White Helmets Bring Hope in Syria

March 10, 2015

 

Since 2011, almost 200,000 Syrians have died in the bloody civil war that has beset the country.  What started as pro-democracy protests in 2011 have turned into one of the deadliest civil wars to afflict the Middle East.  With support from Iran and Russia and a lack of aid from the international community, the Assad regime has grown stronger in the face of unwavering opposition.  Over 3 million Syrians have fled, contributing to one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history.  Whilst peace in Syria remains far from sight, some hope exists in the form of the Syrian Civil Defence.

 

Founded in 2013, the Syrian Civil Defence,  more commonly known as the White Helmets, is a team of volunteers who, unpaid and unarmed, risk their lives to save others.  A team of White Helmets may rush to a bombing site, for example, and dig through the rubble to rescue survivors.  More than 80 have been killed in the line of duty mainly as a result of “double tap” attacks – the practice of dropping bombs on rescuers at sites where they are attempting to salvage lives. Members of the White Helmets wear only simple white construction helmets for protection, making them extremely susceptible to violent bombings.  They exercise a purely humanitarian function and have even been responsible for the rescue of officers associated with the Assad Regime.  With a ceasefire far from sight in Syria, the White Helmets have become increasingly essential for the protection of human life in a country beset by violence.

 

Farouq al-Habib is the organization’s coordinator and program manager.  A former banker, he holds a BA in economics, an MA in international business, and a doctorate in business administration. Whilst Habib does not reflect the typical Syrian rebel portrayed in newspapers, garbed in military uniform and weaponry, he was in fact one of the first protesters to come out against the government in 2011 – marching for democracy and freedom from the oppressive Assad regime. 

 

Habib says that he stood up in 2011 “because he and his comrades felt a duty to change their nation’s destiny.”  Habib did not foresee the consequences and damage of what would become a civil war.  Having spent most of 2011 assisting journalists capturing footage of atrocities committed against peaceful protesters,  he was captured and detained by security forces later that year.  Despite there being no law in Syria governing support provided to journalists, Habib was imprisoned and tortured for his actions. Later released from jail, a fact which he attributes to the corrupt penal system and jailers that took bribes from his friends, he has since dedicated his life to the promotion of a peaceful Syria. 

 

Like Habib, volunteers for the White Helmets come from all walks of life.  The majority are men who were originally bakers, engineers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters, students, amongst other professions.  However, since October of last year, there has been an increase in women joining the organization. Previously forbidden from joining due to cultural reasons, women rescuers have since become a source of hope for women and girls trapped underneath the rubble.  In the most conservative communities hardline devotees had hitherto refused to let men rescue trapped women if they were undressed, making the 56 women who currently form part of the White Helmets an essential component of the organization’s humanitarian mission.  

 

The volunteers rescue victims from all parties to the conflict pledging themselves to the principles of “Humanity, Solidarity, Impartiality”.  Thus far the White Helmets have saved the lives of 12,521 people, a number which is growing on a daily basis.  More than 50 bombs and mortars land each day  in some Syrian neighbourhoods, the most lethal of which is the barrel bomb consisting of a rusty barrel full of nails, shrapnel, and even axes.  These bombs are not only responsible for the destruction of homes, but schools and hospitals have also been targeted by the regime.  The extent of damage facing Syria has yet to be revealed.  According to Dundar Sahin, Director of the Akut Institute of Training and Research in Turkey, “to be able to understand accurately the damage and the threat and the devastation of the disaster in Syria, they are having a 7.6 earthquake 50 times a day.”

 

The White Helmets receive preliminary medical and rescue training before they engage in operations.  They receive their supplies through donations and modest financing from the United States, Britain, and private donors.  Unfortunately, without a greater level of assistance from the international community, the Syrian Civil War will only become more deadly with time.  The White Helmets, who maintain neutrality during rescue missions, are currently campaigning to stop the use of barrel bombs.  Many argue that the international community is too preoccupied with the threat of the Islamic State and that it is ignoring atrocities committed by the Assad regime.  Despite attempts to intervene or create governing bodies by the United Nations the world is currently at an ends with Syria.  Without intervention or other action, the White Helmets remain the only form of security available to citizens still trapped in the crossfire of the Syrian Civil War.

 

Since 2011, almost 200,000 Syrians have died in the bloody civil war that has beset the country.  What started as pro-democracy protests in 2011 have turned into one of the deadliest civil wars to afflict the Middle East.  With support from Iran and Russia and a lack of aid from the international community, the Assad regime has grown stronger in the face of unwavering opposition.  Over 3 million Syrians have fled, contributing to one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history.  Whilst peace in Syria remains far from sight, some hope exists in the form of the Syrian Civil Defence.

 

Founded in 2013, the Syrian Civil Defence,  more commonly known as the White Helmets, is a team of volunteers who, unpaid and unarmed, risk their lives to save others.  A team of White Helmets may rush to a bombing site, for example, and dig through the rubble to rescue survivors.  More than 80 have been killed in the line of duty mainly as a result of “double tap” attacks – the practice of dropping bombs on rescuers at sites where they are attempting to salvage lives. Members of the White Helmets wear only simple white construction helmets for protection, making them extremely susceptible to violent bombings.  They exercise a purely humanitarian function and have even been responsible for the rescue of officers associated with the Assad Regime.  With a ceasefire far from sight in Syria, the White Helmets have become increasingly essential for the protection of human life in a country beset by violence.

 

Farouq al-Habib is the organization’s coordinator and program manager.  A former banker, he holds a BA in economics, an MA in international business, and a doctorate in business administration. Whilst Habib does not reflect the typical Syrian rebel portrayed in newspapers, garbed in military uniform and weaponry, he was in fact one of the first protesters to come out against the government in 2011 – marching for democracy and freedom from the oppressive Assad regime. 

 

Habib says that he stood up in 2011 “because he and his comrades felt a duty to change their nation’s destiny.”  Habib did not foresee the consequences and damage of what would become a civil war.  Having spent most of 2011 assisting journalists capturing footage of atrocities committed against peaceful protesters,  he was captured and detained by security forces later that year.  Despite there being no law in Syria governing support provided to journalists, Habib was imprisoned and tortured for his actions. Later released from jail, a fact which he attributes to the corrupt penal system and jailers that took bribes from his friends, he has since dedicated his life to the promotion of a peaceful Syria. 

 

Like Habib, volunteers for the White Helmets come from all walks of life.  The majority are men who were originally bakers, engineers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters, students, amongst other professions.  However, since October of last year, there has been an increase in women joining the organization. Previously forbidden from joining due to cultural reasons, women rescuers have since become a source of hope for women and girls trapped underneath the rubble.  In the most conservative communities hardline devotees had hitherto refused to let men rescue trapped women if they were undressed, making the 56 women who currently form part of the White Helmets an essential component of the organization’s humanitarian mission.  

 

The volunteers rescue victims from all parties to the conflict pledging themselves to the principles of “Humanity, Solidarity, Impartiality.”.  Thus far the White Helmets have saved the lives of 12,521 people, a number which is growing on a daily basis.  More than 50 bombs and mortars land each day  in some Syrian neighbourhoods, the most lethal of which is the barrel bomb consisting of a rusty barrel full of nails, shrapnel, and even axes.  These bombs are not only responsible for the destruction of homes, but schools and hospitals have also been targeted by the regime.  The extent of damage facing Syria has yet to be revealed.  According to Dundar Sahin, Director of the Akut Institute of Training and Research in Turkey, “to be able to understand accurately the damage and the threat and the devastation of the disaster in Syria, they are having a 7.6 earthquake 50 times a day.”

 

The White Helmets receive preliminary medical and rescue training before they engage in operations.  They receive their supplies through donations and modest financing from the United States, Britain, and private donors.  Unfortunately, without a greater level of assistance from the international community, the Syrian Civil War will only become more deadly with time.  The White Helmets, who maintain neutrality during rescue missions, are currently campaigning to stop the use of barrel bombs.  Many argue that the international community is too preoccupied with the threat of the Islamic State and that it is ignoring atrocities committed by the Assad regime.  Despite attempts to intervene or create governing bodies by the United Nations the world is currently at an ends with Syria.  Without intervention or other action, the White Helmets remain the only form of security available to citizens still trapped in the crossfire of the Syrian Civil War.

 

by Brooke Stewart 

 

 

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