Raed al-Saleh is the director of the Syria Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets: a group of almost 3,000 search and rescue workers who scour the rubble left by air strikes in their country's five-year-old civil war, pulling survivors to safety and helping to recover the dead.
The group is avowedly neutral, a rare distinction in the violently divided country. That does not mean what they do is safe. More than 140 White Helmets have been killed since the group was formed in 2013.
As painful as that tally is, it shrinks beside the estimated 60,000 lives that the White Helmets have saved in their years of service.
The figure is likely to rise this week: The fighting around eastern Aleppo has intensified in recent days as the Russian-backed army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed parts of the war-ravaged city from rebels amidst a heightened bombing campaign.
While making gains in Aleppo, the government forces lost control of the desert city of Palmyra in an attack by the Islamic State.
The relief work now required in Aleppo has prompted Mr. al-Saleh to cancel the western leg of his Canadian awareness tour. He has already made stops in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto – where a Netflix documentary about the group was screened at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Friday night.
Speaking to The Globe on Friday afternoon, he was downcast and restless, eager to be back on the front lines.
What follows is a transcript of that interview, edited for length and clarity. White Helmets spokesperson Farouq al-Habib provided translation.
It must be difficult to be over here right now, when your colleagues are back in Syria. How are you feeling?
I feel guilty and depressed.
There have been criticisms lobbed at the White Helmets from the Russian government and supporters of the regime, that because of your funding from Western governments, you aren't impartial. I wonder if that has made your work more difficult, if there are parts of the country where White Helmets are stigmatized and your help unwelcome.
This will not make us change our mandate and way of working, and helping people who are in need in Syria. When disasters happen even in regime-controlled areas, sometimes people even dare to ask for assistance from the White Helmets. We see that sometimes on Facebook. In the end we are Syrians; we work for all Syrians.
Members of the White Helmets say in the film that you are targeted by the regime. How does that manifest itself?
There were many incidents before, in our centres, we were directly targeted by regime air strikes. Particularly in al-Atareb – it's in the Aleppo countryside – it was targeted by regime air strikes and five volunteers were killed. But also the regime adopted a tactic of double taps: It targets the same location twice. The airplanes bomb the place and after 10 to 15 minutes, they target the same location again, when the rescue workers and the ambulances arrive.
Why do they target you?
It has strategic objectives. Since 2011, the regime wanted to say, there is no alternative. It targets any success story or any initiative by any group that may undermine its fake legitimacy. It's a collective punishment against communities which become out of the control of the regime. So it doesn't only target White Helmet centres – it targets schools, local councils, hospitals, any kind of structures run by civil society. To send a message to the people inside Syria that there will be no services and they won't be able to live without the regime.
Do you or other White Helmets ever feel tempted to join the fighting on one side or another?
The opposite. There were members who were previously fighters and they made a decision to lay down their arms and join the White Helmets. They chose the way of life instead of the way of death.
What has been the darkest moment of your time as a rescue worker?
The darkest point maybe was also the moment of hope. In our early days, there was a big massacre in Darkush [a town in northern Syria]. There were so many dead and wounded people, and burned bodies. And at that time we didn't have any experience and we didn't have any equipment, and we felt hopeless and helpless.
That day we worked for almost nine hours. We were not able to defeat all the fires, and we were just able to get out some of the dead bodies and bury them. We were so tired. And I fell down unconscious and they took me to a hospital for a day.
But after I got out of the hospital, I said to myself and my colleagues, "This should never happen again." We should work more to get better equipment and better training and be able to face such situations. And we worked hard to achieve that.
Two years later, we faced a very similar incident in the same area. We were able to rescue 17 people alive, and we evacuated the wounded people to hospital. And we cleaned the streets and we restored everything within four hours.
What can ordinary Canadians do if they would like to help the White Helmets?
Every person can help from his or her position. Our friends in Canada can help us raise awareness and organize campaigns on social media. Signing letters, statements and petitions to governments and the United Nations. Putting pressure on the policy makers and international community to end the suffering in Syria.