Syria’s White Helmets, a flicker of life-saving hope
Gaziantep, Turkey - Abdel Aziz Saleh tucked his wife and three children in the ambulance that rushed them to hospital and continued work with his colleagues in removing the rubble of his collapsed building in al-Zarazeer neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo.
“What difference would it make if I accompanied them to hospital. The doctors will take care of them there while I can continue work on saving people still buried under the rubble,” he said after air strikes by Russian and Syrian warplanes.
Abdel Aziz Saleh is among 3,000 Syrians — once shopkeepers, bakers, tailors, engineers and teachers — who make up the Syrian Civil Defence. The group, also known as the White Helmets, was selected among winners of this year’s Right Livelihood Award, sometimes known as the Alternative Nobel. They will share a cash award of $350,000 along with activists from Egypt and Russia and the Turkish independent newspaper Cumhuriyet.
An all-volunteer rescue group, the White Helmets are credited with saving tens of thousands of people in opposition-controlled areas facing bombardment by Syrian government and Russian jets. They operate in governorates across Syria, including Daraa, rural Damascus, Idlib, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. “We have offered 134 martyrs so far, who were all killed while on duty,” said Ammar Aosalmo, a senior member of the group’s branch in Aleppo.
“When they go out to assist the victims, the teams always expect that they might become victims themselves because the same locations are often targeted successively twice and three times after the rescuers arrive.”
While a few members had experience in first aid and rescue work before the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, the majority are regular citizens who wanted to help save lives.
“They are university students, employees and professionals who were driven by humanitarian reasons despite the dangers involved in the work. Those who were experienced among them helped teach the others, especially the young volunteers,” said Aosalmo, an English-language teacher.
The group’s vehicles and equipment have frequently been damaged or destroyed in bombardments, forcing rescuers to resort to almost primitive tools, especially in besieged areas.
“Our cars and equipment sustain some sort of damage every day. We are currently devising a bicycle to use in rescue operations in areas under siege because it is impossible to bring in any equipment,” Aosalmo said.
“Our pledge is to assist the wounded and alleviate the traces of the bombing as much as possible. We serve all Syrians without distinction or bias to any political group or military side and cooperate with all those who accept us and do not obstruct or restrict our work.”
The group, distinguished by the white helmets worn by its members, came into being spontaneously in parallel with the regime’s intensive bombing of rebel-held areas. “The work of civil defence volunteers started at the end of 2013, mainly when the regime began using barrel bombs extensively,” said Abdallah Nawlo, the group’s head in Aleppo.
“In the beginning, young people gathered to search for survivors trapped under the rubble using simple farm tools. They gradually organised themselves into rescue teams in every town and city, and in early 2014, representatives of the different teams got together and formed the civil defence body, which came to be known as the White Helmets,” Nawlo added.
The group soon received support from charities and private donors in the form of equipment, gear and training. “Until late last year, the work was completely voluntary, but lately we have been assisted with heavy equipment like cranes, fire trucks and tractors in addition to payments of salaries for 300 members,” Nawlo said.
International organisations and charity groups from the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe have chipped in to support the work of the White Helmets.
More than 130 organisations from around the world have backed the White Helmets’ nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for saving more than 60,000 people in the civil war. A Facebook campaign in support of the nomination carried the group’s motto taken from the Quran: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”
“The best prize that we can ever have is when the fighting and killing stop and our teams can catch their breath and have a respite. Long months of non-stop work day and night have exhausted and drained each and every one,” said Aosalmo.
Moataz Abdel Salam, a volunteer whose father was killed on duty with the White Helmets, said he is not discouraged or intimidated by his loss. “My father died but I am here in his place and if the regime kills me, I have many brothers to take over.”
“Every single day we face sad stories of orphaned children, widows and people buried under the rubble screaming for help. Families come to us daily searching for their missing relatives. They show us pictures, hoping that we would recognise any of them among the victims we have rescued, but the victims are often dismembered and disfigured beyond recognition,” said another volunteer, Ahmad Abdallah.