Umm Wahid almost lost her life under the rubble, if not for the arrival of the civil defense workers to her destroyed home, after the Syrian regime airforce raid on the Sha'ar neighborhood in Aleppo.
Umm Wahid describes those moments when the lights went out; her husband vanished from her sight; she was surrounded by debris from all sides, and flames began to engluf her home.
She says: "I tried to get out of the house, but the fire prevented me. I started loudly shouting for help, but the neighbors asked me to calm down, as the civil defense people were arriving. Indeed, the civil defense team made a hole in the ceiling, and safely got me out of the house."
A Need For White Helmets
The heavy weaponry employed by the Syrian regime forces in their shelling of areas controlled by the opposition, has created a need for a civil defense system in those areas; despite the fact that the odds of rescue efforts for those trapped under the rubble succeeding remain slim, with the lack of both expertise and equipment.
Disparate "Free civil defense" corps began appearing in Syria in 2012. By the end of 2013, the idea of creating a unified civil defense system at the hands of a group of activists, crystallized.
Activist Ali Diab, one of the founders of the civil defense, speaks of the initial phase: "We sent out invitations for a meeting to those responsible for civil defense in all the provinces, to hold elections among themselves for a Board of Directors of Civil Defense in Syria. The Board has worked to establish Civil Defense bureaus—such as the financial bureau, and the Civil Defense bodies following the Board in several Syrian provinces."
Ali Diab adds that the Civil Defence Board, comprising the heads of the bodies spread in all Syrian governorates, has become known known in international forums and organizations, as the "Syrian Civil Defense."
Volunteers—The Backbone of Civil Defense
Most of the workers in the civil defense are comprised of volunteers, in addition to Syrian regime Civil Defense dissidents; according to the director of "Free Civil Defense" corps, Raed al-Saleh.
The volunteers underwent advanced training in search and rescue at the hands of foreign experts in Turkey. Since commencing their work to date, they have been able to resuce at least 12 thousand people from a variety of attacks in Syria.
However, al-Saleh sees that these training exercises are not sufficiently up to the level of work being performed by Civil Defense in Syria—especially given that the country is subjected to the equivalent of 7.6 Richter scale earthquake; something no civil defense team in the world can successfully deal with.
Al-Saleh adds that 25 Civil Defense workers in Idlib received special training on how to deal with chemical and chlorine gas attacks.
Women Wear The White Helmet!
Amid the difficult circumstances under which young Civil Defense workers have to perform their tasks; Syrian women were also to make their presence felt, participating in search and rescue operations. Civil Defense agencies in Aleppo, have recently comprised dozens of women volunteers.
Hasnaa Shawwaf, a Civil Defense volunteer nurse in Ma'arat al-Nu'man explains her role to Rozana: "We work in coordination with the men's teams. Men take the lead in search and rescue and evacuating casualties; then our role comes in relief operations, such as transferring the injured to the specialized hospitals."
Women play an important role, particularly in conservative environments, in rescuing injured women and girls; male Civil Defense workers would normally face difficulty and embarrassment in such efforts.
Says Hasnaa: "We asked for a number of training courses which we eventually received in Turkey under British instructors. Today, we are working on the training of new Civil Defense volunteers."
A Work in Progress—Despite Weak Capabilities
The capabilities of Civil Defense in Syria vary from one area to another. In those areas besieged by the regime—such as al-Qabun or Duma in the Damascus countryside, for example—there is a lack in the equipment necessary in rescue operations; unlike those in the border areas of the northern provinces bordering Turkey. The teams there possess heavy equipment, which theyr were able to secure via the Assistance Coordination Unit [ACU] of the Syrian Interim Government.
In this regard, explains Malek Homsi, in charge of Civil Defense at the ACU: "in 2014, and within the campaign of the Hayat program of Syrian Civil Defense in the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and Latakia; Civil Defense received heavy equipment valued at six million dollars—in addition to operational expenses. The campaign continued in 2015."
Besieged areas also received funding from the ACU to support the purchase of equipment, according to al-Homsi. But the ACU did not provide salaries for Civil Defense workers; as this is the prerogative of the Interim Government. The ACU's support to the white helmets was restricted to the provision of food baskets for three months, as a form of moral support.
The Interim Government's role was limited to the provision of monthly financial rewards to Civil Defense workers—that were suspended late last year. The Civil Defense official in the Interim Government justifies this by the full freeze of support to the Government, and the emptying of its financial coffers. He adds: "We coordinated with Civil Defense to determine their needs, and are working today towards orientation of the various organizations and donors so as to provide them with the necessary support."