The recent military campaign launched by the Syrian regime and Russia on northwest Syria has forced nearly a million people to flee their homes, many are living in overcrowded camps with little access to running water, soap or cleaning products. They’re among the most vulnerable populations to a COVID-19 outbreak in the world.
Years of deliberate attacks on medical personnel, hospitals, and health centers have left the health infrastructure crumbling.
In the face of this unprecedented threat, the White Helmets are stepping up once again to help those at risk. Volunteers are disinfecting buildings, schools, tents, and camps. They’re going door to door to raise awareness among communities. They’re helping set up quarantine facilities in coordination with the medical sector, and they’ve trained special teams on how to evacuate infected patients to hospitals.
When the bombs rain down, the White Helmets (also known as the Syria Civil Defence) rush in. In a place where public services no longer function, these humanitarian volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need – regardless of their religion or politics. Known for their distinctive headwear, the rescue workers operate in the most dangerous place on earth and have saved more than 100,000 lives over the past five years.
Former bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters, students and many more professions besides, the White Helmets are volunteers from all walks of life. Many have paid the ultimate price for their compassion – 252 have been killed while saving others.
The volunteers save people on all sides of the conflict – pledging commitment to the principles of “Humanity, Solidarity, Impartiality” as outlined under international humanitarian law. This pledge guides every response, every action, every life saved so that in a time of destruction, all Syrians have the hope of a lifeline. Their inspiring work has earned them recognition at the highest international levels and they have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
The White Helmets’ motto is taken from the Quran: 'to save a life is to save all of humanity'. In a conflict where too many have chosen violence, the White Helmets wake up every day to save the lives others are trying so hard to take.
“In every mission there is a 50% chance I’ll live and 50% chance that I’ll die. But in the end, I’ve left my mark. I’ve left children who are going to live and complete our future.”
As Syria’s peaceful revolution descended into conflict in late 2012, the Syrian government began dropping bombs on homes and neighbourhoods in areas outside of their control. These strikes were the first explosions of an aerial war on civilians that would lead to tens of thousands of deaths and millions displaced from their homes.
In the areas under attack public services no longer functioned so groups of volunteers formed to provide emergency response in communities across Syria. These self-organised groups would respond to the cries of their neighbours and friends trapped under the rubble. They had no specialised equipment or training and were powered only be their concern for human life.
In March 2013, some of these volunteer teams received their first training in Turkey on the work of ‘urban search and rescue’ from a training organisation that specialises in response to natural disasters, such as earthquakes. With this training the groups became more organised, establishing civil defence centres and specialised teams.
By 2014, there were teams in seven governorates across Syria. In October 2014, these teams voted to form one national organisation, the White Helmets (or Syria Civil Defence) and pledged allegiance to a set of international humanitarian values and principles as laid out in the Geneva Conventions.
The White Helmets is led by a democratically-elected Leadership Council that represents teams across the country, headed by Raed al Saleh who was formerly the Head of the White Helmets in Idlib, northern Syria.
The work of the White Helmets has expanded in response to the needs of the communities they serve, now providing essential services to millions of people. Their work includes fixing electrical grids, maintaining sewage works, clearing rubble from roads, removing unexploded weapons, as well as community education and preparation for future attacks.
The White Helmets have emerged as heroes of the communities they serve. Their work has done what the world has failed to – restore hope to people who now know that, no matter what, there is someone there to help.
“Killing people is easy, saving lives is hard”
The White Helmets have had female volunteers since their formation – now there are 221 women who are trained in medical care and light search and rescue work.
Like their male counterparts, the female White Helmets started out doing search and rescue work. Seeing the needs of their communities, the female teams have now expanded their work to provide trauma counselling, community education to help children and families prepare for attacks and recover afterwards, and in areas where there are few medical services, they have opened women maternal health clinics.
“I help injured civilians every day knowing that this will give my daughter and my country a better life.”
The White Helmets are being targeted for daring to operate outside the control of the Syrian regime and showing the world what is happening in Syria.
Their data and eyewitness testimonies, as well as photographic evidence, have been vital sources of information for international investigations into war crimes compiled by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and human rights groups. These crimes include the use of chemical weapons, the collective punishment of civilians through starvation sieges and the targeting of hospitals and medical facilities. The leading perpetrators of these crimes, the Syrian government and its ally Russia, are targeting the White Helmets on the ground and attempting to discredit their work online and in the media.
252 volunteers have been killed in the line of duty since 2013. More than half of those have been killed in ‘double-tap’ strikes where Syrian regime and Russian warplanes return to the site of a bombing to target the rescue workers. Their centres and teams of volunteers have been hit by missiles, barrel bombs and artillery bombardment 238 times in just over 18 months between June 2016 and December 2017.
As frontline humanitarians, they are protected by international humanitarian law. Although they work exclusively in areas outside of government control, they have saved lives from all sides of the conflict, including that of government soldiers.
They are also subjected to constant attack online – both personally and through a hate-filled Russian-backed disinformation campaign carried out by bloggers, bots and trolls. This online war is designed to create doubt and confusion about the facts on the ground. Ultimately these efforts to discredit the White Helmets’ work is to obscure the reality of war crimes being committed by Russia and the Syrian regime.
The White Helmets dream of an end to their work pulling bodies from under the rubble and a time when their beloved Syria is at peace. When this day comes the White Helmets want to play their part in rebuilding a Syria where everyone's rights are realised.
Already they are dealing with some of the most visible remnants of the war – unexploded weapons. They have trained teams who are clearing farmlands so that farmers can start growing the crops needed to feed communities. They are restoring schools so children can return to learn in safety and securing roads so that everyday journeys are no longer a matter of life and death.
In a country where more than half of the population have been forced to flee their homes, the White Helmets want to help rebuild these homes and help rehouse families who want to return.
The White Helmets will also continue to provide essential services, such as the maintenance of electrical grids, sewage works and water mains, while the generational task of reestablishing state provision is undertaken. The work of rebuilding Syria is not just physical, it will take years to bring communities back together and the White Helmets want to help build those bridges.
“When I heard the sound of the Civil Defence bulldozer, I started to feel some hope that I might live. Slowly, the stone started to be removed, rock by rock. All of the weight started to lessen. I was able to breathe, to hear their voices. It was difficult to open my eyes but I opened them a little and saw them wearing their white helmets. I was so happy that I was out of the rubble.”
Elbow and knee protectors
First aid kit
The White Helmets:
an Oscar-winning Netflix documentary
Last Men in Aleppo
A feature documentary following the efforts of the White Helmets of Aleppo. Winner of the Grand Jury Documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival
Fighting for life in Syria’s vicious civil war: 60 Minutes - CBS
White Helmets of Syria: TIME magazine