Why the Heroes of Aleppo’s Civil Defense Are Now in Exile in Turkey

A chaotic war and a fractured opposition punishes the only people trying to save civilians

By Matthieu Aikins

In June this year, I traveled to rebel-held Aleppo, along with a photographer, Sebastiano Tomada, and Salem Rizek, our guide to report this story. Because of the threat of kidnapping by extremist and criminal groups, we were escorted from the Turkish border by members of Liwa al Tauheed, a powerful rebel group in Aleppo that is known for cooperating with Western journalists. The road, which winds through the rebel heartlands north of the city, only took a couple of hours but its last stretch was particularly tense. The regime has nearly encircled the city and is using artillery and airstrikes against the few remaining rebel supply lines.

Sebastiano and I had visited Aleppo in March 2013, but we weren’t prepared for the scale of destruction that we encountered. Neighborhoods that had once held bustling markets were now shattered and empty. Over the last year, the rebel half of the city has undergone daily aerial bombardment by the regime, much of it from the crude, improvised weapons known as barrel bombs. Thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed. Indiscriminately targeting civilian areas is a war crime, but the regime’s intent seems to be destroy the economic and social fabric of the city, and they are succeeding. Whole neighborhoods of the city are abandoned and half-destroyed. Aleppo feels like a ghost town.

Members of the Civil Defense Team in Syria, rescue a woman who is trapped inside a collapsed home after a regime airstrike destroyed a series of building in a residential neighborhood in Aleppo (Sebastiano Tomada)

And yet, even in the midst of so much death and despair, we found Syrians who were risking their lives to help others. We spent eight days in the city, nearly all of it in the company of the Hanano Civil Defense Team that I profile in my story. Aleppo is constantly being hit by airstrikes, and shadowing the team meant rushing with them to the site of each blast — or, as I detail in the video below, almost being hit by a bomb ourselves. Sometimes it felt like there was no escape from the relentless bombardment. But their courage and resilience — they had been doing this for over a year — inspired us to stick with them. And it felt important to tell the story of Syrians who hadn’t resorted to violence in their resistance to the regime.

Today, Aleppo is almost completely cut off by the regime, and by the advances of the Al Qaeda splinter group ISIS in the northern countryside. If the city is besieged, the inhabitants of the rebel-held area may face starvation, as did the defenders of Homs before they surrendered in May after a year of being blockaded.

A postscript to the story:. Earlier this month Khaled Hajjo and the majority of the Hanano team were briefly arrested by a rebel brigade in the city, and then forced to flee to Turkey.

According to Khaled, after he threatened to expose corruption within the city council, the head of Civil Defense in Aleppo, Ammar Salmo, accused him and the team of stealing and being homosexuals — and promised to report them to the Shariah Court. It’s a sad illustration of the fact that the Syrian opposition has often been its own worst enemy. By wasting its energy on internal power struggles and corruption, it has managed to portray Al Qaeda-type groups as an appealing alternative. Aleppo has lost some of its bravest rescuers, and in the end, as always, the price will be paid by the civilians.

To learn more about the boys of Civil Defense, visit whitehelmets.org

To feel every harrowing, heart-pounding, heroic moment of life with the Civil Defense team, read the full feature:

See photographer Sebastiano Tomada’s images of the Civil Defense team:

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