IDLIB, Syria — Only a few hundred White Helmets are left in this last remaining Syrian town that's not under Bashar Assad’s control. And their days may be numbered: The Syrian Army and its Russian allies have already started a bombing campaign here, killing 25 in the city of about 3 million.
There were once thousands of these volunteers across Syria, many of them carpenters, bakers and medical students, who stepped up when state agencies failed to protect and rescue the civilians caught up in rebel-held areas of the Syrian conflict. They've responded to some of the most brutal bombing campaigns of the 21st century. But the regime often targets the White Helmets (the Syrian Civil Defense), employing a “double tap” tactic: They will bomb an area, and when the paramedics come on the scene, they bomb it again.
Moaaed Hafi, 27, has faced that danger since he took up ranks with the White Helmets in Eastern Ghouta five years ago. Among his rescue efforts, he’s pulled dozens of young children from underneath the rubble.
“The fear exists. But it doesn't make you turn your back and leave. Why? Because you see the civilians calling for you,” Hafi told VICE News. “They see us as their rescuing angels. So it's impossible to desert them and run away.”
Hafi was evacuated out of Eastern Ghouta last year at the height of the offensive on that last enclave. Now, he’s stuck in Idlib, with his wife and baby daughter. But Hafi continues to respond to the near daily airstrikes.
“If, God forbid, the regime takes control over Idlib, our fate is known,” Hafi said, “If the regime captures any of us alive, we would be killed — arrested first, then killed for sure.”
Filmed by Amer al-Sayd Ali. Edited by Jeb Banegas. Additional reporting by Amer Almohibany.
This segment originally aired June 13, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.