As a heavy white dust cloud shrouds the district of al-Sukari in rebel-held eastern Aleppo, wailing sirens of ambulances reverberate across the devastated site in northern Syria.
The area has just witnessed yet another string of air-strikes by Syrian government and allied Russian jets. Having rushed to the scene, the rescuers know what they have to do: to dig survivors out of bombed-out buildings and rush the wounded to the nearest medical point without being hit by an air-strike.
The rescuers are from the White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer group, dubbed the saviours of civilians living in opposition-held parts of Aleppo that are besieged by government forces.
In recent months, the group has riveted the world’s attention with its efforts in Syria’s war zones, where 145 of its members have died.
Earlier this month, the White Helmets won the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Noble Prize”.
The Syrian group hailed the win as a “glimmer of hope in these dark days.” Hollywood stars, including actors George Clooney, Daniel Day Lewis, and Vanessa Redgrave, have voiced support for giving the Nobel Peace Prize to the White Helmets.
The award will be handed out at a ceremony in Oslo today.
The White Helmets were founded in 2013 to help the Syrian areas that lack emergency services.
The group, which mainly works in rebel areas, claims they have since rescued some 60,000 people across Syria.
In recent months, the divided city of Aleppo has been the White Helmets’ main arena. Since a ceasefire, brokered by the United States and Russia collapsed on September 19, eastern Aleppo has been under an intense air campaign by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allied Russia.
The spike in numbers of casualties have already depleted the city’s hospitals and makeshift medical centres, many of which have been bombed during the war. Ibrahim al-Hajj, the head of the White Helmets’ media unit, is one of the group’s 3,000 members who have devoted themselves to assisting besieged people in eastern Aleppo.
“We have to work fast these days and rush the wounded people to the nearest medical point,” al-Hajj, a father of a 10-month-old baby, said. At least three of the group’s four operation centres were damaged by air-strikes in a single night last week, the 26-year-old volunteer said via WhatsApp.
“We lost ambulances and fire engine in one day.”
Al-Hajj was a university student when the uprising against al-Assad erupted in March 2011. Al-Hajj accompanies rescuers in the aftermath of air-strikes in order to document what he sees and help in rescue operations.
“The toughest part of our job is when we go to neighbourhoods where we live and find parts of them reduced to rubble. There, the first thing that comes to your mind is that the victims may be your parents or other members of your family,” he said.
“I experienced this feeling last week when the building where my parents live was hit by an air-strike. I went there and saved my mother, father, and brother from the rubble,” al-Hajj added.
Eastern Aleppo, home to some 300,000, has been under siege since July. Residents there are suffering from shortages of supplies including food and medicines, according to aid groups.
“Sometimes when I see my baby shivering from the sound of the falling shells, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake by bringing my family
in to live under these circumstances in order to help others,” said al-Hajj.