A Syrian White Helmets volunteer shares her experiences in search and rescue operations after the earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey.
Salam al-Mahmoud is a 24-year-old volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defense Team, also known as the White Helmets. She has been involved in search-and-rescue missions in rebel-held north-west Syria since the first day the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Syria and Turkey last week, killing more than 36,000 people so far.
The United Nations says up to 5.3 million people in Syria could be homeless after the earthquakes. People living in the north-west of the country have criticized the lack of aid from the United Nations and the international community, as UN Secretary General Martin Griffiths himself admitted the world has failed people in the territory, saying the survivors there “feel rightly let down”.
Al-Mahmoud lives in Sahl al-Roj in western Idlib, which has been spared the widespread devastation of other areas. According to the White Helmets, at least 550 buildings were completely destroyed. Here Salam tells Al Jazeera about her experiences since the earthquake.
When the earthquake hit at 4:17 am, my family and I were all asleep. The whole earth trembled beneath us. We thought it was the effects of a missile at first, as we are used to the Syrian regime’s airstrikes. But then it became clear that it was an earthquake and I kept thinking, are the kids okay? Will the women be okay? Is it true that buildings with families inside collapsed?
At 8am I heard the news of people buried under the rubble of their homes. I never expected that such a catastrophe could happen to us after everything we’ve been through.
Our team set off and we drove to Millis Village first. When I reached the area I was shocked. The extent of the destruction was unimaginable. I didn’t think we would find survivors. It was raining heavily and the scene looked like the apocalypse had come. We took action and my fear vanished.
I was fixated on the idea of finding people under the rubble and getting them out alive. How can I reach the children buried underneath who still have breath in them? I dug with my bare hands as if my own family were trapped under the rubble.
We hardly had the means to carry out such work. But our motivation and our drive were strong. We rescued a woman who thought she would never see the light of day again. We rescued one of her children, but her mother, husband and the rest of her family were killed.
We continued to work non-stop for hours, calling for survivors, using our hands and what we could to dig and move the rubble. At 6 p.m., exhausted from work in the continuous rain, I wanted to go home and rest. But we were told that another woman was trapped. We worked until 10:30pm trying to save her, but when we finally managed to get to her, she was already dead.
I finally got home at 11:30 p.m. But I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even close my eyes. I was just thinking of going back as soon as daylight came to save the poor children buried under the buildings. I wanted to save as many as possible. Imagine hearing their voices and not being able to reach them.
There were around 16-18 areas affected by the quake that were reduced to rubble. Our resources are very limited. We begged countries and organizations to send us equipment like heavy machinery across the border 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 worst moment for me personally was seeing a pregnant woman holding her four year old daughter tightly, both dead. That scene burned my heart. I’ll never forget what they looked like, the dust on their still bodies.
I can’t afford to act on my feelings. I’m here to save my people and I have to fight my emotions to save as many people as possible to keep going.
For me it seems the most natural thing to work as part of civil protection. I’ve seen the trust in people’s eyes when they see us. That alone is the drive I need to keep going.
We all believe in the Qur’anic verse that if you save one life, it is like saving all of humanity.
Find information on how to donate to earthquake relief here.