Syria Civil Defense: How a Group of Volunteers Has Saved Thousands of Lives

In the early days of the Syrian Civil War, following an increase in casualties from regime air strikes on opposition-held areas, poorly trained civilians volunteers would transport the wounded for treatment and try to save civilians trapped in the rubble.  Their lack of experience led to the deaths of a number of wounded people due to suffocation, delays in removing debris from them, and serious errors made during treatment en route to medical centers.

In late 2013, Syrian youth in the Aleppo province began to establish the first civilian volunteer team in areas outside of regime control with the goal of assisting civilians and rescuing those trapped under rubble. As it gained experience, the organization expanded to other opposition-controlled areas in Syria, and, on 25 October 2014, consolidated under the name “Syria Civil Defense.” Since its first meeting, the organization has identified its goals and acknowledged that “saving one soul is a great victory.” The group also selected a verse from the Qur’an as its motto: {and whoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind}.

Abdulaziz al-Maghreby, the first director of Syria Civil Defense in Aleppo, recounted the beginnings of the group’s work, the extent of the suffering at that time, and the origin of the idea behind the organization: “I used to see people suffering, using shovels and simple tools to extract those stranded after the bombings. They rarely emerged from the rubble alive, and many of those trapped died from suffocation after the collapses. This increased my conviction that a fully equipped and trained civil defense team should be established, capable of rescuing people as quickly as possible.”

But according to Maghreby, securing the funding, training, and equipment required for the work was a major challenge. When it was first formed, Syria Civil Defense was not able to respond to more than one attack site at a time. Maghreby’s idea was often at the risk of failure due to an inability to provide for the group’s needs, especially when employees’ salaries were suspended for more than six months when the Interim Government was unable to cover them.

Ahmed al-Khaled, a member of the Civil Defense team in Aleppo, notes that beginning last year, a tangible change took place in the team’s work following an expansion of material support, a number of training sessions, and the opening of new centers.

The Syrian Interim Government and international organizations are the largest sources of support for this project, including the organization ARK, which began supporting Syria Civil Defense with several pieces of mid and heavy-sized equipment in 2014. Mayday, an international organization, also trained team members to operate at a high level of professionalism, and Chemonics provided a number of ambulances. Thanks to this support, the Civil Defense team in Aleppo has been able to conduct rescue missions for as many as seven attack sites at once, according to al-Khaled.

Al-Khaled also noted that the Civil Defense was recently expanded to include additional functions such as issuing warnings about potential attacks and threats, search and rescue operations in residential areas, evacuating civilians from combat zones, firefighting, and securing graves in cases of emergency.

Despite these positive developments, however, aid, material support, and training have not yet reached various areas that the Syrian regime has under siege, as was the case in Aleppo. In Homs and rural parts of Damascus, the Civil Defense suffers from a severe scarcity of equipment as well as difficulties in training its members because they cannot leave the areas in which they live. In light of this, some members have begun separating from the main group to train volunteers in centers constructed in besieged areas on first aid, rescuing people from under rubble, and firefighting.

The past few months have been the most trying for the team after an increase in air strikes and the Russian Air Force’s entry into the battle. In this context, Ahmed al-Amr, a Civil Defense member working in the province of Idlib, stated that of all the difficulties, most important was the “lack of heavy equipment, which is essential to our work in cases of great destruction, and especially following Russian bombings.” Ahmed recounted his personal experience after the most recent bombing in the city of Idlib: “We faced a major challenge in extracting a young child trapped in the rubble, and we did not have any heavy machinery to lift the rubble and get him out. We could hear his voice from underneath the rubble for hours, and after exhausting other means we finally used an automobile jack. We lifted the rubble to bring the child back to life from the brink of death.”

Ahmed added that the most tragic scenes he witnesses while he works occur when they recover the bodies of mutilated women and children as their families wait, following hours of work required to reach some individuals in distress.

As for the risks, al-Amr said that there were many, and that the Civil Defense is exposed to danger in every area. Some regions experience a higher number of bombings, especially from Russian war planes, and it is a common tactic to bomb targets a second time just minutes after an initial attack, the so called “double-tap.” He noted that this tactic resulted in the deaths of numerous volunteers.

According to a Syrian Network for Human Rights report entitled “White Helmets and Hands,” the network documented the deaths of 106 Civil Defense workers, 99 of whom were killed by government forces, three by Russian forces, and four by groups the report was unable to identify. There are a total of 16 recorded incidents of detainment of Civil Defense workers, with six having been taken by extremist Islamist organizations, five by armed opposition groups, and five by groups the report was unable to identify. The report also noted 66 attacks on Civil Defense centers, 62 of which were by the regime and three by Russian forces.

The Syrian public overall approves of the Civil Defense’s work. Ennab Baladi, a Syrian news website, conducted an opinion poll with individuals in opposition controlled areas. When asked about the group’s performance in rescue operations, more than 55% evaluated their work as good while 10% rated their work as acceptable.

Today, the Civil Defense has been in operation for over two years, having expanded to eight provinces and 104 centers. According to its director, since the organization was established, volunteers have rescued more than 50,000 victims trapped under rubble as a result of bombings in areas under Syrian opposition control. The organization has also expanded beyond medical work and first aid to adopt an administrative and institutional structure, bylaws, and enrollment terms for youth volunteers of various ages in the country.

Close to 2,600 youth have provided services to the institution without receiving any financial incentive and without regard to affiliation or religion. Most volunteers are women and youth, according to an Aleppo-based Civil Defense official, and one of the clauses of the organization’s bylaws state: “Our goal is to remain neutral and conduct humanitarian work without discrimination or allegiance to any political party or group. We are working to save the largest possible number of lives and reduce injuries and damage to property.”

As for a future vision, the founders of Syria Civil Defense emphasized their pledge that, “Once the fighting ends, the team will commit to a project of rebuilding Syria as a stable, prosperous, and peace-loving nation that can achieve its people’s social, economic, and political aspirations.”

Hosam al-Jablawi is a Syrian citizen journalist. 

Image: Photo: A civil defense member carries an injured girl that survived from under debris at a site hit by what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the town of Marshamsha, southern Idlib province, Syria October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi