KILIS, Turkey – In a grimy warehouse on the outskirts of a seedy border town, two young Syrians are hard at work, building a machine that they believe will bring much needed relief to the victims of Bashar Assad's army in Aleppo.
Syria’s cities and towns are rife with danger. Gunmen poised on busy streets and quiet corners shoot at fighters and civilians alike. In many cases the victims are wounded, not killed, and bringing them to safety and medical attention, out of the line of sniper fire, is a treacherous task. Civilians risk their lives to drag the wounded to safety. Some of the injured, however, are not rescued.
Bilal, a computer network engineer from Aleppo, has a personal connection to the deadly results of sniper fire.
“The son of my cousin was walking to work and was shot by a sniper,” he said. “He didn't die. He lay on the ground for five days and nobody could help him, so he lost a lot of blood and he died.”
Deeply affected by the needlessness of this death, Bilal was motivated to use his skills to help put an end to the problem. Alongside Ahmed Heider, a childhood friend and fellow programmer, Bilal designed and is now building a remote-controlled, robotic “nurse,” which will retrieve people injured by snipers and bring them to safety, so they can reach medical attention.
Nearly a year in the making, “Teena,” as the robot is affectionately called, began as a simple drawing. The team then built the computer system used to control the robot. After a chance meeting, they received a substantial amount of money from a private donor, who sold her own possessions to fund the project. With this help, a full-sized prototype is taking shape in a corner of the warehouse nestled among car repair shops on the outskirts of Kilis, a Turkish town adjacent to the Syrian border.
Bilal is the more serious of the team. He used his skills to work in a computer repair store, before setting up his own small business fixing laptops and computer systems for locals in Kilis. He is, like Heider, a refugee.
Heider has lived in a dingy hotel in the town for more than a year now. His family joined him from Syria a few months ago and live in an unfinished building in town. His younger brother works at the warehouse and is saving money to buy a Canon camera so he can follow his dream of becoming a film director.
Heider's skills in computer programming -- he studied computer science and then became a lecturer at a private institute in Qatar -- have shaped his experience of the Syrian civil war since the beginning. Groups on all sides of the conflict sought his talents. When the Syrian uprising first began in 2011, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a notorious hacking group of regime loyalists who have attacked the websites and online accounts of international organizations like The New York Times
, Human Rights Watch and others they believe are not sympathetic to the Syrian regime's cause, took Heider to their safe house and asked him to join their ranks in lieu of military service. He declined and went into hiding within Syria.
While hiding, Heider and a number of other computer hackers formed a group called the Pirates of Aleppo. Working alongside similar hacker collectives within Syria and abroad, the group spends most of its time infiltrating government websites. According to Heider, the pirates once hacked into Syrian state TV and declared Assad’s resignation as president of Syria, stating his reason for stepping down as being “for the good of his people.”
However, the primary aim of the group was altruistic. After an activist was arrested by Assad's forces, the pirates hacked into his Facebook page and cleaned up any evidence of activism, replacing it with pornography. Laughing, Heider explains that this was meant to “keep the investigators busy for at least an hour.” These days, activists are taught similar techniques to protect themselves if they're arrested or kidnapped by extremists on either side of the conflict.
The SEA wasn’t the only organization aiming to utilize Heider's skills. Many armed groups have, and continue to, ask him and Bilal to build networks, remote controls and robots for weapons. They have refused every time.
“We only want to make things to help civilians,” Heider said.
The use of robots or remote-controlled weaponry in conflict is not a new concept. Bomb disposal units, small surveillance robots that go ahead of troops or first responders to ensure an area is safe to enter and unmanned drones that provide aerial footage or strike military targets without risking pilots’ lives -- all of these tools have been utilized in modern war. The use of a robot to drag civilians to safety, however, is unique.
The finished full-size prototype of Teena will be constructed from the body of a bulldozer, with additional titanium covering to add strength and protection from bullets. A commander from a rebel group is trying to arrange for a bulldozer to modify, but this could jeopardize the independence of the project and the team’s ability to use the robot solely for humanitarian purposes.
Heider is keen to stress that the vehicle will be nimble and efficient.
“If I say 'bulldozer,' does it sound like it's a tank? 'Cause it's not a tank,” he said.
Their vision is that Teena's robotic arms will lift the injured person, placing him or her inside the body of the bulldozer while wheeling to safety.
Bilal and Heider plan to redeem the costs of making the robot -- $15,000 so far -- by patenting the design so similar machines can be built and used in other conflict zones around the world.
At the warehouse in Kilis, after a two-day wait for a vital part, the prototype is fired up and clunks and whirs her way to life. The daydream sketches of months ago have become less a figment of a bored refugee’s imagination and more like something that may save lives. There's more work to be done and funds to raise, but after the demonstration, Heider has tears in his eyes and Bilal’s spirits are so high that he waves and hollers at shop mannequins on the way back into town.
The developers are hopeful that Teena will soon have the chance to save lives in the streets of Aleppo, bringing a small sliver of possibility to a war where such optimism is in short supply.
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