White Helmet Rescue Workers Stuck In Syria In Danger Of Being Caught
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Now an update on the situation for some of the most well-known figures in the Syrian civil war, the White Helmet rescue workers. About a hundred members of the U.S.-backed group were evacuated from southern Syria days ago. It was a complex rescue that took them through Israel to Jordan. Many others are stuck, and they're still in danger of being caught by Syrian forces retaking territory. NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut spoke to some of them.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Currently I'm in the area of Daraa of course after trying to escape Syria. It hasn't worked out for many reasons, including the fighting. Now the area we're in is under attack.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: This is one of the White Helmet rescuers who didn't make it out of Syria this week.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: He and his family tried to get to the point from which they'd be taken out of the southern province of Daraa. But a heavy bombardment delayed them. And by the time they did get there, it was too late. As a rescuer for the U.S.-backed White Helmets, which works in opposition areas, he says he and his family are wanted by the regime. And now he's trapped in a territory that the government has retaken.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The fear is tearing our hearts and our kids' hearts apart. The regime won't give a pardon to the civil defense. We can't move. We can't go out of the house. We can't do anything. The fear is following us.
SHERLOCK: He is one of hundreds of rescuers who didn't make it out in the evacuation. The White Helmets are famous for their dramatic emergency rescues, and the cameras attached to their helmets have spotlighted the cruelty of the war. They show civilians, many of them children, maimed or trapped under the rubble of airstrikes by the regime or its supporters. So the Syrian government sees them as enemies. On a scratchy phone line, Syrian politician Fares Shehabi insists the White Helmets are agents of the West because they're backed by foreign governments. He notes their evacuation to Jordan was aided by Israel.
FARES SHEHABI: Why would rescuers be extracted to the Israeli occupation army? Because they are not rescuers, because they are foreign agents.
SHERLOCK: Shehabi says their real job is to demonize through the videos they film the actions of the Syrian Arab Army. James Le Mesurier, who helped found the White Helmets, says the Syrian government singles them out even more than rebel fighters.
JAMES LE MESURIER: The government of Syria has an obsession, a vitriolic hatred for the White Helmets.
SHERLOCK: He says they're not even allowed to take part in the surrender deals that the regime strikes with armed opponents which allow them to board buses to other rebel-held areas.
LE MESURIER: In at least five meetings it was made explicitly clear that evacuation would be tolerated for any color of armed actor from both moderate to radical Islamist, but it would be utterly unacceptable for any White Helmet to be evacuated north.
SHERLOCK: He says that in one meeting, the regime even referred to the White Helmets as vermin that should be eradicated. Now in southern Syria they are wanted men and women. As rebel fighters and their families board the buses to leave, Mesurier says soldiers ask them to identify any White Helmets they know. So the rescuers try to get out by whatever means they can. Some use family connections to the regime or try to pay their way out. Alaa Al-Ahmad didn't have that option, so he and his family bluffed their way past Syrian soldiers to board one of the buses taking rebels to the northern opposition province of Idlib.
ALAA AL-AHMAD: (Through interpreter) The whole trip was so difficult. We were sure we would be killed. The feeling of fear did not leave us for a second until we made it.
SHERLOCK: They made it to Idlib, where more than 3,000 White Helmets are based. But that area could come under attack, too. He appeals for help.
AL-AHMAD: (Through interpreter) We've been saving people from under the rubble and helping people. Now we want the international community to help us. There could be a battle any second, and the regime could end our lives.
SHERLOCK: "I just really want to get out of here," he says. "I want to escape death." Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.
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