Remarks by Raed Al Saleh, White Helmets Press Conference on the Latest Developments in NW Syria
The White Helmets held a press conference in Sarmada, northern Idlib countryside, Friday, February 10, to discuss the latest developments in northwestern Syria, on the fifth day of the earthquake that struck the region.
We are announcing a minute of silence for the souls of the martyrs of the Syrian earthquake.
[After one minute silence]
Our Syrian people, and brothers and sisters in Syria and abroad, the honorable, strong, mighty and proud Syrian people, my condolences to all those who lost their loved ones from our people in Idlib, Aleppo, Antakya, Antep, Latakia, Hama and all parts of Syria and southern Turkey. I want to begin with my apologies and deep regret to all families in all parts of Syria whose relatives we could not reach alive; just thinking about it pains our hearts. We were fighting helplessness and time to reach people alive. The lack of adequate equipment is a big reason for this helplessness, but we swear to you that we worked and did our best.
Our rescue team has been on the ground, searching and pulling out thousands stuck under the rubble. Although the chances of those trapped under the rubble surviving are scarce after 108 hours, we will continue the search operations and will not stop until we save those who remain, and we will ensure that we hand over the bodies of the martyrs to their families.
I want to thank our Syrian brothers and sisters, who were the backbone of the response and the civil and local organizations in their support and donations; I want to thank those who provided their equipment and even their own vehicles to the Syrian Civil Defence. Furthermore, despite the severe cold, many people cut off the fuel from their families and provided it to us instead so that we could go on with the rescue operations.
The total number of martyrs in Syria has reached 3384 people. We have retrieved the bodies of 2037. Moreover, we have been able to rescue 2953, many in our work areas, in addition to and the numbers of those injured has reached more than 10,000. There are thousands of partially or entirely destroyed buildings. This tragedy needs us to cooperate, to show solidarity, and to try compensate for the heavy losses in the infrastructure, but to also stand by the victims' families and support the survivors with everything we can.
In this tragedy, the Syrian people have shown the highest forms of cooperation, and everyone has turned into research and support groups throughout Syria and the diaspora.
I want to thank all the populations that helped us. Their response was faster than that of countries and the United Nations. Without the support of the Syrian people and their donations, as well as the support of people from around the world, we would not have been able to continue our search and rescue efforts. I would also like to thank our international partners for their support, and I will say them in alphabetical order: Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Qatar.
I want to thank our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and all the countries that stood by us.
The moans of the victims trapped under the rubble will remain in our ears as long as we are alive. The victims have been reciting their will to us and conveying their feelings of loss to their families while they were under the rubble before their death, we will always carry these messages and words around our neck.
Our area of work in the coming periods will focus on taking all measures related to early recovery and rehabilitation activities after the earthquake, as well as providing services and preventive measures to fortify buildings prone to collapse or neutralize their danger, and supporting the rest of the medical and aid institutions to provide treatment and shelter to tens of thousands of families displaced beneath the olive trees and in shelters.
May god have mercy on the souls of our martyrs and may their souls and memory be eternal. I would finally like to wish mercy on four of our volunteers who lost their lives along with their families following the earthquake. Our condolences to their families and to the families of the Syrian people who lost members of their family. We will now take some questions.
Question: “Do you expect help to reach the white helmets in the coming hours? And will this help affect the search and rescue efforts?”
Answer: Honestly, after all this time, there is no help that will affect the search and rescue operations, which are now rare. We expect to receive help for the white helmets in the next coming hours and tomorrow, god willing. However, this help will be constrained to retrieving bodies from beneath the rubble, and removing buildings and rubble prone to falling.
Question: “Did you receive international aid? What international aid has entered and what has it provided?”
Answer: Honestly, we can’t say that international teams have entered. What has entered is a volunteer team from Egypt who reside in Turkey, in addition to a small team from Spain which did not have equipment and who used the equipment of the white helmets. Till now, the United Nations did not provide anything and today I was speaking to a UN official, and I demanded that he apologize to the Syrian people and asked the American representative to demand an investigation into the United Nations and why we were neglected when it comes to aid and why aid reached regime-controlled areas and did not reach northern Syria.
Question: “When do you estimate search and rescue operations will end?”
Answer: “We expect that they will end in the next 48 hours.” There are some areas that we have stopped search and rescue efforts in, such as Darkush, Jisr ash-Shughur, Idlib, Maland, Ramadi, Azmarin, , Armanaz, Kafr Takharim, Atareb, Jeeneh, Ad Dana, Batabo, Afrin, Azaz, Horan, Marea, but we still have to work in Jindires and Harem and Salqin.
Question: “A lot of people are afraid to return to their homes which are partially destroyed. Have the white helmets provided engineers to inspect these buildings?”
Answer: “Yes, white helmets teams have begun cooperating with volunteer engineers to inspect these budlings and to determine their suitability for people to return to them, and buildings prone to falling are being marked, and many buildings will be removed so as not to pose a threat to civilians.”
Question: “Have any white helmet members been injured during their work in saving people from beneath the rubble?”
Answer: Honestly, I can say that injuries during this work is something normal, and especially considering the way the white helmets worked. We called on all white helmet volunteers and we were working around the clock, so all volunteers worked continuously during the previous 108 hours without stopping or resting, and a few of them only were able to sleep or go home. So all of us have been subject to injuries, tiredness, some have had cuts and bruises, but everyone is fine and will recover in the coming days.
Question: “What are the things that affected the work of the white helmets most and delayed the rescue of victims?”
Answer: Everyone knows the situation in NW Syria and how the region has been marginalized. The amount of aid has been cut drastically, including to the white helmets...this led to a weakness in the available machinery and weakness in fixing the broken machinery. In the first day there were some mistakes and delays, but after our calls for aid were made, the response from the Syrian people was faster than what we expected and more than what we expected. We now have more than 200 vehicles =at the disposal of the Civil Defence to help remove the debris and the rubble. More than 50 vehicles have also been hired by the Civil Defence. The solidarity that the Syrian people have shown in the face of this ordeal has been the main factor for why we we were able to conduct the work quickly.
Question: “What is the reason for aid and humanitarian assistance not arriving?”
Answer: I have talked to one of the officials in the United Nations and asked for the reasons for the UN’s delayed response. They told me that it was for bureaucratic reasons. I told them that bureaucracy of the UN has contributed to the killing of a lot of Syrian victims, because they need the approval of the UN security council to use other border crossings, and this is damning on the UN and they must apologize to the Syrian people, and that is what we are going to demand in the future.
Question: “Do you expect the death toll to rise in the coming hours and how much do you expect it to be in NW Syria?”
Unfortunately the number of the victims is going to rise We cannot give a final estimate of the number of victims so far until we conclude all search and rescue operations. When we do, we will publish a final report with the final numbers of those retrieved, injured and those who lost their lives.
Thank you very much.