Under bombs, Syria rescuers forced to save their own

Forty-five-year-old Samir Salim (L), who along with his three brothers are members of the White Helmets rescue forces, mourns as he looks at a picture that he took when he tried to rescue the body of his mother from under the rubble of his home in the town of Medeira in Syria's rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area on February 12, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 14 February 2018

Under bombs, Syria rescuers forced to save their own

MEDEIRA, Syria: For years, Samir Salim and his three brothers rescued neighbors and relatives pinned underground after bombardment on Syria’s rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. But last week, they could not save their own mother.
Crouched atop the rubble of their home in the town of Medeira, 45-year-old Salim pinches hot tears out of his eyes with dusty, blistered hands.
“It was a very difficult position to be in. It hurts to think that she was a mother of four rescue workers, and none of us could save her,” he tells AFP.
“My mother was so proud of us, and of our work.”
Every day since 2013, Salim and his siblings have chased air strikes on Eastern Ghouta as part of the White Helmets rescue force.
They spend hours searching for and extracting residents of the rebel enclave near Damascus from under blocks of rubble — dead or alive.
But last Thursday was different.
Among the dozens of victims of Syrian government strikes that day was Salim’s 80-year-old mother.
Returning to the pile of cinderblocks and concrete that was once their home, Salim rewatches the shaky video footage he captured that day.
In it, his mother appears in a black headscarf, her bloodied and motionless body pressed underneath a collapsed wall. Salim is crying.
“I save people, mum, but I can’t save you. What do I do, mum? May your soul rest in peace.”
Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion on the capital’s doorstep, is home to around 400,000 besieged Syrians.
Last week, Syrian warplanes and artillery conducted an intense five-day campaign there that left around 250 civilians dead and triple that number wounded.
Rescue workers were overwhelmed, rushing from the site of one air strike to another with little equipment and dwindling fuel supplies.
Salim and his unit were en route to a collapsed building in Mesraba, a nearby town, when they heard another air strike hit Medeira.
“I got a very strange feeling. My heart was telling me: something awful just happened in your home,” Salim recalls, his voice cracking.
One team went on to Mesraba, but Salim joined those heading to his hometown, arriving to clouds of dust.
“I stopped in my tracks, trying to understand what was going on. That’s when I realized the strike had hit my own house,” he says.
“I didn’t expect to find anyone alive.”
Still, he got to work. He rescued his father, 23-day-old nephew Samer, and sister-in-law before reaching his mother’s body.
Breathlessly, Salim called into his walkie-talkie for colleagues to bring rescue equipment to extract her.
“I asked for back-up but my colleagues were a bit late. I don’t blame them, because of the hysterical bombing campaign on the area,” he explains.
Salim had rescued his father from the aftermath of an air strike two years ago, but his mother’s death was a different sort of tragedy.
“I didn’t panic then the way I did this time. Maybe it’s because a mother’s affection is different.”
Fellow rescuer Saeed Al-Masri says his toughest mission ended differently: he rescued his three-month-old son Yehya after bombardment hit their home in Saqba last week.
“The houses were flattened. My cousin was killed. My house was hit,” he tells AFP.
“I had a feeling my son and wife were dead.”
His wife’s shrieking stirred him out of his stupor. He rushed to her, found his bloodied infant and ran him to the hospital.
The moment was captured in a photograph of Masri clutching his bleeding son to his chest. He is now home with the blue-eyed baby, who sports a bandage underneath his left eye.
Bombing raids on Eastern Ghouta have even put medics on operating tables, instead of standing over them.
Nurse Malek Abu Jaber, 20, was heading home for a break from the makeshift clinic in Jisreen last week when an air strike hit.
“Suddenly, I felt myself being thrown back by something hot. I didn’t know what hit me until I saw blood streaming down from my stomach,” he tells AFP.
He returned to the clinic, this time as a patient. Hours earlier, he had been complaining about his dislike for abdominal surgeries because of the potential complications.
“I felt like the wounded people that come in every day. I felt the tingling of the needle, the wound being stitched up, the gauze, the real suffering of wounded people,” Abu Jaber says.
He lies on a hospital bed while a colleague changes the bandage on his stomach, surrounded by children wounded in recent fire.
Despite his injury, the young medic insists on helping his beleaguered colleagues with a smile.
“We can’t catch our breath. The wounded come day and night, and the pressure on us is massive,” he says.
“Despite all that, we’re facing these air strikes as a matter of duty.”

Houthi militia ‘must respect neutrality of aid workers’

Updated 19 January 2019

Houthi militia ‘must respect neutrality of aid workers’

  • The recommendations came as UN monitors try to strengthen a cease-fire in the port of Hodeidah
  • Houthis were blamed for an attack on a UN convey on Thursday

 NEW YORK: UN experts monitoring sanctions against Yemen are recommending that the Security Council urge the Houthis to respect the neutrality and independence of humanitarian workers.

The Associated Press has obtained the nine recommendations the panel of experts made in their latest report to the council.

The recommendations came as UN monitors try to strengthen a cease-fire in the port of Hodeidah, key to the delivery of 70 percent of Yemen’s imports and humanitarian aid, and arrange a withdrawal of rival forces from the area agreed to by the government and the Houthis on Dec. 13.

While the agreement in Stockholm was limited, if fully implemented it could offer a potential breakthrough in Yemen’s four-year civil war.

The experts asked the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against Yemen to engage with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s office, Yemen’s government and donors to “enhance” the UN mission inspecting vessels heading to ports in Yemen for illegal arms so it can “identify networks using false documentation to evade inspection.”

They also suggested that Guterres organize a conference with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as well as other “key actors to best manage cash flows and imports of goods,” using the principles of the UN Global Compact on how companies should conduct business.

And the experts recommended that the secretary-general ask the UN inspection mission and monitors at the port of Hodeidah “to share information on potential cases of acts that threaten the peace, stability and security of Yemen,” including violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, the UN arms embargo, and obstructions of humanitarian assistance.

The experts also asked the sanctions committee to consider sending three letters. One would be to Abu Al-Abbas, a militia commander in the flashpoint city of Taiz, asking him to transfer artifacts and items from the Taiz National Museum in his custody to Yemen’s government. 

A second would be to alert the International Maritime Organization to “the risks posed by anti-ship cruise missiles and water-borne improvised explosive devices in the Red Sea and to encourage it to discuss these threats with the commercial shipping industry with the aim of developing suitable precautions and countermeasures.”

The third would be to alert the International Civil Aviation Organization of the risks posed by drones and munitions to civil aviation, particularly near busy international airports on the Arabian Peninsula “and encourage it to discuss these threats with airport operators and airlines with the aim of developing suitable precautions and countermeasures.”