The Amazing Story Behind Syria’s Miracle Baby

Dec 16, 2014 at 7:40 AM ET

On a hot afternoon last summer, Khaled Harrah was down to his last hope. A member of the Syria Civil Defense, a volunteer group of first-responders, Harrah and his cohorts were trying to help a young mother find her missing baby in a bombed-out building in Aleppo. For 11 hours, Mahmud Ibildi, a 10-day-old boy, was trapped beneath the rubble of what once was his home. And no one could remember exactly where he was when the Syrian government began its assault earlier that morning.

Harrah and several others were almost ready to give up when they heard a child crying from beneath the debris. They followed his sobs to a collapsed wall that used to be a bedroom. Using car jacks, the only tools at their disposal, Harrah and his colleagues lifted the concrete slab, but it quickly broke in half and the child stopped crying. They fell silent. “We were holding our hearts in our hands,” recalls Harrah, 29. “All we could see was a pillow sticking out from underneath.”

What happened next eventually went viral, generating 170,000 views on YouTube. And in a rare interview, Harrah offers a detailed account of the rescue effort.

It wasn’t the first time he and his fellow volunteers had stumbled upon a grisly scene, and it certainly won’t be the last. The bomb that leveled the building was just one of many the Syrian government has dropped during the roughly four-year civil war. More than 200,000 people have died in the conflict, including more than 10,000 children. Analysts say many of them have been killed by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The president’s supporters say they’re strictly targeting terrorists. But the government’s weapon of choice—barrel bombs—can’t be aimed or guided. They’re cheap and effective, but they often lead to high casualties when used in crowded civilian areas, where rebel fighters often operate. In places like Aleppo, government forces have at times rained down as many as 50 barrel bombs a day in heavily populated areas. Sometimes aid workers find random human body parts in the streets.

On that day in June, however, Harrah—an affable, soft-spoken man with a round face and soft features—was looking for the living. He and his fellow volunteers heard the bomb fall near their office and rushed to the apartment building. When they arrived on the scene, the neighbors were screaming. They quickly began digging through the debris, seeing if anyone was breathing. Over the next few hours, they were able to save three families trapped beneath the rubble, though several people later died from injuries sustained during the bombing.

The rescue team was about to leave—the neighbors thought everyone was accounted for—when the mother of baby Mahmud, still in shock, told them her infant was still buried beneath the rubble. She led them to one section of the flattened house. “My baby is here!” she cried. But Mahmud was nowhere to be found. The mother led them to another area, but the rescuers couldn’t find anyone there, either. “Every time it was a different place,” says Harrah. “She couldn’t remember.”

By 3:30 p.m., some nine hours after the bombing, Harrah lied down to rest, his ear resting against the concrete, when suddenly he heard a baby crying beneath him. “I thought I was being delusional because I was so tired. I asked my friend, ‘Will you listen? Put your ear here and try to hear. I think I hear a baby’s voice.’ He said, ‘Yes, it is!’”

The two men started working frantically, removing concrete blocks and pieces of rubble as the child cried intermittently beneath them. But at 5 p.m., the baby went silent. “We thought he died,” says Harrah. After a heart-wrenching 30 minutes, they once again heard baby Mahmud and pinpointed his location: He was trapped underneath two slabs of roofing and some broken bits of concrete, which used to be a wall.

Because a baby can be easily crushed, the two men knew they had to be careful in removing the boy. Eventually, they cleared away the debris and found a 10-inch hole under the roof, but they couldn’t see Mahmud and began doubting their instincts. “We felt like we were in a dream,” Harrah says.

Before long, night had fallen and it was dark. The neighbors had joined the rescue team and helped shine flashlights on the concrete slabs and placed car jacks underneath them. As they started cranking, the slabs began rising. But suddenly, they heard a crack. One of the slabs broke in half and fell directly above where they believed the boy was lying.

Harrah gasped. He thought they had killed the child. The last 30 seconds of the rescue, another three hours later, was captured on video. It was nighttime. A flashlight illuminated a small mountain of rubble and the dust in the air. Harrah’s hand scraped away bits of debris inside a narrow gap in the concrete, and Mahmud’s head appeared. The infant cried as the rescuers pulled him out of the rubble. Harrah looked shocked as he cradled the boy in his arms and handed him back to his family. “It’s a miracle,” they shouted. “God is great.”

As the others celebrated, Harrah wept quietly. When he’d reached in, there wasn’t enough room to pass his hand between the concrete block and the baby’s head. “There are many stories about working from the morning to the evening trying to save children,” Harrah says. “The only difference is this rescue was caught on film.”

Harrah has seen Mahmud once since the rescue. His mother brought him to the station, handed the boy to Harrah, and he fell asleep in his arms. “For me, this is the real jihad,” says Harrah. “If I die saving lives, I think God would definitely consider me a martyr.”