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‘We are abandoned,’ Syria's White Helmets chief tells UN

Yuri Gripas, AFP | Raed al-Saleh, head of the Syrian White Helmets volunteer rescue force

Speaking at UN headquarters in New York on Wednesday, the head of the Syrian Civil Defence – whose volunteers are known as the "White Helmets" – warned that the latest Russian-backed assault on the city of Aleppo was pushing his team to the limit.

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Raed al-Saleh appealed for international help at UN headquarters as diplomats waged a war of words over the latest offensive in Syria. In the devastated city of Aleppo, Saleh's band of local bakers, doctors, teachers, carpenters and tailors struggles to provide humanitarian assistance against all odds.

The politically neutral Syrian Civil Defence force is a volunteer rescue team that has won international recognition for its heroic work since it started operating in 2012. Known for their distinctive white helmets, the force has been nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize and was recently awarded the Right Livelihood Award.

But the accolades have not made the team’s work any easier on the ground. The latest Russian-backed Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Aleppo has trapped around 250,000 civilians, with more than 96 children killed since Friday, according to UNICEF.

“We are abandoned,” Saleh told reporters in New York.

MSF blasts ‘free for all’ 

The heavy human toll of the aerial bombardment of one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities has prompted the US to threaten to suspend its cooperation with Russia unless Moscow stops its assault on Aleppo.

The targeting of health workers and facilities has also sparked harsh condemnation from international groups. In a statement to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Dr. Joanne Liu, head of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF), said the attacks were the result of a “lack of international will” to resolve a situation that has allowed a “free-for-all” to develop on the ground.

These days, Saleh is particularly worried about his 122-strong White Helmet force, which is active in rebel-held areas of Aleppo. The targeting of medical staff and facilities has forced the White Helmets to change the way they operate, he said.

“Right now in Syria our situation is very different from in other countries in the world. In other countries, a red cross or crescent indicates the presence of a hospital – they are there to stop them from being bombed … In Syria, even ambulances are repainted to look like ordinary cars to avoid detection and targeting by fighter jets. Hospitals and clinics are underground [and] ambulances are parked underground, far from hospitals, to stop them from being targeted in air strikes.”

But those measures have proved insufficient as powerful Russian “bunker buster” bombs tear through underground shelters.

‘We won’t give up’

Saleh fears civilian facilities will not be able to continue providing services in Aleppo in the next few weeks. Water, electricity, fuel and other supplies are running low and his team is struggling to cope.  

But despite the fragility of the situation, Saleh says his volunteer force will continue working.

“We won’t give up,” he says simply, echoing the courageous spirit of a volunteer force born out of a conflict that has dragged on for more than five years, killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.

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