Driven from home, White Helmet rescuers start over in north Syria

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Syrian rescue worker Samir Salim is seen in an ambulance during an interview with Reuters in Azaz, Syria July 8, 2018. (Reuters)
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Syrian rescue worker Samir Salim sits next to his colleague Ahmed Rashid during an interview with Reuters in Azaz, Syria July 8, 2018. (Reuters)
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Syrian rescue worker Samir Salim eats lunch with his colleagues during an interview with Reuters in Azaz, Syria July 8, 2018. Picture taken July 8, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 27 August 2018
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Driven from home, White Helmet rescuers start over in north Syria

  • The White Helmets have often said they worried about reprisals as government forces defeated rebel enclaves with Russian and Iranian help
  • The civil defense service, which receives funding from Western governments, pulls people from the rubble of air strikes in rebel territory

Syrian rescue worker Samir Salim found his mother’s body under their collapsed house, but there was no time for a funeral.
“We buried her and went back to work. There were a lot of people under the rubble,” he said. Months later, he can no longer even visit her grave.
When Syrian government forces clawed back his eastern Ghouta hometown, near the capital Damascus, Salim followed hundreds of thousands of others who had fled to the northwest under rebel surrender deals.
Now, he and “White Helmet” workers driven from different parts of Syria have come together in the rebel-controlled town of Azaz to try to rebuild their lives near the Turkish border.
Their work has changed drastically: with no warplanes cruising overhead, they help the opposition authorities put out fires, clean the streets, and plant trees.
Azaz falls within a de facto buffer zone which Turkey has carved out since 2016. The northwest corner remains Syria’s last major insurgent stronghold and is now in President Bashar Assad’s crosshairs.
The White Helmets have often said they worried about reprisals as government forces defeated rebel enclaves with Russian and Iranian help.
The civil defense service, which receives funding from Western governments, pulls people from the rubble of air strikes in rebel territory. Assad has accused it of being a Western-sponsored front for Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

New Life, Foreign Place

Salim said many comrades stayed behind in eastern Ghouta.
Before leaving, he helped burn down the emergency center he had once helped establish in his town, where his three brothers also worked.
As buses shuttled evacuees out through government territory, including Salim’s wife, five children, and relatives, some people cursed and threw stones at them, he added.
“We arrived with great misery,” said Salim, 45. “Our peers gave us an exceptional welcome.”
Azaz is worlds apart from Ghouta, which lived through years of bitter siege and air strikes — far from the Turkish influence of the northwest.
Salim recalled a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people in 2013 in the rebel enclave. “People were running down the streets screaming ‘chemicals’ and there were a lot of civilians lying in the streets foaming at the mouth.”
He said he injured his spleen during an air strike on a market in 2016 and had part of his intestines removed.
The White Helmet first responders say Damascus has specifically targeted them during the more than seven-year conflict. The government says it only targets militants.
“We fear building a new life in a foreign place and then having to leave once again,” Salim said. “I fear northern Syria will face what we did in Ghouta.”
His family now lives in the nearby Afrin region, where a Turkish assault earlier this year ousted Syrian Kurdish fighters. Those forces have accused Turkey of expelling Afrin’s residents to resettle other people, which Ankara denies.

Harsher Times

Salim’s new team includes Ahmed Rashid, 30, who was bussed out of eastern Aleppo two years ago after fighter jets levelled entire districts.
The bloody battle for Aleppo in northern Syria marked a turning point in the war as pro-government forces swept through the insurgent half of the city. Rashid said 12 friends from his center in Aleppo were killed.
“Nobody expected me to persevere, especially since my parents are in Turkey. But I cannot leave the civil defense,” the former shoe designer said.
“In Aleppo, the bombing was so heavy we couldn’t sleep. “Here (in Azaz), there is no such pressure.”
Nayef Al-Aboud, also part of the same team, said they largely work on services like helping with car accidents.
“Today, our center has workers from the displaced populations,” said Aboud, 22, who is from Azaz. “Our strength has grown because they are here, we learn from their experiences, they lived through harsher times.”


Renewed US-led airstrikes pound Daesh holdouts

Updated 23 March 2019
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Renewed US-led airstrikes pound Daesh holdouts

  • According to SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, hundreds of Daesh fighters, including some women, still remain on the outskirts of the encampment
SOUSA, SYRIA: US-led warplanes bombed the north bank of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria on Friday to flush out holdout militants from the last sliver of their crumbling “caliphate.”
Friday’s bombardment ended two days of relative calm on the front line in the remote village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had paused its advance while it combed a makeshift militant encampment, which it overran on Tuesday.
An SDF official said warplanes of the US-led coalition resumed strikes on suspected militant positions before dawn on Friday.
Top SDF commander Jia Furat said his forces were engaging with the Daesh fighters on several fronts while the coalition warplanes provided air support.
The coalition said the “operation to complete the liberation of Baghouz is ongoing.”
“It remains a hard fight, and Daesh is showing that they intend to keep fighting for as long as possible,” it said. The SDF launched what it called its “final assault” against the rebels’ last redoubt in the village of Baghouz on Feb. 9.
Finally on Tuesday, they cornered diehard fighters into a few acres of farmland along the Euphrates River, after forcing them out of their rag-tag encampment of tents and battered vehicles.
The six-month-old operation to wipe out the last vestige of Daesh’s once-sprawling proto-state is close to reaching its inevitable outcome, but the SDF has said a declaration of victory will be made only after they have completed flushing out the last tunnels and hideouts.
According to SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, hundreds of Daesh fighters, including some women, still remain on the outskirts of the encampment. They are hiding along the bank of the Euphrates River as well as at the base of a hill overlooking Baghouz, he told AFP.
“In around one or two days, we will conclude military operations if there are no surprise developments,” he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Daesh holdouts were hiding in underground tunnels and caves in Baghouz.
SDF official Jiaker Amed said several militants want to surrender but are being prevented from doing so by other fighters.
“We are trying our best to wrap up the operation without fighting, but some of them are refusing to surrender,” he said.
More than 66,000 people, mostly civilians, have quit the last Daesh redoubt since Jan. 9, according to the SDF.
They comprise 5,000 militants and 24,000 of their relatives as well as 37,000 other civilians.
The thousands who have streamed out have been housed in cramped camps and prisons run by Kurdish forces further north.
On Wednesday night, around 2,000 women and children from Baghouz arrived at the largest camp, Al-Hol, which is struggling to cope with the influx of tens of thousands of people, many in poor health.
Since December, at least 138 people, mostly children, have died en route to Al-Hol or shortly after arrival, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Daesh declared a “caliphate” in June 2014 after seizing a vast swathe of territory larger than Britain straddling Iraq and Syria.
The loss of the Baghouz enclave would signal the demise of the “caliphate” in Syria, after its defeat in Iraq in 2017.
But Daesh has already begun its transformation into a guerilla organization, and still carries out deadly hit-and-run attacks from desert or mountain hideouts.
In a video released on Daesh’s social media channels on Thursday, militants vowed to continue to carry out attacks.
“To those who think our caliphate has ended, we say not only has it not ended, but it is here to stay,” said one fighter.
He urged Daesh supporters to conduct attacks in the West against the enemies of the “caliphate.”
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted following the repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.