The 10-day-old baby would have died had it not been for Khaled Omar Harah.
Harah pulled Mahmud Ibildi out of the rubble of the baby’s bombed-out apartment building in Aleppo, Syria where he’d been trapped for 16 hours. He heard the baby’s feeble cries from the depths of the decimated structure and refused to cease his attempts to reach the infant even when everyone else had been accounted for.
The death-defying 2013 rescue was captured on video, where Harah can be seen inching Ibildi out from underneath concrete blocks by slowly pulling on the blanket in which he was swaddled, making the volunteer rescue worker famous for saving the “miracle baby.”
But Harah himself experienced no such miracle on Wednesday. He was killed in an airstike in northern Aleppo, where he still worked tirelessly to save civilians from rubble after Syrian government attacks as a member of the Syrian Civil Defense. The group, known as the White Helmets, has about 3,000 volunteers who run to the scene of airstrikes to pull out anyone they can.
Just the day before, Harah, 31, had been rescuing people from a chlorine gas attack. He left behind a wife and two daughters.
“He was so humble,” said fellow White Helmet Raed Saleh of his fallen colleague. “He was kind, honest. A simple guy, but a great person.”
Harah died in an attack that struck one of the Syrian Civil Defense centers in the rebel-held part of Aleppo. The city is currently under siege, with 300,000 residents trapped while the government and rebel forces battle for control. Although President Bashar Assad and his Russian allies have promised three-hour daily ceasefires to allow humanitarian supplies to enter the city, violence rages on. The Syrian government regularly uses barrel bombs and has been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians.
“Life in Syria, especially in places like Aleppo, it’s hell,” Saleh told the BBC. “[Harah’s] family is still there. Many people have decided to leave and move to Turkey and other places, but he refused to leave and lost his own life trying to save others.”
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 as the Arab Spring rippled across the region and has since sent millions fleeing their cities, which have become a tangled battlefield of warring government, rebel and terrorist factions. An estimated 6.5 million people have been displaced internally, while millions more have spilled into neighboring countries and attempted the perilous journey to Europe, seeking asylum.
The U.S., and the world, have been unable to stop the violence. A fledgling peace process led by the United Nations has a slim chance for success, particularly given battlefield gains Assad has managed since the Russians began backing him militarily in September of last year. The U.S. is reticent to put boots on the ground, the lessons from Iraq still fresh.
In the face of international inaction, Harah pleaded with the world to do something to stop the bloodshed, making the only plane trip of his life to brief the U.N. Security Council on the violence. Along with Saleh, he spent 10 days in the U.S., also talking to American lawmakers, seeking help from the international community.
“We wanted the world to know about the challenges, the difficulties Syrians and our White Helmets group are facing,” Saleh said.
The miracle baby now lives with his family in Turkey, beyond the reach of Assad’s bombs, while Harah has become the 132nd White Helmet to give his life while trying to save others.
“For me, this is the real jihad,” Harah said in 2014 of his work. “If I die saving lives, I think God would definitely consider me a martyr.”