ALEPPO, Syria – Mohammad Nour Houriyya had just graduated from high school when Syria’s uprising against Bashar al-Assad turned violent.
Setting aside his dreams of law school, 18-year-old Mohammad decided to devote his life to helping his fellow citizens in Aleppo. He first volunteered in the office of a small relief organization there, but as the government’s barrel bomb attacks intensified in the city, he felt he needed to do more. Soon, he donned a white helmet and joined the Civil Defense program.
That was back in August 2013. Since then, Mohammad has risked his life nearly every day to help his fellow citizens.
“We don’t have advanced tools or equipment, but we manage to help with the limited resources in hand. We leave in the early morning, which is usually the time the helicopters bomb, and head straight to the areas being bombed,” said Mohammad.
“We search for survivors under the rubble and help injured people. Sometimes it takes hours of work, and sometimes it takes days just to dig out one area.”
The Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, is a group of unarmed volunteers who risk their lives to save people in areas where public services no longer function. When bombs rain down in opposition areas, they rush in to buildings that have been attacked while people stream out, throwing themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of those stuck in the rubble.
According to the White Helmets’ website, the group has saved more than 40,800 lives.
“My brother Ihaab and I were devastated with the numbers that were being killed and injured, and we wanted to help,” said Muhammad. They decided to join a chapter working in a neighborhood that, at the time, was getting hit by barrel bombs on an almost daily basis.
The Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs – oil drums packed with shrapnel and explosives rolled out of the door of a helicopter, which explode on impact and can bring down a seven-storey building – have killed thousands of civilians in opposition areas.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, between October 20, 2012 and November 20, 2015, Assad’s air force carried out 42,234 air strikes, killing 6,889 civilians and injuring another 35,000 in opposition-held cities and villages across the country.
Every time Muhammad leaves his house, he said, he wonders if it will be his day to die. With barrel bombs falling every day, death is always just around the corner.“On our first day, we went with the team to an area that had just been hit by an explosive barrel. But as soon as we entered the partially destroyed building, we heard people screaming outside that the helicopters had returned,” Mohammad recalled.In the chaos, he and his brother were briefly separated for a panic-filled few minutes that have stuck with Mohammad ever since. “I was running and calling his name, hoping to see his face in the chaos. Thankfully, neither of us was injured, but the moment has pierced my memory for ever,” he said.
Mohammad and Ihaab worked together for the next year, until a fateful day in March 2014. Their crew had been called to the ever-crowded al-Haydariya roundabout. It had been hit by a barrel bomb and the scene was one of carnage.
“There were three cars burning with injured and dead people inside,” said Mohammad. But almost as soon as they arrived, the helicopters returned, they scattered for cover, and once again, he and his brother were separated.
“We didn’t know where to hide. We ran aimlessly. It all took less than 40 seconds, and a huge explosion threw me for meters,” said Mohammad, who was hit by shrapnel.
“I started looking for [Ihaab] everywhere. As I dug through the rubble and dust, I saw a colleague of mine tottering around, carrying his own hand … I kept looking for my brother, until I finally found him lying on the ground covered with blood and dust. He was not responsive at all.”
Muhammad said he lost consciousness and came to in a hospital bed. “My friends told me at the hospital that my brother was waiting for me at home, but when I arrived, I saw my brother’s body on the ground surrounded by my family. They were crying,” he said.
Ihaab Houriyya, Mohammad’s brother, stands outside the Civil Defense base of operations in Aleppo.
The death of Ihaab was a heavy blow to Mohammad’s family, who had lost another son the previous year. Mohammad said his older brother, Abdul Wahab, a carpenter, was kidnapped by government forces and shot in the head in early 2013 after telling his boss, an informer, of his support for the opposition.
After Ihaab died, Muhammad’s family begged him not to return to his work with the Civil Defense. They did not want to lose a third son. His Civil Defense team also asked him to take a break to spend time with his family.
“The death of Abdul Wahab and then Ihaab made me more determined though,” said Mohammad. He has continued with his work and has no plans of leaving Syria.
“I never even thought of leaving Aleppo. I love my family. I love this country and its people,” he said. “I look forward to a modern Syria, to calm and stability, and to the displaced returning back to their homes.”
Top image: A local chapter of Aleppo’s Civil Defense forces in Ma’arat al-Artiq on December 4, 2015. (Tamer Osman/Syria Deeply)