Saeed Al-Masri is one of the volunteers with the White Helmets, a group that conducts search and rescue operations in the rubble after the Syrian government and its allies conduct airstrikes and bombings in opposition-held areas. With cameras mounted on their helmets, they have documented countless moments of heartbreak and distress across the country.
According to The Guardian, he once rushed to the site of the bombing in the town of Saqba, in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta. When the volunteer rescue worker arrived in the ambulance he realised it was his street that had been bombed. Then he realised it was his home. His three-month-old son, Yehya, was inside along with his wife.
“I cannot describe the scene,” he said in a phone interview about the incident earlier this month. “I have seen many children under the rubble, but I had been waiting for my boy for four years.”
The couple had waited a long time for another child, their two daughters having died shortly after birth. Unthinking, he ran into his house, climbed the stairs and found his baby bleeding with cuts from shattered glass. His wife was screaming.
Yehya, whose name means “to live”, was taken to the medical centre and Masri went back to the scene to help the other wounded residents.
Nearly 400,000 civilians have been under siege in eastern Ghouta since 2013. The region, once the breadbasket of nearby Damascus, witnessed the worst chemical atrocity of the seven-year war when more than 1,000 people were killed when Bashar al-Assad’s forces bombed it with sarin gas.
Violence has escalated in the area over the past three months as the government reportedly prepares for a ground assault on the enclave. More than 500 people have been killed in eastern Ghouta over the last eight days, prompting worldwide condemnation of what the UN secretary general, António Guterres, described as hell on earth.
The scale of the violence has left first responders struggling to cope. Masri and others like him live with the knowledge that their homes might be levelled any day. “My family is at home, but at each second I expect there to be an airstrike; that my wife, my child, my father, my mother might die,” he said.
Ten White Helmet volunteers have been killed in Syria over the past month, including two in eastern Ghouta. Half of them were killed in what are known as “double-tap” strikes, in which a plane bombs an area and then returns to attack it again after rescue workers have arrived. Eight volunteers have been wounded in Ghouta, including two in an alleged chlorine attack on Sunday night.
The group, also known as the Syrian Civil Defence, has been subjected to online smear campaigns conducted by internet trolls and conspiracy theorists who accuse them of being stage actors affiliated with al-Qaida. But they have continued to operate in areas outside government control, rescuing people trapped under the rubble after government airstrikes.
“All the volunteers in Ghouta have been mobilised and are working every day, and yet we cannot keep up with the shelling, which is hysterical and is happening with all manner of weapons,” said Mounir Mustafa, the organisation’s deputy chief. “The regime is using double-tap strikes which is leading to the wounding and killing of the volunteers.”
Human rights groups have repeatedly condemned the double-tap strategy and its use to cause maximum casualties, but for Masri and his baby, who survived the bombing with stitches to his face, the international community has offered little, if any help.
“We’ve talked a lot and nobody has responded to us,” he said. “The screens show everything [that is happening here]. But unfortunately nobody is helping.”
A UN security council resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire across the country was passed unanimously on Saturday, but the Assad and his patrons, Russian and Iran, have continued the onslaught under the guise of fighting terrorists. More than two dozen people were killed in the first 36 hours that followed the passing of the resolution, which was supposed to go into effect without delay.
Instead, in a sign of Moscow’s primacy in Syrian affairs, Vladimir Putin essentially replaced the resolution with his own proposal for a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting every day from 9am to 2pm.
The announcement by Russia’s defense minister demonstrated how little the international community can, or is willing, to do to alleviate Syria’s misery. Even the Russian move, however, did not halt the violence.
“The Syrian regime and its Russian allies are continuing to try and destroy this society,” said another rescue worker. “After the [UN] agreement, they used weapons that had not been used in past days. They used chlorine, they used phosphorus, there were new massacres, there were children and women that the civil defence could not rescue from under the rubble. There is blood and body parts in the street.
“I cannot say anything except damn the whole world, and damn everything. God is with us, and he is the protector,” he said.