NEW YORK — Thousands of miles from his ravaged homeland in the comfort and security of midtown Manhattan, Raed Saleh chokes up as he recalls some of the horrors he has witnessed as a rescue worker in northern Syria.
He feels angry, cheated and most of all, deeply sad for his country.
“Two Americans and one Brit were killed, and the entire world mobilized to fight Daesh,” he said, referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic acronym. “In Syria, some 200,000 people have died: Why doesn’t anyone care?”
From New York, Saleh says he has been in touch with colleagues in Syria over the phone and Internet since airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition began Tuesday.
“We were rescuing people from Syrian regime strikes. Today we are rescuing people from coalition strikes,” he said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reports that at least 13 civilians have died so far in coalition strikes, while the Pentagon said Friday it had not received any reports of civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes.
Saleh is a member of the Syrian Civil Defense force, a group of volunteers in northern Syria known as the White Helmets who risk their lives saving others in one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. From Idlib province, he traveled to the U.S. this week as part of a campaign to raise awareness for the group’s work on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings.
In a crumbling nation where public services such as hospitals barely exist and sectarian hatreds abound, the work undertaken by the young, unarmed volunteers of different backgrounds is inspiring.
In amateur videos posted by activists online, the men are seen with their signature white hats and beige uniforms searching through the rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors, leading away bloodied victims and in several cases pulling out toddlers alive from under heaps of shattered concrete blocks.
The rescuers mostly deal with the aftermath of government air attacks. But they also respond to deadly car bombings, shelling and sniper fire in a tough, broken terrain.
Syria’s civil war, now in its fourth year, has killed more than 190,000 people and displaced millions of others, according to the U.N. Hundreds of thousands have been wounded.
Among the prime killers are barrel bombs — makeshift, shrapnel-packed explosive devices that Syrian forces have been dropping on rebel-held neighborhoods from helicopters. Residents call them “barrels of death.”
Peggy Hicks, global advocate for Human Rights Watch, said the international watchdog has documented at least 650 strikes in the northern city of Aleppo since February, when the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding an end to the indiscriminate use of barrel bomb attacks.
“The White Helmets are true heroes who save lives and give hope to those facing Syria’s relentless indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods,” she said.
A promotional video for the group shows rescuer Khaled Farah pulling a 2-week-old baby from the rubble of a destroyed building. The video posted last month has been viewed more than half a million times.
“They go out under fire and in the middle of destruction to help civilians, and for that reason the whole world should help them,” said an activist in Aleppo who goes by the name of Abu Omar.
Farouk al-Habib, a Syrian from Homs who is managing the White Helmets’ training and delivery of equipment, said Western countries including France, Britain, Italy and the U.S., in addition to Japan, were offering uniforms, vehicles, light equipment and other assistance. But he said that is not nearly enough aid.
In New York, the group held a panel discussion and several other functions this week to raise awareness and gather donations for the group of 1,100 White Helmet volunteers.
Saleh, a 30-year-old former electronic goods dealer, joined the protests against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, and soon had to flee his hometown of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province when it became a front line.
Last year, he was among a group of volunteers who went to Turkey to get training on search and rescue missions and came back to open the first civil defense center in Yaacoubiya village, one of 17 centers in Idlib province.
The overall group’s motto is a verse from the Quran which reads: “And whoever saves a life, it will be as if he has saved all of humanity.”
“Every day when I hear that someone was pulled out alive from under the rubble is the happiest day of my life,” Saleh said.
His worst memory, he added, is a powerful car bomb that tore through a market in the northern town of Darkoush, while it was packed with people shopping for the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha holiday in October 2013.
The explosion triggered an inferno, setting shoppers and cars on fire in seconds. More than 50 people were killed.
“It was the worst day of my life because I couldn’t do anything except collect charred bodies and torn limbs from the street,” he said, adding that he had a nervous breakdown and spent two days in the hospital.
Saleh said in his position, he has to overcome his own feelings and sadness to give strength to his colleagues. When he’s alone, he often loses control.
“I cry a lot, that’s my only relief.”
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.