For the three and a half million civilians in Idlib, constant bombardments and displacements are facts of life. Yet eight years of empty promises from the international institutions set up to protect civilians have not broken our resilience. Every day, amid the horrors, we witness astonishing acts of humanity and selflessness that give us hope.
Only by persisting in this hope can we see our way through. This is what inspires us to believe, despite the odds, that 2020 will be the year when world leaders finally act to protect civilians. We refuse to succumb to despair.
In response to the latest wave of bombings and mass displacements by the Syrian regime and Russia, our White Helmet teams have been working desperately to help civilians reach safety. We have been setting up camps anywhere we can, even rehabilitating sports stadiums and other available spaces. We have been providing coats and blankets and digging trenches to keep the camps from flooding. Our teams of female volunteers have been helping those fleeing on the roads by providing information, food, water and medical advice.
In 2019, 3,364 civilians, including 842 children, were killed across Syria. Our teams have pulled 4,530 people, including 1,054 children, from the rubble of bombed-out buildings — saving the lives of those whom Syrian and Russian forces want dead. The White Helmets take our motto from the Koran: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” I repeat it to myself every time we lose another colleague and friend.
We mourn 17 volunteers who lost their lives over the past year, most in so-called double-tap airstrikes, when warplanes returned to bomb for a second time after our rescue workers gathered to help the injured. Russian reconnaissance aircraft monitor our rescue missions and target them, destroying life-saving equipment and ambulances. Everything is calculated to make life as unbearable and horrific as possible so that people have no option but to flee.
My teammate Anwar is mourning the loss of his three little girls and his wife as the new year begins. Last month he received an emergency call while on duty about bombing and artillery shelling in his town. When he arrived at the site of the attack to rescue the injured, he found his own house bombed and completely destroyed. The loss tears us all apart.
The crisis is worse than it has ever been. War crimes are being committed on a weekly or daily basis, and the world meets them with earth-shattering silence. For us on the front line it’s incomprehensible — the indifference is impossible to understand.
In December that indifference turned toxic 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.
All of this has taken a heavy toll on our volunteers, many of whom are among the most affected by the bombs. Many are themselves displaced with their families, and each time they leave to do their work, they fear they may never see each other again or that they may return to a flooded tent.
Under such conditions, hope is the precondition of survival, and we persist in seeing it in every child rescued from a collapsed bedroom that was bombed while they slept. My colleagues sing nursery rhymes to them in the ambulance on the way to the hospital or make balloons from surgical gloves to give them a reason to keep smiling.
All we ask is that the international community share our belief in the people of northern Syria. There are millions of civilians getting up every day and finding reasons to work, play or volunteer in their communities, all despite the extremists who surround them and the bombs that fall from the sky.
Funding cuts have left people without proper shelter, clean water or sanitation services, while the world’s most powerful nations meet the horrors of our daily lives 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.
The White Helmets have saved more than 120,000 lives 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.