Filmmaker Nagieb Khaja spent 12 days with a team of rescue workers. In war, he witnessed their special bond.
On August 11, Khaled Omar Harrah, a White Helmet rescuer in Aleppo, was killed in an air strike.
He was one of about 3,000 White Helmet volunteers who work across war-torn Syria. Putting their own lives at risk, they rush to scenes of bombardment daily to save others.
In 2014, Harrah rescued a 10-day-old baby who had been trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building for 16 hours. His “miracle baby” rescue – filmed by the White Helmets – caught international attention and went viral.
For World Humanitarian Day, Al Jazeera spoke to Ibrahim al-Hajj, 26, who is the head of media for the White Helmets in Aleppo and who accompanies the volunteers each time they head out. This is his account of his life now and of Harrah, whom he worked alongside, whose well known rescue he filmed, and who he considered a brother.
We never know what each day may hold.
Yesterday I slept at 11pm. My wife woke me up at 1am saying there was a very strange sound, and lots of shelling.
I was surprised to find out that al-Zibdiya, the area I live in, was hit with white phosphorous.
We went outside to look at the area, and we found that it was lit despite it being nighttime. There were flames everywhere.
So, I headed in the direction of the area that was hit. The warplanes intensify their air raids at night. If we turn on any lights at night, they target us.
That’s how our days go.
When the air raids begin on civilian and residential areas in Aleppo, we head over there.
If there are wounded civilians, we rescue them from under the rubble, and we pull the dead civilians out.
If there are children, we wait to take them out.
These people are our families.
I know, and fear, that the same thing can happen to my wife, my sister, my mother or my son.
We know it is likely that the warplanes will roam over and hit the same area again, and that we are putting ourselves in danger.
The situation we are in is extremely difficult. Our fate is in the hands of God.
But, we say: “What if there are people there under the rubble? What if we can save their lives?” We feel a sense of guilt if we’re ever late to the scene of the attack.
We try to be the first people there so that we can rescue them.
We knew from the moment we joined the civil defence, that our work would be very dangerous.
I was a university student completing my second year of a degree in translation at Homs University.
I was taken during that year to the army to carry out my military service. While I was in the army, as the events in Syria unfolded, I was compelled to defect because I saw some unpleasant things in the army.
The first barrel bombs began raining down on Aleppo in June of 2013. That was when we first established the Syrian civil defence team in Aleppo, and the organisation grew across Syria.
I met Khaled when I first began volunteering. He was more than a brother to me.
His death impacted all the civil defence teams. Every resident in Aleppo knew Khaled.
They knew him for his charisma and for his strength during times of bombardment.
He was dubbed the “child rescuer” because of the number of children he pulled out from the rubble. And most of the ones he was able to pull out would be alive, even after they’d been under huge piles of rubble for very long periods of time.
You cannot imagine the extent of destruction when they hit us with barrel bombs or with ballistic missiles and cluster missiles.
All that destruction would be on top of a child, and Khaled would come.
He would sense it in his heart that there is a child under there, and by the glory of God, he would pull the baby out and it would be alive.
I filmed Khaled with a mobile camera pulling the “miracle baby” out from under the rubble.
Khaled heard the cries of the baby. We never imagined that the baby would come out alive.
Any wrong movement could’ve led to the death of the child.
So, Khaled decided to work using his hands. And by listening, Khaled worked for 16 hours, digging with his hands, until he managed to pull the baby out.
The baby came out with no injuries despite having been under the rubble of a five-storey building.
The kids who he rescued would regularly come and visit him at his home and where he was working.
He was very loving with everyone. He would joke with everyone. And somehow, he just vanished.
No one expected that he would become a martyr. Khaled is known for his strong figure and personality. He could hold himself up.
Opportunity to relocate to the US
Shortly after rescuing the “miracle baby”, Khaled went to Washington DC and New York. He had a meeting there.
He spoke to Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian envoy to the United Nations, taking with him bits of shrapnel from the barrel bombs.
Khaled to said to him: “Look at what you’re bombing the Syrian people with.” His message was very powerful.
When he called me from there, he told me: “To be honest, I didn’t want to come to the US. They offered that I go there permanently and take my wife and kid, but I don’t want to. I want to come back to Syria and continue doing my work.”
He was able to come back to Syria and continue as a volunteer.
To be frank, I have never come across anyone like Khaled. If anyone was offered what Khaled was offered, they would’ve left Syria.
He had a three-year-old daughter, Israa, who was attached to him in an indescribable way.
She would always cling to him and say, “May God protect my dad”.
His death gave me moral strength and more reason to continue doing the work that we do, to stay in Syria.
I know, however, that we could be killed at any moment.
My wife asks me: “Why are you waiting for that moment?” I tell her: “Where are we going to go? If our fate is death, then we would die wherever we were.”
Sometimes I think she has a point. This is the sixth year of Syria’s war and I think to myself: When will this end?
What did these children do to deserve this?
There isn’t a family in Aleppo without a member who has been wounded or killed.
The problem is, we have a thousand Khaleds in every house and every area and a thousand stories like Khaled’s.
No one thinks of us until we become martyrs.
Yesterday, I was doing an interview with one of the wounded volunteers, and he had a huge impact on me.
He said to me: “When did they remember Khaled? They waited for him to become a martyr so that they can sympathise with him.”
As told to Zena al-Tahhan.