This post has been updated, 8:30 p.m.
Raed Al Saleh is the founder and director of Syria Civil Defense.
I recently arrived in Washington to accept the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Elie Wiesel Award on behalf of my fellow volunteers at the Syria Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, the search-and-rescue organization that has saved more than 115,000 people. This is not my first time in the United States, but it still feels strange to travel to a country where airstrikes and bombings are not part of daily life.
The conflict in my country has dragged on for eight long years and shows no sign of abating. In my hometown of Idlib, in northwest Syria, where I was just a few days ago, the situation is dire. Since February, the Syrian regime and Russia have escalated airstrikes on the region, killing at least 190 people and displacing 106,000 more. The attacks violate a demilitarized zone agreed to by Turkey and Russia last year aimed at protecting the region’s civilians.
Northwest Syria has long been a target of the Syrian regime, first when towns and cities joined countrywide protest movements against the regime, and later after the regime lost control over the area. We found ourselves in the crosshairs of the regime’s air force, and we witnessed the murder of many of our friends and families by the daily barrel bombs and airstrikes that the regime launched to collectively punish civilians.
We witnessed Bashar al-Assad’s horrific campaigns, supported by Russian air power, to recapture Homs, Aleppo, Daraa and the Damascus suburbs, in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. After every Assad regime victory, residents were left with a stark choice: being evacuated in buses to Idlib, or facing detention and torture otherwise. The northwest is now swollen with more than 4.5 million civilians, a large share of whom are displaced, so an all-out assault on the area would prove catastrophic. With the border to Turkey closed to them, civilians would have nowhere to flee.
Many governments have recently cut most of their funding to civil society groups in the area, citing the presence of extremist groups — even though the civilian population, which overwhelmingly opposes such groups, is in desperate need of aid and support. The White Helmets are one of the few organizations still able to operate in the northwest, where we have 2,850 volunteers carrying out lifesaving search and rescue operations.
It is dangerous and emotionally devastating work. Last month, two of our volunteers were killed as they rushed to help the injured. The Syrian regime sees the White Helmets as its enemies and has frequently targeted our volunteers and centers throughout Syria for daring to pull the wounded out of collapsed buildings and rush them away for treatment. As the bombs continue to fall, I worry constantly about the volunteers and the people they’re trying to protect.
Our work is not only in search and rescue. Hundreds of thousands of civilians live in displacement camps across northwest Syria where they are vulnerable not just to airstrikes but to extreme weather. Earlier this month, when floods swept through the camps, destroying tents and soaking people’s belongings, White Helmets volunteers came to help people and divert the floodwaters.
As hard as our volunteers work, they are few in number. If the bombings worsen or escalate into a full-blown offensive, we won’t be able to protect every civilian. Pleas for peace have been rejected by Russia and the Syrian regime while the international community has been disappointingly silent. Western governments have been more focused on their campaign against the Islamic State, even though the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran’s militias, has killed far more Syrians than the Islamic State has. The suffering of average Syrians — mainly at the hands of their own government — continues to be ignored.
In accepting the Elie Wiesel Award, I am dedicating it to the millions of Syrians who have endured and continue to endure the most appalling war crimes. In 2012, when the death toll in Syria was still about 25,000, Elie Wiesel urged the international community to stop the massacre of Syrian civilians and hold perpetrators of war crimes to account. Today, now that Syria’s death toll has exceeded 500,000, after countless war crimes, including more than 300 chemical attacks, the need for accountability and an end to the massacres is more important than ever. As Wiesel said: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I ask people around the world to take the side of the Syrian people, in support of our demands for a free, peaceful and democratic country. We have been failed by politicians, but we still have hope that ordinary people will hear our pleas to stop the war and intervene to protect the civilians in Syria.