Syria's White Helmet rescuers: 'We have to be their rock'

  • Scripting by ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies

  • Produced and filmed by Riyad Hussein and Khaled Khatib

  • Warning: Viewers may find some images distressing

Mouna joined the Syria Civil Defence White Helmets in 2017. She is married and has four children. She was displaced with her family to Ariha in 2018 and joined the women’s centre immediately. She’s trained in search and rescue and in ambulance first aid. A month ago, she was promoted to be the head of the White Helmets women’s centre in Ariha.

Of Syria's 2800 White Helmets volunteers, almost a tenth are women.

Since the start of the conflict more than a third of White Helmet volunteers have been injured or killed.

This is her description of what people face every day in and around Idlib.

My heart is strong. I know it's terrifying and seeing the blood is heartbreaking, but I know I need to remain brave and not to get scared so people we're helping won’t get scared too.

We have to be their rock in these tragedies.

Our area has been under bombardment for a long time. Everyone here gets terrified when they hear the sound of warning sirens, because it means that death is coming from the sky.

Mouna is used to working amid the rubble in Idlib. Credit: Khaled Khatib

I'm always fully ready, wearing my uniform and my helmet. Cotton, bandages and sterilizer are the tools I always carry with me in case there's an attack and I need to go on a rescue mission.

You immediately know which location was targeted because you see survivors running away as fast as they can. Most of the time you can smell the blood and see the dust from the rubble.

One of the worst explosions was a couple of weeks ago. It was massive, alarm sirens filled the air, the warplane dropped its full load on the city.

The way the missiles fall and the smoke in the sky tell you how big of a tragedy it is, even before you arrive at the location.

I left the centre running toward the city, then I rode the ambulance with the search and rescue team. There were horrific scenes all the way.

Once we arrived, I saw people lying on the ground, blood and rubble everywhere.

Mouna describes the scene from where the strike hit, 'blood and rubble everywhere'.

To choose who to save first is the hardest decision that you can ever have to make.

But you need to be smart and make it quickly to save the person who's in need of immediate medical attention.

Especially because there's not enough ambulances and people fear coming close to help with their cars due to double-tap attacks by the regime and Russia.

Mouna and her team accompanied the injured, including this young girl, to a medical centre.

There was a little girl, around 10-years-old, crying and screaming: "Mama, mama!"

I ran to their house to help her and found her pregnant mother stuck behind a door because of the high pressure of the explosion. I called on my colleagues and we evacuated both of them and took them away to a safe place.

Mouna and the other White Helmet volunteers rushed to the scene of the attack.

On the way to the hospital we had to race with time, but we also had to drive very carefully. The situation was horrible, my heart was pounding fast and next thing I know, my eyes were pouring tears.

The scenes at the hospital were indescribable. Blood, pain and cries.

The scariest of all was parents looking for their children among the dead and injured. I tried to help by calming people down, be their shoulder, clean wounds, and I worked with the nurses. There was no stopping.

The team evacuated a pregnant mother stuck behind a door after the strike brought down buildings.

Among all these bodies and the cries of their loved ones, there was a body of a little girl. She was alone and had nobody next to her. She was dead.

It broke my heart into pieces. I carried her in my arms after a doctor asked me to, because there weren't enough beds for the injured.

I cried alot because she had no one and nobody was able to identify her yet.

Doctors asked Mouna to carry the dead child to make space on a bed for the injured. Credit: White Helmets

I couldn't stop crying. Every time I'd gather my strength, I'd look at her face and cry again.

Where is her family? Are they still alive? I kept thinking every time someone else came in search of their loved one, how would I tell them? How would I hand them her body? What should I say? If I feel all this heartache, how would her mother or father feel when they see her?

Hours passed by and nobody from her family came. The hospital staff asked to take her many times but I refused to give her up.

Later we learned that she lost most of her family to the attack and that she’s not from Ariha and it might take hours for her relatives to come.

The moments when identifying the bodies of those who died or got injured are the hardest moments for families. They experience the biggest pain and heartbreak possible.

Your only wish is that your child, parent or sibling is injured not dead. Or if they're dead you wish for their whole body to be there so you can have one last look.

There is no respite for Mouna and her team, here she distributes medicine to Syrian refugees.

That day was one of the worst days of my life.

I still can't shake the image of the girl's face from my mind, the voices of people crying and saying goodbye to their loved ones for the last time. We will always carry these scenes in our hearts. They will replace the good memories in our minds and remain forever.

We witnessed a new level of criminality that day in Ariha.

Huge swathes of Idlid province have been reduced to rubble by the offensive.

A school, a kindergarten and a mosque, which sheltered displaced families. The places they sheltered in to escape death were the regime's targets of hatred and brutality.

I wish one day will come when the whole world realises that those who died and are still dying are not just numbers.

They're human beings.

I hope those committing the crimes will be brought to justice one day.