The dawn found them sprawled like corpses around the cramped station room, atop a collection of soiled floor mats and a metal bunk that listed heavily to one side. They lay close together, some still wearing their uniforms from the night before. On a typical day in Aleppo, they would soon be woken by the sound of helicopters and jets roaring in to drop the first bombs on the rebel-held side of the city, which the regime has sought to pound to dust. But it was quiet this morning, and so they slept.
Standing outside his office next door, Khaled Hajjo, leader of the Hanano Civil Defense team, dragged on the first of many Gitanes and surveyed his small domain. The one-story, cinderblock station house was set in the corner of a large concrete lot the size of a soccer pitch, its perimeter hemmed by a 12-foot stone wall. At the far end of the lot was a mass of stacked old tires and a broken-down lifting crane. It had once been a car impound, but like so many buildings in Aleppo it had been repurposed for the war.
The station wasn’t particularly sturdy. The neighborhood it was in, Hanano, was close to the front line and exposed not only to bombing but to artillery fire. Even a mortar round would probably cave in the roof, never mind the big howitzer shells that sometimes crashed into the lot. But the station had its advantages: It was set on a rise, with only a few low buildings surrounding it, and from here they could quickly spot the telltale smoke and dust pillars that mark the sites of bombs, and then rush to the rescue. They had been in this station since the very beginning, more than a year ago, when the team was first formed, and they had stayed in it through the long winter of massacres, through the worst times when the population had desperately fled the city, so that now Bashar al Assad’s bombs fell as often as not on abandoned buildings. This was their home.
Parked out front was a cherry-red truck with FREIW. FEUERWEHR, shorthand in German for “Volunteer Fire Department,” along the side door in raised letters and, beneath it in Arabic, “Aleppo Civil Defense,” spray painted in black. A well-built truck, donated by the West, it was starting to show its months of use in a war zone, with several bullet holes pocking the door and crazing the windshield. But it still got the job done, speeding them to blast sites.
The members of Civil Defense were attendants to the city’s trauma, one of the few first responders left to care for the civilians caught on the front lines in Syria’s largest city. They evacuated the injured, cleaned up the bodies, and fought fires. But what they were best known for — what they had become famous for in Syria and abroad — were the dramatic rescues, the lives they pulled from under the rubble.