‘Digging with my bare hands’: A White Helmet’s Syria quake story

A volunteer from Syria’s White Helmets recounts her experience in search and rescue operations in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey.

Salam al-Mahmoud, a volunteer with the White Helmets civil defence group
Salam al-Mahmoud, a volunteer with the White Helmets civil defence group, holds the body of a boy who died under the rubble in Bisinya, in northwest Syria [Courtesy of Salam al-Mahmoud]

Salam al-Mahmoud is a 24-year-old volunteer with the Syria Civil Defence team, also known as the White Helmets. She has been involved in search and rescue missions in the rebel-held northwest of Syria since the first day the magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Syria and Turkey last week, killing so far more than 36,000 people.

The United Nations says up to 5.3 million people in Syria may be homeless after the earthquakes. Those living in the northwest of the country have criticised the lack of aid from the United Nations and international community, as UN aid chief Martin Griffiths himself admitted the world has failed people in the territory, saying survivors there “rightly feel abandoned”.

Al-Mahmoud lives in Sahl al-Roj in the western Idlib countryside, which was spared from the large-scale devastation that afflicted other areas. At least 550 buildings were completely destroyed, according to the White Helmets. Here, Salam recounts to Al Jazeera her experience from the moment the quake hit. 

When the earthquake struck at 4:17am, my family and I were all sleeping. The whole earth was shaking beneath us. We first thought it was the effects of a missile since we are used to air attacks from the Syrian regime. But then it became clear this was a quake, and I kept thinking, are the children alright? Will the women be alright? Is it true that buildings have collapsed with families inside of them?

By 8am, I heard the news of people being buried under the rubble of their homes. I never expected that such a disaster could happen to us, after everything that we’ve been through.

Our team set off and we first headed to Millis village. Once I reached the area, I was shocked. The scale of destruction was unimaginable. I didn’t think we would find any survivors. It was raining heavily, and the scene looked like the apocalypse had come. We sprang into action, and my fear disappeared.

I was fixated on the thought of finding people under the debris and getting them out alive. How can I reach the children buried underneath who still have breath within them? I was digging with my bare hands as if it was my own family trapped under the rubble.

We barely had the means to conduct such work. But our motivation and drive were strong. We saved a woman who thought that she would never see daylight again. We saved one of her children, but her mother, husband and the rest of her family were killed.

Salam al-Mahmoud looking for survivors under the rubble
Salam said she has never witnessed such large-scale destruction before [Courtesy of Salam al-Mahmoud]

We continued working non-stop for hours, calling out for survivors, using our hands and what we could to dig and move the rubble. At 6pm in the evening, exhausted from the work in the non-stop rain, I wanted to go home and rest. But we were told there was another woman still trapped. We worked until 10:30pm trying to save her, but when we finally managed to get to her, she was already dead.

I eventually made it home at 11:30pm. But I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even close my eyes. I was just thinking of going back as soon as daylight appeared to rescue the poor children buried under the buildings. I wanted to save as many of them as I could. Imagine hearing their voices and not being able to reach them.

There were some 16-18 areas affected by the quake, reduced to rubble. Our resources are very limited. We pleaded with countries and organisations to send us equipment like heavy machinery through the border in order to lift the rubble. We didn’t want humanitarian aid, food or water. We just wanted the means to save these people.

I’ll never get used to seeing the dead children under the rubble. It was very difficult, very shocking. The hardest moment for me personally was seeing a pregnant woman, holding her four-year-old daughter close in her arms, both dead. That scene burned my heart. I’ll never forget how they looked, the dust on their still bodies.

I can’t afford to dwell on my feelings. I’m here to save my people, and I have to steel myself against my emotions in order to rescue as many people as I can, to keep going.

It seems like the most natural thing for me to do, working as part of the Civil Defence. I saw the trust in people’s eyes when they see us. That alone is the drive I need to keep on going.

We all believe in the Quranic verse that if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole of humanity.

You can find information on how to donate to earthquake relief efforts here.

Source: Al Jazeera