The Heroic Women Digging Out Syria’s Bomb Victims

Meet the brave first-aid workers risking their lives to help dig civilians out of the rubble—in a country where being a woman in public is a death sentence.

Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty

Exactly five years ago today, Gardenia—the pseudonym of a young Syrian woman from Dara’a—was sitting in her office, when she heard news that there was something happening at the Omari mosque.

“It was a Friday, I remember,” she says, recalling the day. “There was something about a group of boys writing slogans on the wall, demanding President Bashar al-Assad to step down.”

Soon these boys—and the graffiti that they scrawled on the wall—became infamous for igniting the revolution.

“Later that day, I heard that the Syrian forces had killed one of the protesters—and that he was one of my friends,” Gardenia continues. “He was killed by a sniper.”

It did not take long for the protests to become violent. Anyone who voiced sentiments against the regime could be detained at any checkpoint, often disappearing to be tortured in dark jails. Soon, the streets of Dara’a—now known as the home of the Syrian uprising—and those of other major Syrian cities became a bloodbath.

“We started protesting,” Gardenia says. “Every day people were killed, there would be a funeral, and then more people would be killed.”

Trained in first aid from her time as a humanitarian worker during the 2006 Lebanon war with Israel, Gardenia quickly began working as a nurse in the field hospitals—set up by medical professionals and ordinary citizens once it became apparent that wounded protesters were being tortured and killed in the government hospitals. As a nurse, she knew that she could help the revolution without fighting—something she sees as a key role of women in the revolution.

“It was easier for women to move between regime, and liberated areas,” she says, describing how—at least in the beginning—arresting a woman was a “red line” as far as the security forces were concerned.

“Women were participating in the protests, organizing the media, and even evacuating people from the roads,” she says. In addition to supporting the community as teachers, nurses, and journalists, women were renowned for smuggling small weapons, or medicine, through checkpoints and into liberated areas.

“Until now, we have many women working, many of them documenting violence, and keeping records for the future,” she says.

“But all of us have to work in secret—even I can’t use my real name."

Five years after the start of the uprising that changed the course of her life, Gardenia is now living in Istanbul—she left Syria after one of her brothers was detained by the regime, and she began to receive threats to her own life. Now, she works coordinating trainings for the Syrian Civil Defense—organized teams inside of Syria that work as emergency responders to regime shelling and barrel bombings in opposition-controlled areas.

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“We are responding more effectively,” she says. There are several teams throughout eight-hour shifts—meaning that there is 24-hour emergency response coverage. Twenty-three women are also working with the Syrian Civil Defense teams, coordinating awareness campaigns within their communities of how to respond in case of an emergency, in addition to rescuing women trapped under rubble in more conservative areas, where the taboo of being touched by a man, or not properly dressed, could cost them their lives.

“It is a conservative environment,” she says. “So we have to respect this.”

However, while women are invaluable members of the team for this reason, there are still areas where they cannot go—either because the environment is too hostile, or because their presence as women will raise questions among the more conservative fighters. As the violence has worsened, and extremist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have taken control of certain parts of Syria, it has become more difficult—and dangerous—to be a woman in public.

“At one point, al-Nusra was not allowing women to cross checkpoints unless they were wearing the full abaya,” Gardenia continues, recalling a specific moment in Dara’a. “But the women were so strong—they were screaming in the street, not just at Al-Nusra, but also at the men. They were saying, ‘We have a revolution, and now you are silent.’”

Most of Gardenia’s friends who weren’t killed during the revolution have since migrated to Germany—taking the notorious sea route that more than 1 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries have traveled since the beginning of last year. However, though she has been tempted to join them many times, she has made a deliberate choice to stay in Turkey, and be as close to Syria as possible for when it is safe for her to return.

“Right now we are rescuing people from under the bombs,” she continues. “But we hope that this is only temporary. We hope that someday, as civil defense workers, we will be able to rebuild Syria.”

While she blames the international community for turning a blind eye to the violence of the past five years, she is not optimistic about the peace talks, which, after being postponed several times, resumed yesterday in Geneva.

“They will have a solution for them—to their benefit, but not a solution for Syria,” she says, speaking of the international powers meeting at the negotiations table.

“What is the point of the negotiations, anyway?” she continues. “We don’t want food baskets—we don’t want projects, and we don’t want humanitarian aid. We just want an end to the killing.”