The White Helmets: What It's Like To Be A Civil Defender In Syria

Three months ago, my beloved 5-year-old son, Yazan, was killed in our home by a barrel bomb. He died in my arms.

That day, I vowed I would never leave Syria. I couldn't save my own son's life, but maybe I could save the lives of other people.

I am a member of the Civil Defense Force in Syria. We are called the White Helmets.

In the absence of ambulance or fire services, we have taken on the role of trying to rescue people from the rubble after a bomb has been detonated. Most of them are ordinary people who have been killed in their own homes.

I joined the White Helmets five months ago, and I've saved about 20 people since then.

When I'm pulling people out of the rubble, it feels like I've just given birth or have helped someone give birth to a new child.

It makes me very happy to know I am helping my fellow Syrians through this ugly war, but at the same time, I feel deep sadness after seeing people going through so much pain.

I live in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which is in the Governorate of Idlib. Every day, the government rains down bombs on Khan Sheikhoun.

At least two barrel bombs are dropped each day, and now, a terrifying new type of bomb is being used. We call them navy mines. They contain the same explosives as barrel bombs, but they explode in the air instead of on the ground.

They make a horrifying noise when they explode. It is like an earthquake, and for a few minutes, it feels as if the whole town has been demolished, and everybody has died.

They are designed to make us panic and to terrorize us. It works.

We blast sirens as soon as we hear a plane or a helicopter approaching with the intent to bomb, but we usually don't have enough time to warn people to flee.

The Attack

When the helicopter approached my house and started to hover over it, all the neighbors were screaming. My wife grabbed our infant son, Zain, and I picked up Yazan, but we couldn't reach our shelter in time.

One minute, I was holding Yazan in my arms, and the next minute, the bomb exploded.

He was gone.

The pressure of the bomb had catapulted him out of the house, and we found him outside, covered in rubble, dead.

My White Helmet colleagues came to rescue us. They brought him to the hospital, but I knew he was dead because of what he'd said to me just before the bomb hit.

He told me, “Papa, I am going to be martyred, and I am going to take all of you with me.” Then, he died.

The White Helmets rescued my wife, Asma'a, and Zain out of the rubble.

Yazan was such a clever boy. He never forgot a single thing I told him. He used to say, “When I get older, Papa, I will be a civil defender, just like you.” He had just started learning the alphabet in kindergarten.

To lose my son was God's will, but it has paralyzed my thoughts. I cannot think too much about it. I guess I am still in shock.

But, ever since it happened, I carry on working. It helps me to do something useful every day. I always tell myself, "I am not the first person to lose my son, and I will not be the last."

Our house was close to a military airbase, so it was vulnerable to attack. We civil defense forces are often attacked, and our base has been bombed six times.

Ninety-three White Helmets have died in Syria since we started rescuing people. Most of them were young men with wives and children.

I am 32.

“My dream is that people can return home without fear.”

We are now living in a temporary space our neighbors found for us while we look for a new home. It is cramped, and we all share one room.

My family has enough to get by for now. We're lucky to have some land, and we grow vegetables.

Not all are as lucky as us. Very little aid comes through this town. A few charities give small amounts to the poorest people or to prisoners, but most people get by with nothing.

Before the revolution, I worked dyeing wool in a government-run weaving factory. I will not return to that job.

I will never leave Syria.

It is my responsibility as a civil defender to stay and help my people. But, we are running out of hope that this destruction will ever end.

The head of the White Helmets went to the UN Security Council and gave all the facts – the bombs that were attacking us, the chlorine attacks — but with all the talk in the international community, we've seen nothing change.

My dream is that people can return to their homes without fear. We don't want to hear any more jet fighters or military aircrafts hovering over our houses.

And my biggest hope for my son, Zain, is that he can grow up in peace, go to college and make something of his life.