'White Helmets' the true heroes of Syria's devastating conflict
Published 24/09/2016 | 02:30
They are known locally as the White Helmets because white is the colour of the hard-hats these volunteer rescue workers wear when they rush through the streets of Aleppo and other Syrian cities to the scene of yet another devastating airstrike.
Under their proper name, the Syria Civil Defence, they count some 2,600 volunteers in their ranks, among them bakers, tailors, carpenters, and students. They claim to have saved more than 60,000 lives - often wresting people from the wreckage left behind after the fighter jets of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad or his Russian allies pummel rebel-held territories.
Last month, it was volunteers from the White Helmets who pulled five-year-old Omran Daqneesh from the rubble in Aleppo. The image of Omran's dazed and bloodied face as he later sat in an ambulance went viral.
Founded in 2013, the White Helmets have quietly gone about their emergency and repair work since, but they have recently garnered increasing international attention due to a new Netflix documentary and a campaign to have them awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Over the past week, they have also accused the Assad regime and its allies of deliberately targeting their facilities and personnel in Aleppo after a fragile ceasefire collapsed. The group said three of its four facilities in eastern Aleppo were hit in a wave of early morning air raids on Friday.
It is not the first time this has happened. The White Helmets say they have lost around 130 of their volunteers over the past three years. Their work is dangerous not only because they are usually the first - or only - responders to an air strike, but because regime forces often pursue what is known as a "double tap" strategy - bombing the same location a second time after the White Helmets and locals stream there to rescue people.
The White Helmets insist they are neutral when it comes to Syria's multi-faceted war, now in its fifth year with no end in sight. They say they have no political affiliation and their aim is to rescue people from all sides of a vicious conflict which has claimed more than 400,000 lives and driven millions of Syrians from their homes. Human rights groups say the Assad regime has killed more civilians than any other faction. A majority of those have died from airstrikes and barrel bombs.
"On the ground, we don't make distinctions between people," White Helmets founder Raed Saleh told 'France 24' two years ago. "We will save anyone's life. In practice, however, we mainly operate in areas that have been liberated or that are under the control of [Isil], because that's where there are bombings."
In a recent documentary, one volunteer with the White Helmets explained what drives him. "I didn't want to be with the regime (Assad) army, or the Free Syrian Army (rebels)," he said. "I chose to do humanitarian work. My weapons are my helmet, my shovel and my medical equipment."
With the campaign to have the White Helmets awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this October gaining momentum - most recently securing the endorsement of a host of celebrities - Assad supporters have become more shrill in their accusations that the emergency rescue group has taken sides in the war. Some claim they have helped injured fighters from extremist rebel groups such as the Nusra Front, which recently severed its links with al-Qa'ida. Other regime supporters have pointed to the financial support they receive from Western governments. The US State Department confirmed earlier this year that the US government channels, through its USAID agency, $23m in aid to the White Helmets.
Asked in a recent interview about the possibility the rescue workers may get the Nobel, Assad was clearly needled. "What did they achieve in Syria?" he asked. "How unpoliticised is the Nobel Prize? That's the other question."
Hopes the White Helmets might get the Nobel were given a boost this week when the group was among the winners of the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes known as Sweden's alternative Nobel prize. "They come in after the bombs have fallen and free people from the ruins, from the rubble of the houses that have been bombed," Ole von Uexkull, the director of the award's foundation, said of the group. "Many in Syria believe that hopefully, when there's a peace accord, the White Helmets will be the ones who help to rebuild the country from the ruins."