not to continue trying to find his son. No, he just wanted me to find any piece of his son’s body.
These were moments I would never forget. You’re not thinking. You’re in a huge disaster, so you don’t think about what’s happening. Your emotions go away. You don’t have them anymore. When I got home that night, I remembered, and I felt the same feeling I have now. I was shocked. Do we have any feeling left? Have we lost our feelings? Has the hope become about finding a piece of a loved one, a body part?
Even now, I can’t comprehend the situation I was in or what happened.
MARCIA BIGGS: But what makes it one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, the infamous double tap, when planes circle back after the original strike to target rescue workers racing to the scene.
Last October, White Helmets were responding to this bombing in Idlib province when Russian jets circled back, killing 31-year-old Issam al-Saleh (ph).
RADI SAAD (through translator): I heard that Russian airstrikes targeted a farm with women and children, so I jumped in the car and went. I couldn’t drive fast enough. When I arrived, no one was there, just people under the rubble, but the jets were coming back.
When I heard that Issam had died, it was a big shock. When we buried him, we all started crying. Issam was like a brother to me.
MARCIA BIGGS: Issam’s cousin, Raed Al Saleh, is the head of Syrian Civil Defense, like most White Helmets, thrust into a job he never dreamed he’d have.
RAED AL SALEH, Director, Syrian Civil Defense (through translator): Actually, my work in civil defense just kind of happened.
At that time, none of us in Syria knew anything about civil defense, or how this work is done. So we went to a training in Istanbul. A trainer put us in a dark room and asked what we were able to find. We said there was just debris, but then he turned on the light and we realized there were people pretending to be wounded.
It shocked us that we hadn’t found them. We decided then and there that we had to be serious about our training.
Your mother or mine, your sister or brother, your friend could be under the rubble, and if they are not found, they will die.
MARCIA BIGGS: Over the last five years, they say they have learned, saving almost 60,000 lives, working throughout all parts of one of the most fractured areas on Earth. Even some of the most radical groups allow them into their territory.
RAED AL SALEH (through translator): To serve the civilians in the regions under control of armed groups, we have no choice but to deal with such groups in order to do our work. This happens all over Syria. We make it clear to all that we don’t make any official links with any political or military a group in Syria.
MARCIA BIGGS: Do you have any agreement with ISIS to be able to work in those areas?
RAED AL SALEH (through translator): We go and say we will offer our services. If you allow us to do so, fine. If you don’t, off we go.
MARCIA BIGGS: Has any other group this large been able to unify in rebel-held Syria?
RAED AL SALEH (through translator): All over Syria, there is no other organization that offers these services and works under one management, other than the Syrian Civil Defense.
MARCIA BIGGS: Their tenacious leader has gone all over the world, begging for an end to the violence, last year, an impassioned speech at the United Nations, this year nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, all to no avail.
RAED AL SALEH (through translator): In all my speeches, I was delivering a message to the people, to be in solidarity with us. I wasn’t asking politicians to do that. Politicians aren’t concerned about human suffering. They don’t look at the problem and get involved to solve it. They see the problems as opportunities, to see what they can get out of them.
MARCIA BIGGS: Is anyone listening to you?
RAED AL SALEH (through translator): We hope there are people listening to us. We hope the people will stand by us, to pressure politicians to change their policies, which only benefit politicians, and instead to base those policies on human rights and to take into account the crimes committed against civilians all over the world.
MARCIA BIGGS: Do you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?
RAED AL SALEH (through translator): Actually, I used to feel like I was hitting my head against a wall. Now I feel like I’m hitting my head against iron.
MARCIA BIGGS: So, how do you keep going when no one is listening?
RAED AL SALEH (through translator): We have to. What keeps us going are the people we save from the rubble. People in Syria see us as the hope that keeps them alive.
MARCIA BIGGS: One of their most hopeful moments came in the summer of 2014; 29-year-old Khaled Omar Harrah had already been digging through the rubble for nine hours when he heard the faint sounds of a baby crying. Only two weeks old, baby Mahmud was trapped under three stories of a collapsed building.
For several more hours, they gingerly dug, finally pulling him out alive. Khaled’s video went viral, and he was nicknamed the baby savior. But, in Syria, cruelty lies around every corner. Just over a week ago, Khaled was killed in an airstrike, joining the other 134 White Helmets that have lost their lives.
Khaled’s unit was based in rebel-held Aleppo, which has been besieged for over a month by government forces, which allow no food or medical aid to the over 300,000 civilians trapped inside. The head of the Aleppo unit recently sent to the United Nations Security Council this video. Throughout the message, a battle rages in the background.
MAN (through translator): What broke our hearts is that we heard nothing from the U.N.
MARCIA BIGGS: Abdul Rahman, a 30-year-old volunteer from Aleppo, says the food shortage is a main concern and half of the men in the unit are trying to learn to farm.
Are they worried that they might starve? Are they worried that they’re going to run out of food?
ABDUL RAHMAN, Rescue Worker: Of course, but they’re still working, because we believe in our job. They lost the hope. This is the bigger problem. Now, in Aleppo city, all the world see the besieged. And all the world just watching what happened, and no one do anything.
MARCIA BIGGS: Despite all the deaths and the failures of the international community, the White Helmets soldier on.
RAED AL SALEH (through translator): It’s difficult to talk with our team everyday, and most of the time, we have no answers to all the questions they ask. We are doing an important humanitarian job, and we will be rewarded by God.
The Koran says, in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful, whosoever saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. If you save a human who was under the rubble, it’s like you saved all mankind.
Do you feel proud when you wear that?
For Radi, his uniform a symbol of pride, and for the young man who dreamed of one day getting out of Syria, a renewed pride in his country, which he and the others hope to someday rebuild.
RADI SAAD (through translator): Before the revolution, we didn’t have a sense of belonging to this country at all. But now we feel that, if we don’t build this country, no one will.
MARCIA BIGGS: A small glimmer of hope for the future. For now, every airstrike brings more devastation, and the men, like this one, Fares Mohammed Ali, who dig with their hands and their hearts to raise people out of the ruins and into the light.
One can only wonder how long this light of hope can burn. Fares died last month after an airstrike.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Marcia Biggs in Istanbul, Turkey.
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