‘We are trapped’: White Helmets plead for evacuation from Syria

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Members of the Syrian civil defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, bury their fellow comrades during a funeral in Sarmin, a jihadist-held town nine kilometres east of Syria's northwestern city of Idlib on August 12, 2017. (AFP)
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A wounded Syrian is carried by a member of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the white helmets, to a hospital in the rebel-held besieged town of Arbin, in this November 16, 2017 file photo. (AFP)
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In this file photo taken on April 8, 2017, members of the Syrian civil defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, remove a victim from the rubble of his house, following a reported air strike by government forces on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. (AFP)
Updated 27 July 2018
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‘We are trapped’: White Helmets plead for evacuation from Syria

  • More than 200 volunteers have been killed in the seven-year civil war
  • Syria war estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 11 million

BEIRUT: A senior member of the Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers called on Thursday for the United Nations to save his colleagues trapped in the southwest by advancing government forces.
Israel and Western powers helped evacuate 422 White Helmets and their families from Syria into Jordan last week but others were unable to make it out because of government checkpoints and the expansion of Daesh in the area.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed by the Russian military, have captured most of the southern province of Daraa in an offensive that began in June.
“We want the UN or any international agency to remove the White Helmet volunteers from Daraa to Idlib so we can continue to work in the north of Syria” said Majd Khalaf, one of the founders of the White Helmets. “It is so hard when White Helmets have to leave people behind — and they also have to start their lives over,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Istanbul, Turkey.
He declined to say how many White Helmets were still at risk in the area, but said that the group has more than 3,700 women and men in Syria and that more than 200 volunteers have been killed in the seven-year civil war.
The group, known officially as Syria Civil Defense, has been widely hailed in the West and credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing attacks by Damascus and its allies.
Its volunteers, famed for their white helmets, say they are neutral. But Syrian President Bashar Assad and his backers, including Russia, have dismissed them as Western-sponsored propaganda tools and proxies of insurgents.
The Syrian government on Monday condemned last week’s evacuation as a “criminal operation” undertaken by “Israel and its tools.”
Government forces backed by Russian air power have swept through southwestern Syria in the last month, in one of the swiftest campaigns of a war estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 11 million.
“After the control of the regime on all borders and the whole area, we are trapped and cannot move,” one White Helmet in Daraa, who declined to give his name, said via WhatsApp, adding that he fears being arrested.
Raed Al Saleh, director of the White Helmets, said his volunteers were “helpless” as they are a civilian organization.
“Unfortunately we wish we could stay in these areas, but it is not in our hands,” he said by phone from Turkey. “We are asking for their evacuation to protect them.”


Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

Displaced Syrian children attend class at a makeshift school in the village of Muhandiseen, in the south western countryside of the Aleppo province, on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 25 September 2018
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Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

  • Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side

ALEPPO, Syria: In rebel-held northern Syria, displaced children sit or lie on the ground of an unfinished villa, bending over their notebooks to apply themselves as they write the day’s lesson.
Four teachers instruct around 100 children — girls and boys aged six to 12 — at the makeshift school in an opposition-held area in the west of the northern province of Aleppo.
Between the bare walls of the villa abandoned mid-construction, children sit or lie on sheets or plain carpets, their small backpacks cast by their side.
Dubbed “Buds of Hope,” the teaching facility has no desks, library or even working toilets.
Instead, the air wafts in from beyond the pine trees outside through the gaping windows in the cement wall.
Dressed in a bright blue T-shirt and jeans, her hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, a barefoot girl kneels over her book, carefully writing.
“This isn’t a school,” says 11-year-old Ali Abdel Jawad.
“There aren’t any classrooms, no seats, nothing. We’re sitting on the ground,” he says.
In one classroom, a gaggle of veiled young girls sit on a bench, as the teacher explains the lesson to one of their male counterparts near a rare white board.
In another, the school’s only female teacher perches on a plastic chair, as her students gather around on the floor, their backs against the wall.

Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side.
The children — as well as their teachers — have been displaced from their homes in other parts of Syria due to the seven-year war, a teacher told an AFP photographer.
Some hail from Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, a former rebel stronghold that fell back under regime control in April after a blistering offensive and surrender deals.
Others come from the central provinces of Hama or Homs.
A dry fountain lies in the courtyard outside the villa’s elegant facade, where girls link arms and swing around in a circle.
Schools in opposition-held areas are generally funded by aid organizations, but have in the past been hit by bombardment.
“We’re always scared of bombardment and of the situation in general,” says one of the teachers, giving his name as Mohammed.
The building lies in rebel-held territory adjacent to regime-controlled parts of Aleppo city to the east, but also the major opposition stronghold of Idlib to the west.
Some three million people live in the Idlib province and adjacent areas of the neighboring Aleppo and Latakia provinces, around half of them displaced by war in other parts of Syria.
Earlier this month, many feared a regime assault on Idlib, but last week Damascus ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara announced a deal to temporarily halt it.