In 2011, Gardenia* was living in Dara’a—the southern province in Syria where the uprising against the Assad regime, a series of protests that would later spiral into the Syrian Civil War, first began. When the protests became violent, Gardenia quickly learned basic first aid and began volunteering in the field hospitals—makeshift care centers erected to treat wounded protestors who were being tortured and killed in the government-run hospitals.
Once the regime withdrew state services from the now opposition-controlled areas starting in 2012—and dropping barrel bombs on the civilians who lived there—she became part of one of the first Syria Civil Defense teams, better known as the “White Helmets,” a brigade of volunteers that rescues people from underneath the rubble after mortar and barrel bomb attacks, and takes them to the hospital or administers vital first aid if they are still living. Though she is no longer living in Syria, Gardenia remains active with May Day Rescue, the organization coordinating trainings and equipment for the White Helmets, and regularly attends trainings in Turkey and Jordan.
Fusion caught up with Gardenia at the May Day Rescue office in Istanbul—the White Helmets’s strategizing center—about organizing civil society, the role of women in the revolution, and the international community’s misconceptions about Syria.
(*Note: As Gardenia still has family members inside of Syria, where recently-smuggled documents from the Assad regime show that even so much as “discussing events in a negative manner” is enough to justify an arrest and detention, we have changed her name to protect her and her family’s identity.)
As told to Anna Lekas Miller.
We were looking for ways to help people. After shootings at the demonstrations, all of the women in the city would go find the wounded, and take them to the hospitals. Not the government hospitals—this was not allowed, because they were killing people who had participated in the demonstrations. Because of this, [some of the demonstrators] decided to make field hospitals—places where we could save people, without talking about religion or political views.
We started to see people while we were trying to clean the streets—removing garbage, and saving people from under the rubble. In the beginning it was just mortar shells. After that, it became aircrafts, and then barrel bombs.
Our goal was to save as many people as we could in a short amount of time. I used to be a volunteer with the Red Crescent in Syria; I joined them in 2006 because of the crisis in Lebanon [a 33 day war between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah that left more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians dead and many more injured or displaced, many of whom sought refuge in Syria]. We were mostly giving the refugees aid through food baskets and shelters, but that was also when I participated in my first course in first aid.
When the revolution started in Syria, I knew I had to employ this experience. I joined another first-aid course in one of the field hospitals. It was very dangerous to be working in the hospitals; the regime believed that if you were working in the field hospitals [set up by volunteers from the Syrian medical community as an alternative to the government hospitals], you were helping terrorists. Most of the people working in the field hospitals were nurses and doctors who had been working in the government hospitals, and then left to help the people. If they arrested you, you could be in prison for ten, fifteen, twenty or more years.
Still, we encouraged more girls to go into the field hospitals. They didn’t have certificates, and they didn’t study medicine, but they saw us and saw that they could help. Still, it was very dangerous—a lot of people were talking about us, and told us that the regime would absolutely arrest us.
But as a woman what are you going to do? You cannot have a weapon to go to battle. This is even hard for a man—you're risking your life. Women were working in civil society. Some helped us in the field hospitals. Others taught in the schools without salaries, because they wanted the children to have an education.
We were part of the revolution, not politically but as civilians.
At the beginning of 2013, we formed the Civil Defense—an institute that was borne from neutrality, and a desire to save people in a way that was strictly impartial, and humanitarian. It was overwhelming at first. By that time, our cemeteries were full of people who had died under the mortar shells, and there were snipers shooting people in the streets. It is very challenging—how were we supposed to manage all of these things at the same time?
I have never rescued someone that was still alive; they were all dead. One time a sniper shot someone who was walking beside me. I couldn’t do anything for him because he had been shot in the heart—also the sniper didn’t stop, he was shooting all the time. The whole street was controlled by snipers and you couldn’t walk from here to there without risking being shot. Most of the people were dying from these snipers—one day I asked one of my colleagues why you would rush to save someone when you have mortar shells raining down on you or snipers firing at you. He said, “Because I cannot think.”
Once you hear the people shouting, you go. When I was a child, I was looking at Palestine—I saw these people, and I wanted to help them, but there was nothing I could do. When it started in Syria, I saw that now I needed to help. These people are civilians, they have no fault to have died or be left in the streets. I wish that this would stop—that the barrel bombs will stop, and there will be a ceasefire. I hope that the Civil Defenders will not be working in wars or revolutions, but that they will rebuild Syria.
What we need to do now is to organize all of the centers to give them training, so that we can save ourselves in order to save peoples’ lives. If we lose our members, who can save all of these people? There is no one.
For the women who have this courage, I always say to go to the Civil Defense and to work with them. I encourage them because it is the only way that will help end this conflict. The international community sees Syria as ISIS, the Islamic State, and Nusra [the al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria]—but no. The Civil Defense shows that there are a lot of people helping, working in other ways that people are not talking about. People deserve to live and deserve life; they need to live without barrel bombs, chemical weapons and chlorine gas. They are ordinary civilians that do not want to go to Europe, they want to be safe inside of Syria. They want to go back to Syria.
Anna Lekas Miller is a Beirut-based journalist, interested in race/gender, surveillance and changing narratives on the Middle East. Read her work www.annalekasmiller.com or follow her @agoodcuppa.