The civil war in Syria is about to enter its sixth year of existence. The state-sponsored persecution and murder of civilians has been raging in Syria’s cities–a Holocaust, you may say. After five years of war, 400,000 Syrians have been killed, and millions have fled their homes. Currently, although Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad are negotiating a ceasefire, and a ceasefire agreement has been signed by Russian and Turkish representatives, the document has proven to be fragile, as there were already reports of its violations.
Syrian people have been disappointed before by similar documents in the past. They have grown used to taking the matter into their hands, which is where the humanitarian work of The White Helmets fits into the story. Formed in 2013, The Syrian Civil Defence, aka The White Helmets, is an organisation of 3,000 volunteers, working in 120 centres across Syria.
A group of civilians, they are dedicated to saving anyone in need, in besieged areas that are out of regime control. The White Helmets provide emergency relief at the scene of attacks; their teams respond to scores of airstrikes every day. The motto of the White Helmets, according to whitehelmets.org, is, “To save one life is to save all humanity,” which is a phrase taken from the Qu’ran.
The group formed after having been given a month-long training to gain expertise. This training was provided by Turkey in 2013, especially for people with no prior rescue experience. Since then, more than 140 White Helmets’ members have been killed, however, in the same period of time, they have saved over 75,500 lives from under the rubble.
After the release of a documentary about The White Helmets in September 2016, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, the group has received international recognition. They were nominated for a 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, which eventually went to the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos instead, for negotiating peace with the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebel group.
Official documentary poster. Photo from imdb.com
The documentary takes place in Aleppo City, Syria. In the opening scene, the viewer sees one of the main protagonists, a White Helmet volunteer, running into a building destroyed after an attack; Khaled Farah. As the rescue mission goes on, we hear men in the background shouting, “Take him! Take him. Come on, guys. Quickly, quickly. Go!” Abu Omar, another member of The White Helmets in Aleppo, says, “We just hope the bombing and airstrikes stop. The situation in Syria is going from bad to worse, no solution on the horizon. The situation is sad. Syria is sad.”
“The hardest thing is seeing dead bodies,” Khaled says, “Guys, get me corpse bag.” The bloodbath is not stopping, and the casualties are rising daily. In Aleppo City alone, 30 White Helmets have lost their lives while rescuing others. Abu Omar also says, “Everyone knows the truth about Syria but no one’s been able to stop the killing and fighting and stop the bloodshed.”
On the other hand, the volunteer group is surrounded by a strong sense of controversy, which is often not subtle. The United States of America has been accused of war propaganda, and the Netflix documentary has been called promotional; a part of the United States’ campaign of misinformation.
- The White Helmets have, in interviews and other media, called for an intensification of military action by the US and NATO, rather than reconciliation.
- According to The Atlantic, The White Helmets are funded by the governments of the UK, Holland, Denmark, Japan, and the USA; through Mayday Rescue and Chemonics, as well as private donations.
- The White Helmets claim on their website to be unarmed and neutral, yet videos have been leaked of them holding weapons, strongly supporting their political views.
- The organisation has not been created by Syrians, but by a former British Army Officer James Le Mesurier, who describes himself as a “security” specialist, according to 21st Century Wire’s website.
- Most of the group’s statements are unverified self-promotions on social media.
A controversial video of staged White Helmets’ action was leaked in November 2016, through which the group apparently wanted to “reach the Western audience” and “show them a part of the Syrian suffering”. The video is almost one-minute long and has been the subject of criticism on social media. The Syrian Civil Defence later released a statement calling it an “error of judgment”.
Whatever your opinion on the White Helmets is, or whether you have even made up your mind about them, or not, let me leave you with a thought: there is an ugly truth about heroism. I would love to believe that I would have acted in a way as noble as the people whom we now perceive as heroes. I would love to say with confidence that I would have taken an active stance towards what I believed was right. But the reality is, most people do nothing–absolutely nothing at all–and, therefore, they implicitly support the wrongdoers.
“If you don’t have some courage, you wouldn’t continue doing what we do. Any human being, no matter who they are, or which side they’re on, if they need our help… It’s our duty to save them.”
Abu Omar, a member of The White Helmets in Aleppo City
The article was written by Huyen Vi Tranová.