An electronics salesman by profession, Raed al Saleh probably has the best picture of Syria's politics on the ground today due to his position as leader of the White Helmets rescue organisation in opposition-held Syria.
Raed al Saleh knows how politics reflects the on-the-ground situation in Syria, maybe more than anyone else.
“If there's a negotiation, then we get ready because we know that the number of the air strikes will increase,” he says.
Years of experience in coordinating rescue operations and humanitarian work in Syria’s opposition-held areas have taught the leader of the White Helmets how things will evolve.
As the regime air strikes with Russian support continue on remaining opposition-held areas in the north, Saleh is responsible for leading the group's 2,700-strong members in rescuing people from the rubble.
The White Helmets, officially called the Syria Civil Defence, is made up of volunteers who mostly had different occupations before the war.
Saleh himself was an electronics salesman in his pre-war life. Now, he and his team are working on reconstruction, infrastructure, and setting up camps for displaced people and cleaning what is left behind after an attack, when there’s no shelling.
More than 400,000 people have been killed in Syria since 2011, when Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad responded to the popular uprising with military force.
“I wouldn’t imagine that it would take this long when I first volunteered,” he says. Six years later, the war shows no sign of coming to an end. The death toll in September alone is believed to be the highest this year.
Although he is at the centre of the most well-known civilian relief efforts in rebel-held areas of Syria, Saleh is not interested in the death toll making headlines in the media, or becoming a political figure.
“I don’t need to take records from the media, because we are the people who keep count on the ground,” Saleh says. Every two minutes, an update appears on his mobile phone screen. This time, he picks up his phone to confirm the information with White Helmets' records and continues:
“Look, in Syria, there are many other attacks with bigger numbers of victims, which are not recorded. It’s not possible to confirm for sure that September was the highest. For us, what only matters is to help our people, and we’ll do it by going anywhere we can reach to deliver it.
Indeed, the White Helmets have managed to rescue more than 100,000 people from the rubble since the organisation was founded in 2014. They received more international recognition after an Oscar-winning documentary about them was released on Netflix. They were even seen as one of the frontrunners for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Receiving donations from 12 different countries, international NGO’s, and locals, the White Helmets no longer have a hard time obtaining equipment needed for rescue operations.
But things were different both for Saleh and the organisation that he’s leading, when they first started.
He became physically sick during one of his first volunteer rescue missions on the ground as a result of the carnage he saw in 2013.
It was on the eve of Eid al Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice, when the sound of an explosion woke him up. He drove 16 km with other volunteers from the centre of opposition-held Idlib to Darkush, a town located west of the province.
“It was a horrific scene. The only thing you could see was torn body parts and burnt people,” he says.
But they had no fire extinguishers or any other equipment they needed to intervene.
It took three days to clean up the traces of the explosion. The only thing that Saleh and his friends could do that day was to take out the bodies from under the rubble. They couldn’t rescue anyone.
Taken to a hospital in Turkey after a nervous breakdown, Saleh woke up to another day promising to live up for his cause and do no other job except humanitarian work to prevent similar scenes as much as he could.
And he did.
Two years later, regime forces hit the same exact place in the same town again. He drove from Aleppo to Darkush. When he arrived at the scene after hearing about the explosion, he found other White Helmet volunteers already cleaning up the marketplace.
This time, the volunteers rescued 17 people under the rubble.
“There are many stories that I can’t forget, but these two incidents affected me more than all of them,” he says.
His team is often targeted with double attacks – attacks targeting rescuers who reach the scene shortly after the first attack.
There have been 204 White Helmets rescuers killed while doing their work. Saleh, as the leader, also receives death threats – in various languages, but he doesn’t care about them.
“These two events for me are the moments of the tragedy but also the moments of happiness. They are the hope in what we've achieved,” he says.
Because of the nature of his work, Saleh does not have a permanent home. Roving between cities and countries, he is able to see his family only once in a month.
“It is a real struggle for me, but we have to keep going,” he says calmly. He got over his post-air strike scene nausea.
He no longer has the same reaction when he sees dead bodies and body parts.
“Because of all the suffering we've seen after all the shellings, we’re not getting affected much from those scenes anymore,” he says.
“Maybe it’s a kind of psychological sickness (what I have) now,” he says.