First responders from the group that was formed a decade ago to save the lives of civilians during Syria’s civil war sprung into action early Monday when a 7.8-magnitude quake rocked Syria and Turkey.
They have been toiling ever since to pull survivors out from under the debris of dozens of flattened buildings in northwestern areas of war-torn Syria that remain outside the government’s control.
In a video widely shared on social media, crowds of people surrounding the White Helmets cheered loudly as they lifted a young girl and her entire family from a collapsed building in Idlib province.
“International rescue teams must come into our region,” said Mohammed Shibli, a spokesperson for the group known formally as the Syria Civil Defence.
“People are dying every second; we are in a race against time,” he told AFP from neighbouring Turkey.
Monday’s earthquake devastated entire sections of major cities in Turkey and Syria, killing more than 9,500 people, injuring thousands more and leaving many more without shelter in the winter cold.
In Syria alone at least 2,597 people have been killed, according to the government and the White Helmets.
Shibli said it was “impossible” for the group to respond to the large-scale calamity alone in the rebel-held northwest, home to more than four million people.
“Even states can’t do that,” he said, adding that the group’s volunteers have not had time to reach all of the disaster-struck places.
Digging with bare hands
Britain announced Wednesday that it would release an additional 800,000 pounds ($968,000) to aid the rescue group.
The White Helmets emerged in 2013, when Syria’s civil war was nearing its third year, and operates in battered opposition-held zones.
They have been internationally praised for their work, with a Netflix documentary called “The White Helmets” winning an Academy Award in 2017, while a second film focused on the group, “Last Men in Aleppo”, was a 2018 Oscars nominee.
Their volunteers include 3,300 young men and women, including 1,600 dedicated to search and rescue operations.
“After 56 hours of continuous work… hundreds of families are still missing or trapped under the rubble,” Shibli said.
“People’s chances of survival are declining” in the biting cold, he said.
The rescue group needs heavy machinery, spare parts for the ones they already have, and equipment, “but when will we get them”, Shibli asked.
AFP correspondents across the war-ravaged country said rescue workers and residents have had to sift through the rubble with their bare hands.
White Helmets volunteer Fatima Obeid told AFP teams were busy at work despite exhaustion.
“Being able to pull survivors brings them indescribable joy and excitement,” she said from Sarmada in Idlib.
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