In June 2014, Matthieu Aikins visited Aleppo and rode with Civil Defense volunteers (the “White Helmets”) in their donated truck in the neighborhood of Hanano. He wrote: The members of Civil Defense were attendants to the city’s trauma, one of the few first responders left to care for the civilians caught on the front lines in a war between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and rebel fighters. The team evacuated the injured, cleaned up the bodies, and fought fires. But what they were best known for — what they had become famous for in Syria and abroad — were the dramatic rescues, the lives they pulled from under the rubble.
When they spotted a blast, they’d cram into the cabin, ten or more on its two bench seats, and set off in search of the impact site. The truck had a loose, shaky suspension and the cab would smash up and down off the craters and potholes, jangling the men like change inside of a tin cup. The siren atop was an old-school wailer, deafening and sonorous. Sometimes they’d catch sight of an ambulance and give chase; often they’d be the first to the scene. As they rushed along, they’d lean out and ask pedestrians where the bomb had fallen. They could tell by the reaction if they were getting closer. At first it was just a pointed arm or a shrug, but as they neared, the onlookers would get increasingly agitated, until they saw in their eyes the wildness of a close brush with death or the panic for a trapped neighbor. The missions were all the more dangerous because of the regime’s tactic of “double-tap” strikes, where they would return to bomb the same site and hit the rescuers and whatever crowd had gathered. In March, three members of the Hanano team had been killed that way, along with an Egyptian-Canadian photographer who had come to document their work.
Khaled flicked the cigarette into the parking lot. Thirty years old, he looked more like a graduate student than someone who had spent the last year immersed in blood and rubble: shaggy hair, a straight, full-bridged nose and a pointed jaw softened by full lips and cheeks. In a city dominated increasingly by anti-Western Islamist groups, he had until recently worn a pony tail. He was growing a slight paunch from all the nights spent sitting up snacking on fruit and nuts, listening to the sound of the city’s bombardment and waiting for a call. When he smiled, a net of crow’s feet crinkled into the corners of his eyes, but mostly his face maintained an unshakable placidity, even in the presence of death. It was this stillness, more than anything else, that accounted for his unruly team’s respect and obedience. “It’s the quiet ones you should fear,” was how Surkhai, the group’s joker, had put it.
After washing his face in the rickety outbuilding that served as their bathroom, Khaled returned to his office, which was furnished with a scuffed desk, a shelf that held the station’s paperwork, and a couple of love seats. On the wall hung a certificate of appreciation from the city council. Two bare bulbs dangled from the ceiling.
Khaled could hear the rest of the team stirring. Present that day were some of his most reliable veterans — though of course they were really still boys. At 28, the twins, Surkhai and Shahoud, heavyset with thick hair covering everywhere but the top of their heads, were among the eldest. The rest were mostly 20 or 21. Scrawny Ali, with his mullet, was only 19. Only Ahmed, a lanky, goateed kid who had been a firefighter like his father, had any experience as a first responder before the war. In all, there were 30 of them, but they worked in shifts, so that only a dozen or so were typically in the station at any one time. Except for the leader, Khaled. He had not taken a single day off. He loved the team — loved the physical closeness, the emotional bond. These guys had become his life. His old self, the former law student who taught at a trade school, seemed as remote to him as his family’s home, now behind regime lines. [Continue reading…]