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In Aleppo, Civilian Groups Fill Gaps in Caring for Communities

Providing hospital transport and digging bodies out of the rubble, Syria’s organized volunteers seek to pick up where the government and opposition officials left off.

Written by Ahmad Khalil and Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

When Ahmad and his friends formed a group last July to transport injured Syrians to hospitals in Turkey, they became the latest civilian members of what’s being called Syria’s civil defense corps.

“The idea came to life when peaceful protests in the city of Jisr al-Shoghour stopped,” Ahmad says. “There were many injured people coming from areas that were under constant fire. [To help,] we turned our cars into ambulances, but we always ran into the same problem, which was that doctors would invariably admonish us, saying we’d risked the lives of patients by moving them [without any medical knowledge]. They said some of these patients were in critical condition because of that very reason.”

“As a result, the local civilian council in Idlib gave us first aid and civil defense courses in July 2013. When the sessions were over, we tried – at our own expense – to get some equipment to help us achieve our goal of saving lives. The goal was to come to the aid of the injured and keep them alive, but this time, [we were equipped with the knowledge we needed].”

In Aleppo, the civil defense group, an organized band of local residents who have come together to provide services once provided by the government, from medical aid to policing, are working to restore order to a city whose infrastructure is all but gone.

One member, named Nabil, says that his father’s dream “was to see me become a doctor. When I joined the civil defense, they were in dire need of members to help the wounded and extract civilians trapped under rubble after barrel bombings. I joined, and I have turned my father’s dream into a reality.”

Residents say the civil defense now functions as a main lifeline to many civilians in Aleppo, Idlib and other hard-hit areas in Syria. Its members immediately head to bombarded sites and are often responsible for transporting the injured to local hospitals.

Ahmad says the civil defense has been divided into three units: the ambulance brigade, whose mission is to evacuate and transfer the wounded from the bombarded sites to the hospitals; the fire brigade, whose mission is to fight fires wherever they spread; and the search-and-rescue team, which digs for bodies in the rubble.

Adel, once a third-year engineering student at Aleppo University, now serves in the civil defense corps in the Hanano neighborhood.

“I decided not to join any [political] group and to wait until the civil defense corps announces it needs volunteers,” he says. “I am healthy and fit, which was my ticket into being accepted into the civil defense. I can’t explain how I feel when we free a person trapped under the rubble. Only the other day, we extracted a man’s young daughter. He had lost all his family but when he saw her, he cried tears of joy.”

All names have been changed.

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