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Screams that never left my memories

By Naila Kazeebra.

Today I write from my personal experience. I am Na’ila Kazeebra, a volunteer in the Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets)[1]for the last six years.

I now live a somewhat peaceful life because I decided to settle in the city of Azaz in northern Syria. I told my husband, "I will reside near the Turkish wall, I no longer can tolerate the sound of planes, the artillery, or the barrels, nor am I able to think of where they might hit."

I am tired and my children’s psychological state is extremely poor. Without exaggeration, this is the thirtieth time we have been displaced.

I will talk about a day engraved in my memory; on that day, every inch of my human feelings overflowed. February 16, 2016 was a day of heavy bombardment that was part of the Russian attack on northern Syria. We could not determine the source or direction of the bombardment. There were Russian planes, artillery fire, and, occasionally, barrel bombs, and this continued for days. At 8pm that evening, a shell landed near our home. The electricity was cut. A far away voice was calling, “For the love of Allah, Help us!”, along with the screams of children and women. I couldn’t control myself. I went towards the door to go and help them. I have some medical knowledge about first aid. I used to work between 2014 and 2016 at a gynaecological hospital in the health awareness office, Where I would gather information from nurses and midwives to add to my knowledge. I used to tell myself that I might need these skills one day during this wartime period we are living in.

I stood at the door thinking, “Should I go and leave my children to help the injured? With what little information I have, I might save someone!” My husband was holding my hand to not go. I heard a loud thud of a shell, and the voice who was calling “For the love of Allah, help us!” vanished.

“What?” I grabbed my husband and shouted, “They died? They died?!”

I started beating his chest, “You didn't let me go to them! They needed help!”

My husband whispered softly, “You were going to die or get shot, I don't want to lose you.”

From that day on I began searching for this work, which was only limited to rescuers from the Civil Defence men.

I used to always ask, “What? Are there no female rescuers? Why is such work limited to men?!” I was asking on and on… since the bombardment is ‘fair’ and does not distinguish between old and young or man and woman, why then are women not given the space to participate in this great humanitarian work?!

One day while I was browsing Facebook, I read a post about the Syrian Civil Defence requesting female volunteers. I was overjoyed! At that time, I was working at a hospital specialised in emergency care, so I left work immediately and applied to the Civil Defence. I did not care where the work field would be, I just wanted to join.

They had established a women's Civil Defence centre in Darat Izza in the western countryside of Idlib in July 2017, so I moved my residence to that area. My husband agreed since his work was freelance and was not restricted to a geographic location. Regardless, I was already displaced from the city of Aleppo.

And so, I began doing what I loved. We underwent a lot of training on rescue, firefighting, first aid, and using the yellow and blue vests. I had dreamed of wearing that vest and working under its flag.

The symbol of the Syrian Civil Defence was printed on the back of the vest, and around it written: ‘And whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity’ (Chapter Al-Ma’idah Verse 32). The Qur’anic verse that embodies the most wonderful human value.

We, the women volunteers and men rescuers, go about our work everyday, ready for any task entrusted to us to help civilians. Our motto is: ‘We are neutral, we do not belong to any political party or faction, and we are committed to serving all sects of the Syrian people’. We wait for a phone call or a case to arrive at the centre to provide all necessary procedures to those involved.

I wanted to share with you my diary after joining the Civil Defence. I set the alarm for my work schedule to catch the car that takes me to the centre, as the Civil Defence has established some centres in forgotten and remote areas where there is neither a medical station nor a dispensary to serve civilians for free.

Now I’ve finally arrived at the centre. The follow ups began to arrive one after the other. The wife of the supermarket owner next door visits daily to check her blood pressure. Her neighbour comes with her and so does the milk seller to monitor her blood sugar. Some other women also come to keep an eye on their health status.

I love experiencing this morning gathering with a cup of coffee. I enjoy the women’s innocent conversations in that remote village. After offering the necessary services to the women, they leave while expressing gratitude, uttering phrases such as, “Oh daughter… May you never be sick Allah willing”, “Oh daughter… May you never need anyone Allah willing”, or “May Allah protect you”.

At the end of December 2022, I was chatting with my female colleagues when the phone rang at 11 am. One of the female volunteers answered the phone, “Yes go ahead”, and the caller responded, “There is an accident close to your area, we need an ambulance.” We began getting ready and were stepping on each other’s feet from moving too quickly. An accident! I love participating in ambulance operations and have extensive experience in this regard, and thus I was the first to get in the car. We arrived at the scene where we saw a motorcycle accident of a father who took his four children to school everyday. Since the school was far, he carried them on a motorcycle so they would not miss their education. It was a sorrowful accident. One of the children was on the pavement screaming, the second was beside his brother crying, and the other was lying at a distance from them with cuts and scratches. The sight of blood frightened them all. We administered first aid and carried them by ambulance to the hospital as they were screaming and crying, and their mother followed us to the hospital screaming, “Oh God, are the shelling and bombardments not enough, an accident on top of that!? Where are my children? Fatima… Ilham… Mohammad… Abdo… May Allah grant you success, please answer me!” I reassured her and calmed her down, “Don’t worry, just a few scratches.”

We went back to the centre and entered with sad faces. The manager came an hour later and thanked the ambulance team, “Ladies… your work makes us proud; you did a lot of good work today.”

I asked the manager, “What if this accident took place at night, and we are on administrative shifts? Why don't we have shifts for women? We must have a role.”

He replied, “True Mrs. Na’ila, the subject is under consideration. During the coming months, Civil Defence women will be covering night shifts just like the ambulance and rescue men.”

Indeed, work on this idea began. We usually work from nine to five, and we will soon start night shifts.

In the first period of my affiliation with the Syrian Civil Defence, the community did not accept the idea of having women in the rescue team, but with time, we started holding sessions to raise community awareness about the importance of our presence. We attended many capacity-building workshops side-by-side with our male colleagues. We held some community awareness sessions to introduce the value of having women defence operatives in ambulance and rescue, for example, to be close to women and children in need. We demonstrated that we were no less capable than men in ambulance operations.

All of this enhances our role as women in society and in supporting all assistance operations provided by the Civil Defence.

[1] The Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets) is a humanitarian organisation dedicated to helping communities in Syria to prepare for, respond to, and rebuild after attacks. It began its work in 2012.

By Naila Kazeebra.



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