Trapped Syrian White Helmets live in fear, seek a way out
BEIRUT – White Helmets volunteers trapped in southern Syria after the government seized areas they operated in said Wednesday they live in fear of being caught in the dragnet of the government, which considers them one of its staunchest enemies, and are desperately seeking a way out.
Hundreds of the volunteer rescue workers — who have toiled in conflict-ravaged opposition areas for years — have failed to make it out of southern Syria in a complex international evacuation.
The evacuation of more than 400 White Helmets was executed under the cover of darkness across the tightly sealed frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last weekend as a government offensive unfolded.
In the quickly changing battlefield, the volunteers were unable to access roads to the frontier in time for the first-of-its-kind evacuation that involved international coordination between six countries — Israel, the U.S. Britain, Germany, Jordan and Canada.
Advancing government forces and an affiliate of the Islamic State group expanding in the region quickly seized territory as the armed opposition crumbled or surrendered in the face of a month-long government offensive.
Two of the volunteers who couldn't make it told The Associated Press they tried but couldn't reach the frontier.
The two, who have been part of the group for years, had been cleared for evacuation. But they were caught between the IS-affiliate militants and government forces.
They are currently confined to about 10 square kilometers (3.8 square miles) where they can move between several small villages safely.
They live incognito, using off-roads to avoid government checkpoints and move in tight circles, often with protection, looking out for any signs of government troop movements. Their villages are besieged by government troops and Russian military police. After living for years under opposition administration, the Syrian flag now flies in their villages.
One of the two, who is in charge of a team of 30 volunteers, said he is scrambling to find ways to save them and their families.
"I have four kids and I am wanted. The (government) has declared war on everything that is civil defense," he said, using the other name for the White Helmets. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested.
For those who stayed behind, the psychological pressure is even more crippling than the physical entrapment.
Unlike other civilians who decided to stay in the government-controlled south, the White Helmets say it is impossible to trust the government to reconcile. Rumors and media campaigns are making them even more jittery.
The government and its allies have waged a concerted campaign against the volunteers for years, accusing them of being agents of foreign powers, being terrorists for working in rebel-controlled areas and of staging chemical attacks.
The group, which had more than 3,000 volunteers in opposition-held areas, has saved thousands of lives since 2013 and documented government attacks on civilians and other infrastructure. Its volunteers were repeatedly targeted, and more than 250 were killed on duty.
The evacuation over the weekend through the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Jordan has made things worse, said the other volunteer, a father of three who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Israel and Syria are formally at war. Collaborating with Israel is considered grand treason. "The accusation of being an agent was the biggest (concern) ... it has become justified for the government to do anything to us."
The trapped volunteers often meet at night to discuss ways to leave, though they have few options.
"Some show their fear, some hide it. Some try to keep morale high," said the father of three.
"We are facing an unknown destiny," he said. "If we knew we face death that would be accepted. But our fate is unknown: torture, detention, maybe death or maybe survival if we are lucky," he said. "Life without hope or dreams is more difficult than dying."
The two volunteers said moving to opposition-held Idlib in the north — an option available for those who refused reconciliation — is not available to them. It would mean taking the risk of going through government checkpoints to another dangerous area considered to be an even larger prison.
They said they have not been able to contact those who evacuated to Jordan. A family member said the evacuees had their phones taken away from them.
The team leader called on the international community to negotiate an exit for them or at least guarantee them protection. "Otherwise we will continue to live homeless," he said.
The other volunteer said when there is a will there is a way: Ransoms have been paid to free Western hostages, and negotiations secured the evacuations of others, including Islamic State militants at one point.
"They can take us through the Damascus International Airport under the protection of the government if they wanted," he said. "Just get us out. We can offer help to others if we go out. We are trained to save lives."
A person close to the evacuation plan of the other volunteers said "every effort is being made" to find safety for those still trapped. He had no specifics but said some volunteers have individually found their way to Idlib.
Associated Press writer Alice Su in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.