Hunted from the sky, Aleppo first responders now working from orchards: 'Those rescuing people are being targeted'

Spread out among the sunbaked olive groves roughly 30km west of Aleppo city, three volunteer first responder teams seek respite from the summer heat. 

This is not a lazy summer day. The groves are the new headquarters of the Atareb Civil Defense.

“We stretch out on a little rug to sleep, and we use the firetruck and other vehicles for shade,” says Najib Bakour, director of Atareb’s Civil Defense, a search-and-rescue group.

Bakour and his colleagues serve 400,000 people in surrounding villages in the Idlib and west Aleppo countryside, responding to emergencies and airstrikes.

In early August, after the Civil Defense station in Atareb was struck for the fourth time—the third this year alone—the rescuers began living like fugitives.

“Each time [a station] was hit, we set up a new one. Each time, it was struck again,” Bakour tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani. “We’re powerless, and we’re being directly targeted.”

“More than 90 percent of Civil Defense headquarters in Aleppo province have been struck by warplanes” since late 2015, Ibrahim Abu al-Laith, a spokesman for the Civil Defense in opposition-held Syria told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

To stay alive, the team split up into three groups, spread out in the countryside around Atareb, and now move every day to thwart reconnaissance planes.

“Those who are rescuing people are being targeted.”

Q: How many times has the Atareb Civil Defense station been hit, and how are you working right now?

Our station was bombed four times. Each time, we set up a new one. Each time, it was struck again.

Now, we don’t have a Civil Defense center. Rather, we’ve spread out our personnel at three positions, roughly equidistant from each other. We change those positions every day so that the reconnaissance planes won’t spot us.

We’re scattered in the olive groves outside Atareb and far from residential areas.

 The Atareb Civil Defense’s sole ambulance after it was reportedly hit by cluster munitions earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Civil Defense.

Q: Is this strategy actually useful?

We’re centered in the orchards as small groups. By doing this, we reduce the amount of damage to equipment and personnel if we’re targeted.  We can also respond quickly to a bombing because we’re spread out at more than one point.

Q: Without a building, how do you coordinate amongst yourselves?

We’re in a really bad situation, out in the sun in this severe heat, scattered in the orchards far from the markets. Our personnel are trying to get used to this. We stretch out on a little rug to sleep, and we use the firetruck and other vehicles for shade.

For example, three or four responders with a broken-down ambulance used to gather next to a tree and the public road. That was a position, and so on.

Now, we’ve started asking for tents to protect us from the heat.

As for communication, there is one guy with a walkie-talkie who is responsible for coordinating between the positions and facilitating their communication. He directs them to the places of airstrikes as needed.

During our work, there is repeated bombing of the same site. This disrupts and greatly limits our work. Our team is injured, and hospitals and Civil Defense centers are bombed.

The greatest difficulty is that those who are rescuing people are being targeted.

Q: What areas do you serve, and what is the status of your vehicles and equipment?

We buy vehicles according to what we need. We currently have a mobile water truck, which can be moved to different positions. We repair immediately, but do so far from the city out of fear of being targeted. We fill gallon containers with mazot to fuel the vehicles.

Q: Have you lost some of your vehicles?

Previous bombings destroyed the building completely and put the ambulance and firetruck out of service. Some other vehicles were damaged, but we repaired them. We couldn’t fix the ambulance, so the [Civil Defense] management gave us another vehicle.

Once more, the new ambulance was hit [reportedly with cluster munitions] when our team was saving people from the Maarat al-Atareb camp bombing on August 4. The bombing put the ambulance out of service, injured the paramedic and the driver, who was taken to Turkey, where he is still in a coma.

Now we’re using a pickup truck as an alternative ambulance.

Q: Will it be possible to reestablish a station soon?

Honestly, I don’t think so. Our station was deliberately targeted with various weapons. The second time we were bombed [in April 2016], it was with ballistic missiles, including vacuum missiles. Five of our personnel died.

After that, we moved our headquarters to another village a little far away. Even so, the planes came back and targeted us. We’re powerless, and we’re being directly targeted.

Despite our terrible situation, we feel somewhat safe like this.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.