Raed Al-Saleh was struck by the footage from Ukraine showing an ambulance setting fire to its vehicle and a paramedic injured on the ground. He immediately thought about his Syrian colleagues who had died.
Al-Saleh heads the White Helmets. This famous civil rescue force from Syria rushed to bombing scenes to help survivors. The White Helmets says it has lost 252 volunteers in the course of Syria’s ongoing 11-year civil war. Russian airstrikes claimed many of their lives.
“The video reminded me of how this happened to many of my colleagues,” Al-Saleh told TIME in a phone interview on Thursday, via a translator. “The entirety of this invasion and the scenes of destruction are so reminiscent of what happened in Syria.”
Wednesday saw the White Helmets publish a videoMany rescue workers from Syria expressed their solidarity with Ukraine. “As first responders and rescuers, we know the tragedy, horror, and destruction that war leaves behind,” says a member of the rescue force, standing in front of a bombed-out building. “We reaffirm our solidarity with the humanitarian aid workers in Ukraine, and with the Ukrainian people.” It’s just the latest act of solidarity from the group. On Feb. 22, two days before Vladimir Putin (Russian President) announced Ukraine’s invasionThe White Helmets issued a statement. “We deplore in the strongest terms all of the acts of Russian aggression on Ukraine people,” it said. “It pains us immensely to know that the weapons tested on Syrians will now be used against Ukrainian civilians.”
The White Helmets aren’t the only Syrians expressing solidarity with Ukraine. Hadi Al-Khatib is the founder of Syrian Archive. It’s an online archive of evidence about possible war crimes. He told TIME that both he and his fellow members of the advocacy group. MnemonicWe are in the process of setting up Ukraine Archive for digital evidence gathering related to the Ukraine conflict. You can find ordinary Syrians online sharing detailsUkrainians discuss how they can survive in war zones. A graffiti artist from Syria has been seen in Idlib, the Syrian region. CreatedA mural of solidarity for the Ukrainian people
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Around the globe, Syrians have seen the Russian incursion as an opportunity to relive traumatic events they had previously experienced. For many, including Al-Saleh, it was also an indictment of what they say was the West’s failure to crack down hard enough on Russian aggression in Syria. “Because of the lack of accountability over what Russia did in Syria, Russia felt that it was free to do whatever it wanted in Ukraine,” Al-Saleh says. “That gave an impression not only to Russia, but to other dictatorships across the world, that they can act with impunity and get away with grave violations of human rights and international law.”
Another evidence emerges from Ukraine about indiscriminate Russian strikes on civilians, and healthcare facilities. A Russian cluster munition was found outside of a Ukrainian hospital on February 24, Donetsk is the region in the countryHuman Rights Watch reports that the bombing killed four civilians and wounded 10 others including health workers. Cluster munitions were banned by an international convention in 2010 due to their indiscriminate nature and high likelihood of harming civilians – though neither Russia nor the U.S. are signatories to that treaty.
Amnesty International reports that cluster bombs struck a pre-school where children were hiding, killing one child as well as two other victims. “This attack bears all the hallmarks of Russia’s use of this inherently indiscriminate and internationally-banned weapon, and shows flagrant disregard for civilian life,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general, in a statement after the attack.
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Al-Saleh is reminded of the attack on Aleppo’s hospital by cluster bombs. “It’s very hard for me to forget the scenes that came out of there,” he says. “And it wasn’t just rural Aleppo, it was the city itself. Damascus, Homs, Idlib. Many places were hit with cluster bombs. And the scenes from Ukraine are so reminiscent of that.” He worries that indiscriminate bombing of urban areas on a massive scale, like he saw in Syria, might be coming soon to Ukraine with an even greater intensity. “I fear that history will repeat itself,” he says.
Al-Saleh is hopeful that Russia will be brought to justice because of the Ukraine crisis. “I would like to see an investigation and a case brought to International Criminal Court that would set a precedent and open the door for the prosecution of other crimes committed by Russia – not just in Ukraine, but also in Syria,” he says. “Russia needs to be held accountable.”