White Helmets rescuers who were unable to escape Syria have told of their fear of reprisals from the regime after their colleagues were evacuated by its bitter enemy Israel.
Some 100 civil defence workers and 300 members of their families were evacuated out of southern Syria over the weekend, in a complex international mission that saw hundreds of others left behind.
Rescuers who remain trapped say they are worried they will now be seen as collaborators and could face arrest, or worse, by government forces.
“We are in great danger,” said Abu Muhannad, a civil defense administrator in the Deraa countryside who was involved in coordinating the operation.
“After our colleagues’ departure, the danger is even greater,” he told Syria Direct website, using a pseudonym. “The accusations against us have grown and there is a new one – that we are working with Israel.”
Another said he was trying to avoid pro-government checkpoints which were springing up around Deraa, as he was afraid his name would appear on a blacklist.
"We haven’t left the house in days as we don’t know what will happen to us,” Abu Omar told the Telegraph via WhatsApp. “I feel they are moving in.”
The White Helmets, which receives funding from the UK and other western countries, is considered a terrorist organisation by the Bashar al-Assad government because of their work in areas controlled by the armed opposition.
Q&A | Syrian Civil Defence, aka The White Helmets
The Syrian foreign ministry condemned what it called a “criminal operation” by Israel to evacuate the volunteers.
Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, Syria’s Grand Mufti, meanwhile, said that the White Helmets are “war criminals” and urged the Syrian and Russian governmesst to prosecute them.
"These people are not refugees. They are war criminals. I would like to ask the governments of our countries to follow the members of the White Helmets group and find them wherever they are," said the country’s spiritual leader.
Civil defence workers and their headquarters have regularly been targeted by Syrian and Russian jets, in attacks which have left more than 250 dead.
They were excluded from the evacuation deals struck between Russia and the rebels in Deraa earlier this month, which saw more than 9,000 fighters, their relatives, activists and journalists, bussed to Idlib province in the north.
The plan to evacuate the rescuers was formulated two weeks ago by Canada and European allies who were growing increasingly concerned about their fate.
Those who wanted to leave were asked to submit their names for vetting by international actors involved in the negotiations.
Then, two days before the evacuation, they received a text message that read just: “Head to the border with Israel”.
The nearby frontier with Jordan had just come under hostile Syrian and Russian control and so the only way out was through the Israel-occupied Golan Heights.
Some rescuers did not agree to go through Israel – either because of their objection to dealing with the Israel Defence Forces or because there was no guarantee of where they would end up.
Others, however, did not hear of the plan in time and were unable to reach the assembly points.
Those that did, travelled on foot in the dark on the night of July 21.
It was a journey fraught with danger, and one woman had to undergo an emergency C-section before continuing on with her newborn son.
Once they reached the Israeli border, their names were checked and they were given ID bracelets before being boarded onto waiting buses which would take them to neighbouring Jordan.
Abu Muhannad and his family attempted the journey several hours after the group but instead stumbled across a government checkpoint, where they were stopped and told they could not pass as there was fighting ahead between the army and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil)-affiliated Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed militia.
“I fear the government will soon take revenge against us,” he said.
In the end, 98 White Helmet volunteers and 324 family members made it out, only half of those who signed up for evacuation.
A spokesman for the White Helmets told the Telegraph that they were working to get the rest of the volunteers out safely, however, another mission was too dangerous to attempt for now.
“As Syrians we love our country,” a statement from the organisation read. “It breaks our hearts to be forced to leave it, but it was the only alternative for our trapped volunteers who would otherwise have face death or detention at the hands of the Syrian government and its Russian allies.”
The evacuation took an unprecedented level of agreement and coordination between international players – something they have rarely demonstrated during eight years of war in Syria that have pitted world powers against one another.
The UK, Germany, France and Canada have agreed to resettle the 422 now waiting in Jordan within the next three months. The US, which took part in the negotiations, was reportedly unwilling to accept any itself.
Canada has said it will take up to 250 people, while the UK has not yet declared how many it is willing to take in.
Bob Seely MP, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told the Telegraph: “The White Helmets have been singled out by the Syrian regime – and their Russian backers – and deliberately targeted. They have been smeared as terrorists in a mendacious and squalid social media campaign supported by the Assad regime (and Moscow).
“One of the few decent things that we can do in regards to the Syrian war is to give asylum to a decent share of the very small number of individuals and families that have come out of Syria. They are seen as heroes by many, and rightly so.”
The UK has provided nearly £40million to the White Helmets, which at its peak had some 3,000 rescuers workers operating in rebel-held areas of the country.