White Helmets tell of harrowing scenes as rescuers pull bodies from rubble

The charity is one of the few groups on the ground in rebel-held areas of Syria

White Helmets volunteers carry a casualty pulled from the rubble in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province. AFP
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Follow the latest news on the earthquake in Turkey and Syria

Siblings holding hands under mangled concrete blocks; families lying crushed under collapsed buildings; desperate parents squeezing through rubble to reach their children.

White Helmets volunteers told The National that the situation on the ground in north-west Syria is “difficult as hell.”

“We pulled out 1,300 bodies in the last 48 hours alone,” Ismayil Al Abdallah, who is involved in the rescue operations in Syria's Idlib province, told The National by phone.

The organisation has so far managed to rescue more than 3,000 people from under the rubble, but cannot tell how many bodies may lie beneath it.

The White Helmets is among the few humanitarian groups involved in rescue in rebel-held areas of Syria.

The Assad regime and many foreign governments will not provide aid to these areas. The death toll from the earthquake that hit near the border with Turkey has crossed 11,000 and is expected to continue to rise.

'Finding people alive keeps us going'

Mr Abdulla said about 2,000 White Helmet volunteers are working round the clock at roughly 100 different sites across north-west Syria, amid freezing temperatures in many areas.

“Rescue operations are still ongoing. We do not know when to stop” he said, exhausted after days on his feet.

“We are still finding people alive and waiting to be rescued.

“Even this morning we found a young man under the rubble, more than 48 hours after the earthquake. This keeps us going.”

War has raged in Syria since 2011, but even after gassings and barrel bombs, many of the volunteers have not seen this scale of death and destruction.

“This is unimaginable,” said Mr Abdallah, one of the original volunteers in 2012.

“That was different. We had to deal with maybe one bombed building a day. Now, we are looking at hundreds of collapsed buildings all over north-west Syria.

One of the worst affected areas is Jindires, in the district of Afrin.

“The whole town is reduced to rubble. There are several streets where rows of buildings have collapsed at once. Whole families got wiped out,” he said.

“One of our difficulties is that we have never handled a natural disaster before.”

Digging with bare hands

Mr Abdalla said his team is running desperately short of heavy equipment.

“We are digging with our bare hands. We are using everything around us like steel bars and iron rods to reach people.”

The team, he said, is currently operating with just 10 pieces of heavy equipment, such as diggers, rotating them among the most affected sites.

“We need more cranes and bulldozers. We need generators, solar lamps and diesel to work during the night,” he said.

“Our biggest fear now is that time is running short. We have to scale up the rescue. There are still many more lives to be saved. Those rescued needs clothes, tents, food, medicines and hygiene kits. It is a catastrophe.”

He said no international organisations or volunteers have reached out to help his team.

“But we cannot wait. There are so many lives to be saved.”

Updated: February 08, 2023, 2:02 PM