Hundreds of White Helmet rescue workers and their families were extracted out of Syria after Russian officials described them as “vermin” who deserved to be wiped out, according to a report on last week’s multinational rescue mission.
The 422 made it out of Syria at night via three crossings into Israel dubbed Tom, Dick and Harry — named after three escape tunnels dug under German prison camps during the Second World War — according to accounts by rescuers and the White Helmets.
Preparations for their flight began after informal soundings of the Russian military police indicated that rescue workers would not be allowed safe passage, as Syrian troops defeated the resistance by rebels in Deraa, southern Syria, The Sunday Times reported.
Syrian-led forces swept through the south-west of the country over the last month in one of the swiftest offensives of the seven-year war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced.
The rescue group, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, has been credited with saving thousands of lives in rebel-held areas during years of regime bombing attacks.
But President Bashar Al Assad has described them as western-sponsored propaganda agents aiding anti-regime forces. Concern over their welfare prompted an informal approach to Syria’s Russian allies.
"They said that the White Helmets were vermin who should be eradicated," James Le Mesurier, a former soldier and founder of Mayday Rescue which helped to train the rescuers, told The Sunday Times.
With government forces closing in, the White Helmets' southern headquarters in Amman, Jordan, started receiving calls for help from its volunteers.
Preparations for their flight began on July 4 when the White Helmets director Raed Al Saleh spoke with a senior Canadian envoy during Independence Day celebrations at the United States consulate In Istanbul, according to the newspaper.
The rescue attempt took shape at the Nato summit in Brussels the following week, with the US, Canada, the UK and Germany pledging to work together to extract the White Helmets. Israel agreed it would allow them passage into its territory on the journey to Jordan, before eventual resettlement in western nations.
About 1,200 names were sent to western governments for screening, with those planning to make it out encouraged to head towards the secret crossing points. The number of checkpoints in the region, the expansion of ISIS in the area and the fear of travelling at night meant many did not reach the designated areas.
Abu Ahmad, 35, a White Helmets co-ordinator on the Syrian side of the border, calculated that regime forces were just a mile away when a group made the crossing on July 21. One of those who crossed safely was a woman who had given birth just two days before.
The Syrian government on Monday condemned last week's evacuation as a "criminal operation" undertaken by "Israel and its tools".
But with hundreds left behind, a senior official from the White Helmets called on the United Nations to step in. The group has more than 3,700 men and women volunteers in Syria. More than 200 have been killed during the seven-year war.
“We want the UN or any international agency to remove the White Helmets volunteers from Deraa to Idlib so we can continue to work in the north of Syria," said Majd Khalaf, one of the rescue group's founders.