It would make a fantastic film: How Syrian heroes escaped certain death
They had saved hundreds of lives in bombed cities. Then government forces started closing in
One morning in July 2018, Amer locked the front door of his house in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, shoved his house keys and documents into his jeans pocket, and rode off on a motorcycle.
“I had no hope of survival,” he recalled.
“I was leaving my country, my friends, my family, everything I was used to. So I felt like it was ending. Like everything was ending.”
But today, the 33-year-old has a new set of house keys – to a small rented flat in an English town, where he is trying to rebuild his life “from zero” – and a new blue-covered ID document, proof of his status as a refugee granted asylum in Britain.
His journey involved a nailbiting rescue operation masterminded by a former British army officer inspired by the Great Escape. Amer was among dozens of members of the White Helmets, the Syrian civil defence group, evacuated with family members from southern Syria in July.
He asked that his surname and personal details be kept secret for safety reasons.
Founded in 2013 as search-and-rescue teams to respond to barrel bombings, air strikes, and attacks on civilian areas, the White Helmets won praise from Western governments for risking their lives to dig civilian casualties from flattened buildings. Amer, a law student, joined as soon as a branch was set up in southern Syria in May 2015. It was unpaid volunteering, but it quickly became a full-time occupation.
“Daraa was the most dangerous place in the south of Syria, so that was all of my life, basically,” he recalled. “I’d work all day, then go home and sit on the internet and listen to the news, waiting for another bombing or attack. Then I’d be on the phone with other volunteers trying to work out how to deal with that situation.”
But the group is not without controversy. Operating in opposition areas and supported and trained by May Day Rescue, a British charity, they are accused by Syrian government supporters of being a foreign proxy aligned with rebel war efforts. Bashar al-Assad’s government and his Russian allies have described the groups as terrorists and accused them of staging chemical attacks to blame on the government, a charge that has never been proven.
When Russian-backed government forces launched a rapid offensive to retake the border areas in June, the 1,000 White Helmet volunteers in southern Syria had to weigh up whether to stay or flee. Amer waited until regime forces were just a few kilometres from Daraa’s eastern and northern limits before he set off on his motorcycle, threading his way west, avoiding highways until he had outrun the imminent encirclement of the city. Then he looped northward towards Quneitra district, on the Syrian side of the divided Golan Heights.
By July 12, Amer and about 400 other White Helmets and family members found themselves boxed into an area “not much bigger than an English town” along the UN-patrolled ceasefire line with Israel. Amer knew it was only a temporary safe haven. “I was sure I would be captured, I would be tortured, I would be executed. I had absolutely no hope of surviving.” For nine nights the refugees slept rough in small groups to avoid presenting a target for air strikes.
Meanwhile, supporters outside the country frantically lobbied for action in Western capitals. “It began with us sending an e-mail. And to be honest, we hesitated about doing so because we were not at all sure that it would result in any action,” said James le Mesurier, the former British Army officer who founded May Day Rescue.
At first, diplomatic gears ground slowly. But at a Nato summit in Brussels on July 11 and 12, Canada’s foreign minister pushed for action from his counterparts. The following day, UK prime minister Theresa May raised the plan in a bilateral meeting with Donald Trump. That resulted in “presidential-level” calls to persuade the initially sceptical Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to open the heavily fortified Golan frontier, and reassure Jordan that Western countries would offer the rescuers asylum rather than expect Amman to look after them.
By mid-July, the diplomatic pieces were in place and Le Mesurier began planning the operation.
Up to 800 White Helmets and family members would be evacuated by the Israeli Defence Forces via three crossing points, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry, a reference to the escape tunnels dug by British prisoners of war in the Great Escape. The lack of information was taking a psychological toll on the ground, as the regime drew ever closer.
“One day, I stood on a hill and watched the regime artillery firing on some countryside to the east. The distance between me and them was no more than 3km,” said Amer. At that moment, disaster struck. On July 21, the Syrian side of crossing point “Harry” – the most southerly and intended to handle the biggest number of escapees – was overrun by the Islamic State jihadists. Between 400 and 500 escapees were left stranded. But it was too late to change the plan. A WhatsApp message went out telling the White Helmets to clear for evacuation at the two remaining crossing points.
A sceptical Amer set out for crossing point “Dick”, near the village of Bariqa. The journey took eight-and-a-half hours, stopping briefly at the Israeli-Jordanian border, where the Israeli Defence Forces handed the convoy to the UN organisation for migration. In all, 422 people were evacuated on the night of July 21. Amer and 28 volunteers, and up to 70 family members were granted UK asylum.
Those who made it out now face another challenge. Amer is struggling to learn English, knows few people, has only his old house keys as a memento of his previous life. But has already volunteered with his local fire brigade for training as an instructor in household fire safety. “I was taught by British trainers how to do rescuing and first aid. Two years ago we received firefighting equipment and fire engines from the UK,” he said. “I hope I can pay back at least 1% of what they did for us there.”
– © The Daily Telegraph