Syria conflict: The Nobel Peace Prize-nominated White Helmets pulling survivors from the destruction of war

Of 3,000 volunteers who have joined up in the past three years, 145 have been killed and another 430 have been injured

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The Independent Online

The worst fear for many of Syria’s civil defence volunteers comes when they follow the roar of air strikes going into their own neighbourhoods. There is the possibility, ever present, that it may be the bodies of family members they will have to pull out of the rubble in the dreadful aftermath of an attack.

In the unrelenting slaughter of this savage civil war, this is by no means an infrequent occurence. Rady Saad lost three of his relations in Aleppo; the missile which killed one of Majd Khalaf’s family also took the life of a close friend. Their comrades in rescue teams spoke of similar painful losses, of the dead, the injured, the disappeared. 

The emergency teams, better known by their nickname of White Helmets, have one of the most dangerous jobs in this conflict. They have pulled 62,000 people alive from smashed and burning buildings often with bombing still going on. The cost to them has been heavy: 145 dead and 430 injured out of  3,000 who joined up in the past three years.

The group has been awarded the Right Livelihood Award – described as the “alternative Nobel Prize” for human rights work. They have now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the winner of which will be announced on Friday. Jo Cox, the Labour MP, who was the chair of the House of Commons all party Friends of Syria group, played an important role in this, putting them forward for the nomination, publicising their work.

Ms Cox was planning a visit to meet members of the White Helmets when she was killed outside her constituency offices in Leeds in June. The Syrian rescue group is one of three causes in a crowdfunding page her friends and family set up after her death which raised £1.2m in funds in just the first five days. The money will go to the injured volunteers and families of those killed.

The White Helmets have received widespread international support since Ms Cox started the campaign, including that of high-profile figures in arts and entertainment. Among those calling for them to be awarded the Nobel Prize are George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Daniel Craig, Justin Timberlake, Jude Law, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ridley Scott, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Vanessa Redgrave. A critically acclaimed documentary about their work is about to be released by Netflix.

There was next to no emergency cover when I covered the battle for Aleppo in 2012. Residents of neighbourhoods stricken by bombs and missiles were left to dig with their bare hands for survivors. We saw people we knew killed and maimed. I returned the following year to find local groups forming themselves into rescue parties; but they were still woefully short of equipment and knowledge of emergency procedures. The arrival of the White Helmets, who were first trained in Turkey and subsequently inside Syria, has undoubtedly boosted victims' chances of  staying alive.

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But, at the same time, the scale of air strikes has risen and the use of warplanes is now the most emotive and contentious issue in the Syrian conflict. Washington has just broken off talks with Moscow after the fierce bombardment of Aleppo by aircraft of the Assad regime and, it is claimed, Russia, in which hospitals are getting hit daily and an aid convoy destroyed. The White Helmets are convinced that they are being deliberately targeted, with the “double-tap” – in which aircraft make a return visit to a place they have bombed once volunteers have arrived – taking an even greater lethal toll.

The White Helmets have detractors who accuse them of being allied to rebel groups. They are being funded, claim their opponents, by the US and UK as part of a secret Western plot and their calls for a “no-fly zone” is an attempt to denude the Assad regime of air power against extremists.

The volunteers have called for Russian and regime bombardment to stop. But they have also asked the same of those carried out by the US and the West. They do not discriminate, they insist, between those they are trying to help, having saved the lives of regime soldiers as well as Hizbullah fighters and Iraqi Shia militias backing President Assad.

James Le Mesurier, director of Mayday Rescue, who founded the White Helmets, was a British Army officer before working in the aid and development field. He says allegations of a clandestine Western schemes have become a common tactic among some who oppose the White Helmets. 

 “This is a standard line of attack by the regime and trolls on the Internet.  But there is nothing secret about what we do and where we get our funding. We are a non-profit organisation and we try to raise between $20m to $25m (£19m) annually for  all the equipment, training, vehicles and protective clothing and salaries for the rescue teams. The members of the teams get around $150 a month each,” he said.

“We are funded by the Dutch, Danish, German and British governments. We also get individual donations. The London Fire Brigade, for instance, sent us some surplus equipment. The US funds the White Helmets through a separate organisation. I think theirs come to about $23m.”

A portrait of Jo Cox hangs on the wall of the group’s offices in Istanbul. The White Helmets decided to posthumously give her their highest medal for bravery. “The nomination for the Nobel Prize is already a great acknowledgment of their work. It would, of course, be a huge honour if they get the prize. We are deeply indebted to Jo for the overall support she had given. We were utterly shocked by what happened to her, it was incomprehensible” said Mr Le Mesurier. “There was a trip out here being put together for her when she was murdered.”

The volunteers acknowledge that they have some rebel former fighters among them. “Yes, we have men who used to carry guns before, who have decided to put away the guns and take up a stretcher ”, said 23-year-old Majd Khalaf, who used to be an agriculture student at Aleppo University before the war. “We certainly don’t hide that. In fact we are proud of the fact these men are not fighting any longer but rescuing people.”

Nidal Izeddin, 36, from Homs, added: “When the revolution first started there were a lot of people carrying weapons. But people began to realise that the way forward was saving lives not taking lives, It’s not easy, a lot of civil defence people are dying and getting injured. But that is not the only thing: the volunteers are having to deal with terrible injuries, dead bodies every day, being covered by the blood of the people they are pulling out. This has caused bad psychological problems.”

Rady Saad shook his head : “Anywhere else in the world an ambulance will be safe. But in Syria being in an ambulance actually makes you a target. The regime regards us as the enemy. I am worried when I am in one. So we have to disguise the ambulances to look like ordinary trucks, but even then you always know that the planes may come back to hit the place again.”

“Gardenia” is one of 62 women in the White Helmets. The number is due to rise to a hundred by the end of the year and to 442 by March 2017. The 33-year-old, who did not want to give her real name, had worked in a field hospital before becoming a rescue worker.

 “In a strange way it helps that the situation is so bad for everyone,” she reflected. “Staying at home won’t stop us getting bombed, so we may as well be out there trying to help others. The other alternative is to leave Syria. But we don’t want to do that, leave our homeland.  

“Syria has been very badly damaged, anyone can see that. The most precious thing we have left now are Syria’s people, it is the people who will rebuild the country. That is why we must try to work together to try and save lives, there is no other way. You can’t just hope for this thing to end.”