Evidence of meeting #101 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was work.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Nidal Ezeddin  Board Member, The White Helmets
Munier Mustafa  Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets
Mayson Almisri  Medical Centre Officer, The White Helmets

9:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

I call the meeting to order.

Welcome, colleagues, to the 101st meeting of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. Today's session is a briefing on the human rights situation in Syria. We last heard on this topic earlier this month during the siege of eastern Ghouta.

Before us today we have three witnesses from the White Helmets: Deputy Chairman of the Board Munier Mustafa, Board Member Nidal Ezeddin, and Medical Centre Officer Mayson Almisri.

Before we begin with testimony, I want to note that this month marks seven years of conflict in Syria. These have been seven years of brutality, fear, and tragedy for millions of Syrians. In the midst of this, we have also seen what amounts to the very best of humanity, individuals who have selflessly put themselves in mortal danger to help others each and every day. These heroes are the White Helmets, and I cannot fully express to you our admiration for the life-saving work that you and your organization do on the front lines. I'd like to thank you for making yourselves available to the subcommittee, and I'd like to invite you now to begin by making your opening remarks, after which we shall go to questions from the members.

Thank you very much.

9:40 a.m.

Nidal Ezeddin Board Member, The White Helmets

First of all, welcome. We're very, very happy to be here today so we can deliver part of the message and the picture of what has been happening in Syria for seven years. It's a great tragedy. I think you have already read some information.

The White Helmets have been the first witnesses, for four years so far, of all violations of human rights in Syria. Today, four years after the work of the White Helmets started—

9:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

One second, please, just while we go to the translation. The French translation, I believe, is not working. Can we just confirm that, please?

9:40 a.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

The English to French translation is coming through, but not the Arabic to French.

9:40 a.m.

Conservative

Ziad Aboultaif Conservative Edmonton Manning, AB

I have le français. I'll listen to him in Arabic. I'm okay. I think that Arabic to French is not working.

9:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Yes, that's what I think is not working. It's going to be one second while we get this sorted out.

We're good. We are clear to continue. Thank you very much, and I'm sorry for that interruption. Please continue.

9:40 a.m.

Board Member, The White Helmets

Nidal Ezeddin

Thank you.

As I said earlier, today, four years after the conflict and after the work of the White Helmets, we have been the first witnesses to all the violations of human rights in Syria. After seven years of the tragedy in Syria, today we could start talking about an immense number of violations of human rights in Syria. Honestly, I will talk about a very small portion of these violations. My friends also will give you more details.

I come from Homs. I think you know the city. It's in the middle of Syria. Homs has people from many ethnic backgrounds. It's a diverse city, and it also started the public movement against the regime, especially after what happened in Daraa back in 2011. The regime's revenge has been very intense against the people in the city. I was one of the people who had been forced to leave the city back in 2012, and I can't go back to my city. Today we have death sentences, just like one million other people who have been expelled and forced to leave Homs.

We all remember the first exodus, and then the second one of Old Homs, and then many other treaties that have not been implemented in Syria, like eastern Ghouta, western Ghouta, Heleh, Aleppo. It is a huge crime when you evacuate areas and residents and deprive them from life, confiscating all their memories, taking their families away from them. No justification can give them the right to do that.

Today, if we're talking about numbers, the numbers are huge. Unfortunately, this was the first reason for the flow of refugees into places around the world. There were no other reasons. Today I have lost my country. I have lost my memories. I've lost my land, and I'm without a home in Ghouta. I need to find a new life.

There are so many Syrians who have suffered in this way. The displacements, the siege operations, have been there for three to four years, with small places that have been without medical supplies, without food supplies. People have been forced to leave, to exit those regions. Ninety per cent of those residents do not bear arms. They have not participated in any aggression that would cause them to be at the forefront of being killed, of being displaced. Unfortunately, it was very obvious that there was an international silence about this displacement process.

It's a long topic. Fortunately, we at the White Helmets keep all these files that support what we're saying. Those people who used to live in certain areas, who are they? Were they true residents of those places before the crisis? How were they displaced? What are their identities? With the men, women, children, what is their health situation? Do they have documents? We are able to provide such documentation to whomever is concerned.

Thank you.

9:45 a.m.

Munier Mustafa Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

My name is Munier Mustafa. I live in Idlib north.

I'll be talking about two crimes that have taken place against the Syrian people. The first one is the use by the regime of weapons that are prohibited internationally, like the cluster munitions that were used several times in several places inside Syria. Obviously there are also chemical weapons, as we saw in Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib and the use of chlorine gas in several areas on Syrian territories in the north and in the besieged area of Ghouta around Damascus. Obviously, these violations were repeated with the international community watching and hearing, sometimes even using the veto to protect the criminal who is sanctioning these weapons in Syria.

The second crime that I'd like to talk about is the shelling of the vital institutions and the service centres, such as the civil defence centres and hospitals, that are spread all over the south side of the Syrian-controlled area that provide health care, ambulances, and first aid. As an example, when a market was targeted in that area, it led to 94 people being killed in that market. They were all civilians. It was a huge massacre against the Syrian people. Another example of targeting the civil defence centres is the Kafr Zeta centre, which is another centre that provides service for children and women. They were directly targeted, causing seven members of the White Helmets to be killed, as well as other casualties, which disabled the centre completely, with complete destruction of all the tools and instruments in the centre.

These were two crimes using prohibited weapons and targeting vital service areas that are meant to provide service to the local residents.

Thank you.

9:50 a.m.

Mayson Almisri Medical Centre Officer, The White Helmets

Good morning. My name is Mayson Almisri. I am from Daraa, which was the birthplace for the revolution in Syria.

Frankly speaking, there are many tragedies and memories of horrific tragedies, but this morning I felt tremendously afraid. I wanted to turn on the telephone, but I was wondering whether I was going to hear about somebody who had been martyred. I personally lost nine members of my family—siblings, nephews, nieces—about 50 individuals in terms of cousins and other relatives.

The situation in Daraa is that more than 95% of the place has been destroyed. The infrastructure is not there. We are forced to drink from the wells. There is no electricity; we depend on solar energy and simple generators.

We have a huge medical problem. If somebody requires surgery or axial tomographies, there are no facilities. People could die because of the lack of such medical facilities.

We had 19 people dead in the year 2013. There were so many crimes that affect people, but that particular one touched on my own brother. He came from the farm. There was shooting in Daraa, and there was a ban on movement, a curfew. When they came from the farm, there were no communications. As soon as they got into the residential area, he was targeted by a sniper and he was killed. The bullet went through his back and ended up in the body of my nephew.

This is the kind of personal tragedy that is so difficult. My brother was very close to my mother, and his daughter was there. It was so difficult to provide any first aid for him or to take him to the hospital. These facilities also get targeted. The last picture that we have of him was just before he breathed his last, and the screaming. We were unable to help him. We had nothing to do; we were able to do nothing.

The suffering continued with the targeting of our homes. We had to be displaced; we had to go to the farms. I lost another brother, and nephews and nieces. I am not married, but I have responsibilities towards at least 10 children who are fatherless and motherless. We have to protect them. There is no education. There are no secure places.

Yesterday I was talking to my brother, asking him about the situation. He said, “I don't know what to tell you; I don't know where to go.”

Ghouta is basically completely finished. People are simply watching. We don't know about our destiny; we don't know what's going to happen. I'm here in body, but in spirit I am with my family. I'll be back in a few days in Daraa. I don't know what awaits me there, whether I'm going to meet my family, whether we are going to be able to live, or whether we will just die at any moment. There is no future for us; we don't know what's going to happen. I don't know my destiny or my family's destiny.

There are so many crimes that are hard to describe. When you see a barrel bomb that's landing from a plane, you don't know what to do. What are the options: to run away, run for your life?

I remember one time I was coming back from the civil defence—from my work—and a barrel was dropped. I had the option to try to run away, but I decided to stay with my family and not to leave them and flee. Whether we live together or die together, we will stick together. That's what we're talking about. There is no protection when you see the rockets and the barrels that are getting dropped.

We have seen horrific things. We've seen parts of the bodies of children, and sometimes there is nothing left of those bodies. Sometimes we had to walk, only to realize that we were stepping on human remains and blood. We have no homes, no basic life necessities, and no security, and it's an ongoing situation.

We tell our children, “Well, tomorrow the war will come to an end.” We just tell them that. We tell them the criminals will be tried, but we know, inside ourselves, that there is no hope. Sometimes we don't even have food supplies. We lived through a siege in which we had to give up our own food in order to make sure the children had food. In Daraa we were relatively better off than other places that suffered through sieges, but we realize there is more punishment awaiting us, and, frankly speaking, we do not want to leave our country.

Before joining the civil defence I used to be a journalist at SANA, an official news agency that speaks in the name of the Syrian government, but I could not continue with this kind of work. The Syrian media forced us to twist the facts, to deny that there was a revolution and to say that this was just terrorism. In fact, we saw educated people, including women and children, who were part of the demand for freedom. Basically, we wanted our country to deserve the name “Syria”, but I don't know. The war we are faced with is just beyond imagination. We don't deserve this kind of punishment. All we wanted was freedom. All we wanted were the essential elements of life.

Yesterday, when I came to Parliament, I wept. I thought, “How come we are deprived of such places, of such facilities?” Parliament should represent people and be there for people, but unfortunately, this is our situation.

I remember always.... I wish I had better memories, but my memories are so painful. Even if there is food, we don't have the appetite. We are not able to fall asleep. When you look into the eyes of the children and you're unable to protect them, how do you feel about this? It's a horrific, unknown destiny. We're here today, but we don't know if we're going to be alive tomorrow.

I'm talking to people, not governments. It's my desire that people not forget the Syrian people who are being subjected to extermination by various weapons. I'm sure the killers will not be punished in the future, but we hope that there are certain parties that will hold the criminals responsible. We have lost our trust in our justice system.

Thank you.

10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you very much to the three of you. I am sure I speak for every member of this subcommittee when I say we are devastated and stunned by the testimony you have brought before us.

I want to immediately open up our first round of questions. MP Sweet is going to lead off. Thank you.

10 a.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

Thank you, Chair. Shukran. Thank you for your courage and your service. As–salaam alaikum, the peace of God to you.

Mr. Ezeddin, you mentioned that there's a death sentence against you, although you have a very clear code of conduct whereby you've made a vow not to be aligned with any political party, that your dedication is to saving those who are in trouble, and that you will not be used to gather information of a political, military, or economically sensitive nature. Why would there be a death sentence against you, since you have made those vows?

10 a.m.

Board Member, The White Helmets

Nidal Ezeddin

Honestly, as I said earlier, the White Helmets are the first witnesses of any violations of human rights in Syria. This has annoyed the regime, annoyed their allies. For this reason, the allies made us their first target.

We are doomed to die in any operation held against the people. We do rescues, and we look for people who have survived, but we are dealt with as terrorists. We are perceived by the regime as terrorists.

This question should actually be directed to those who are accusing us of being terrorists: “Why are you sentencing those 4,000 people, along with the paramedics who work with them, to death? What harm are we causing to the community?”

We are giving life. We are supporting life. We are jeopardizing ourselves and our lives under fire. We are not attacking anyone. We are giving life. We should have been given better consideration by the regime. If they really are keen to reach a peaceful solution, they shouldn't extinguish this candle of hope.

10 a.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

You're targeted because you're an innocent witness.

10 a.m.

Board Member, The White Helmets

10 a.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

How many of your colleagues, your friends in the White Helmets, have you lost?

10 a.m.

Board Member, The White Helmets

Nidal Ezeddin

In the White Helmets, we have lost 243. Thirty-three volunteers were female.

10 a.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

I have one last question. Then I'd like to give Mr. Aboultaif the ability to ask a question.

How serious is the situation with mines and unexploded ordnances right now? How profuse are projectiles that haven't exploded? How dangerous are mines right now?

10 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

In different locations, cluster bombs have been used, and we have marked the areas that were targeted by those weapons. We have a full detailed report about this situation. Of course, I don't have enough time to talk about all those details in this session. However, we know exactly where those cluster bombs are and when they are potentially going to be detonated.

Our job is basically to locate those bombs, remove as many as possible from the residential areas, and get rid of them. However, there are still very many bombs on farms and in open areas. We have maps. We have reports from the civil defence regarding the distribution of those bombs. Of course, this is going to take a very long time. We may need scores of years to get rid of all that. We need help. We need more teams to support us in order to get rid of them totally.

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

Ziad Aboultaif Conservative Edmonton Manning, AB

Salaam alaikum.

You have Homs, Daraa, and north Idlib. Daraa was the very first target at the beginning of the conflict, then Homs, and then north Idlib. Where did the people go from Homs, north Idlib, and Daraa? To which countries did they flee?

10:05 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

I will answer this question.

Due to the active hostilities in these areas like Homs, north Idlib, and Daraa, some of the people who lived in those areas had to be displaced to neighbouring countries. More than four million people are located inside Turkey, 1.5 million in Jordan, and also some of them went to Europe to ask for refugee protection and asylum. Some of them also came here to Canada as refugees. Those are some of the people who have been displaced and run away from death. Some people run from death to death—that's how I want to say it. They leave a dangerous zone and go into another dangerous zone. They run for their lives from an area of conflict and then they go to another area in order to face their end there.

Displacement operations have been tackled earlier by one of my colleagues. People have been forced to leave their houses and then move to different areas within the same countries. However, there is no state protection for those people and consequently they have been targeted. A lot of people have been killed and injured. They are targeted with different types of weapons.

Some people have been displaced outside Syria as refugees and some people have lost their house within Syria. People are here and there.

10:05 a.m.

Board Member, The White Helmets

Nidal Ezeddin

This is a tactic that is used by the regime. They force the people to be displaced in order to control the area.

I will talk here about eastern Aleppo, Homs, Ghouta, Darayya, Mu'adamiyah, Al-Zabadani, Madaya, and eastern Ghouta. In all those regions, if you look at the population density in those areas, you see the forced displacement started two years ago in all those areas. The actual number is more than five million. Not one of these has come back to their place. It's a crime by the best definition of the word.

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you.

We're now going to move to MP Khalid for the next question.

March 29th, 2018 / 10:05 a.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Before I begin, I will say I would like to share some of my time with MP Fragiskatos.

Thank you very much for coming in and for presenting your very compelling testimony. This is an issue that our subcommittee has been quite seized with for the last number of years, I think ever since we founded this subcommittee. Thank you for all the work that you do and thank you for coming in and presenting before us.

I have a few questions.

You had mentioned a bit about your interaction with other parties as they're involved with the conflict. Do you have ongoing communication with the parties? If so, of what nature?

10:10 a.m.

Deputy Chairman of the Board, The White Helmets

Munier Mustafa

Regarding co-operation with other parties, of course, civil defence is fully independent. It doesn't follow any other political or military organization. However, there should be some kind of co-operation and coordination. Those military personnel and military regiments are distributed in different places all over the country.

Are you talking about the external or internal co-ordination?

10:10 a.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Internal.