Waging nonviolence in war-torn Syria

As Syria struggles under the weight of ongoing conflict, teams of ordinary citizens are staying to help people where others have fled – and saving lives in the process

A verse from the Qur’an – ‘Whoever saves a life, it will be as if he has saved all of humanity’ – is the motto of Syrian Civil Defence volunteers Ahmad Hamade and Muhammad Zikra.

Along with 2,050 volunteers across the country – a number that rises most months – the pair rescue survivors trapped under the rubble of president Bashir-al-Assad’s airstrikes. Their challenge is immense. Bombs fall on some neighbourhoods 50 times a day and, after three-and-a-half-years of civil war, the death toll now stands at over 191,000. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 50 percent of Syrians have now fled to other parts of the country or across the border.

Despite the risks, 40-year-old Hamade and Zikra have chosen to remain in the northwestern city of Idlib because as they say, via a crackling Skype connection, “when we stay, fewer people die”. And the teams, trained in search and rescue by international conflict-resolution organisation ARK, have saved 10,221 lives since June 2013.

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A former firefighter, Zikra defected from the regime. He recalls rescuing an elderly woman in Idlib after government forces bombed and destroyed her home. “We weren’t sure if anyone was there so we looked around and around,” he says. “Suddenly we heard her voice. We managed to take her out alive. It was so good. The hope in her eyes, she was very old, but it was incredible.”

As well as rescuing people, civil defenders work for their communities in creative ways such as producing a home safety manual that contains a section on chemical weapons along with ideas for games to help children spot unexploded bombs.

Even in war, all life is equal for the emergency responders. Hamade and Zikra do not care for politics and say that they will help anyone. In October, volunteers in Aleppo rescued a regime soldier after five hours of digging.

The two work in harrowing conditions and are aware that they could be killed at any time, and yet – perhaps because of this – they have a passion for life. “Meeting these guys for training I am amazed that after all this time they make fun and they play games,” says ARK’s media support officer. “They like life; they just want to live.”