White Helmets hit back at Russian slurs

Published by The Mail on Sunday (15th April, 2018)

Leaders of the Syrian rescue squad accused by Russia of faking footage of gassed children in the chemical weapons assault at Douma hit back yesterday.

Ammar al-Salmo – a founder of the White Helmets, a civil defence force that pulls people from rubble after military attack – said President Bashar Assad and his Russian allies were trying to cover up atrocities.

He added: ‘They do not want their crimes to be witnessed. We publicise their attacks. This is the cause of the Russian and regime propaganda against us. They are not killing terrorists but civilians.’

Co-founder Ismail Alabdullah said: ‘We make them angry because we show how they are killing our people. They do not want the world to know what is happening.’

As well as providing vital rescue services, the White Helmets document events with handheld and helmet-mounted cameras. Their footage helps human rights groups corroborate eyewitness accounts.

Videos released after last weekend’s attack showed apparently suffocated corpses and pale toddlers being treated by medical staff. More than 40 people died, with dozens more needing treatment for symptoms indicating exposure to chemicals.

Last year, the White Helmets – officially called Syria Civil Defence – exposed a chemical attack that killed 83 people.

They claim there have been more than 200 chemical weapon attacks in the Syrian struggle. ‘I have seen chlorine gas attack,’ said al-Salmo. ‘We did not know what was happening and what to do.’

But he said worse were lethal barrel bombs, filled with oil or shrapnel along with explosives and dropped from helicopters. ‘These are horrible. I’ve seen terrible things with massacres in hospitals and marketplaces. They kill many more people.’

The group has had 237 volunteers killed in Syria’s war. But after exposing last weekend’s gas attack in Douma, in Eastern Ghouta, the White Helmets were accused of faking the attack. Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to London, called the first responders a ‘notorious group’ backed by Britain and alleged they had been ‘proved more than once to be staging attacks’.

And Lieutenant-General Viktor Poznikhir told a defence briefing in Moscow: ‘The odious White Helmets once again staged for the cameras a ‘chemical attack’ on the civilians of Douma.’

Assad has told the Russian television network RT: ‘White Helmets are Al Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net.’ The station last week claimed the White Helmets stole aid, then forced desperate people to act on camera in return for bread.

But one volunteer in Eastern Ghouta told this newspaper there had been four previous gas attacks in his area in the five weeks before last weekend’s attack.

‘It is only natural the Russians will be annoyed because we are the people saving lives and documenting the war crimes carried out by the regime and their Russian allies,’ said former student Abdul-Ghany Khabbaz.

Al-Salmo, 35, a former English teacher, set up the group in Aleppo four years ago with ten friends – six of whom have since been killed – and one vehicle. It now has 4,200 members. ‘We did not want to fight,’ he told The Mail on Sunday from Aleppo. ‘We just wanted peace, we wanted dignity.’

Al-Salmo thought about fleeing the city after the government withdrew in late 2012, cutting off electricity and emergency services. ‘Those staying suffered so much from shelling,’ he said. ‘I thought it was my duty to help people.’

‘I saw people being killed and fires spreading and thought we should try to stop these things. We were not trained but would just go to damaged places and pull out the injured.’

He still remembers clearly the tears of his team after they wrenched their first child from a crushed building, a young girl whose mother was killed in the air strike. The infant recovered from injuries, later escaping to Turkey with her father.

They recruited more volunteers and won support from abroad, setting up a training base in Turkey as they spread across Syria in areas suffering lack of emergency services. They have saved 113,000 people so far.

Murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, a former aid worker, put forward the group for the Nobel Peace Prize. A Netflix documentary on their work won an Oscar last year.

‘We thought this would be for just a few months,’ said al-Salmo. ‘Every day seemed worse and often we thought about giving up and going abroad. We’ve seen so many friends killed. But the people of Syria respect us so we will stay to the end.’

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