Made up of ordinary citizens, Syria’s White Helmets are the first to rush in when the bombs hit.
An all-volunteer Syrian rescue and humanitarian group in Syria – credited with saving tens of thousands of people facing bombardments by Syrian government and Russian fighter jets since 2013 – has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
More than 130 organisations from across the world have backed the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, whose members brave bombings and sniper fire to provide medical treatment for the wounded in rebel-controlled areas, to win the prestigious international award for peace efforts.
The Syria Campaign, an international human rights group advocating for the protection of civilians in the country, has launched an initiative calling for the White Helmets to win the prize. The winner will be announced on October 7.
Former bakers, tailors, engineers, painters and pharmacists are among the organisation’s members, who pledge to help anyone in need regardless of religious or political affiliations.
The group’s 3,000 members operate across the country, including the governorates of Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Homs, Deraa and Damascus.
Ammar Aosalmo, a senior member of the group’s branch in Aleppo, told Al Jazeera that at least 134 members have died on duty and explained his motivation for risking his life for others by saying the group was viewed by many as their last hope.
He cited the White Helmets’ motto – taken from Islam’s holiest book, the Quran: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”
“People trust in us. When we look into their eyes we see that they need help … when Aleppo was under siege , people felt they were more safe with us around.”
|Witness – Syria’s White Helmets|
When asked whether his group had any method of notifying Russian and Syrian military fighter jets of their presence to avoid being hit by their bombs, he accused them of targeting the White Helmets.
“Four of our centres were hit by Russian aircraft in the last month,” he said.
He also said subsequent attacks on the same location were the main reason the group’s members were killed on duty.
“We try to intercept aircraft signals to tell volunteers to get out because they will target the place again,” he added.
Raed Al Saleh, head of the group, has called on the UN Security Council to help impose a “no-fly zone” to facilitate their rescue efforts.
“Barrel bombs – sometimes filled with chlorine – are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today,” he said.
“Our unarmed and neutral rescue workers have saved more than 60,000 people from the attacks in Syria, but there are many we cannot reach. There are children trapped in rubble we cannot hear. For them, the UN Security Council must follow through on its demand to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a ‘no-fly zone’ if necessary.”
Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Middle East Institute, who is one of those who nominated the White Helmets for the Nobel Prize, told Al Jazeera why she believed the group deserved the accolade.
“As an American citizen who believes the fundamental duty of government is to protect its citizens, I am appalled by the actions of the Syrian regime, which deliberately targets humanitarian hospitals and drops chemical and barrel bombs on its own civilians,” she said.
“Yet in the face of such horrors, the courageous and compassionate response of a group of Syrian volunteers is indeed inspirational.
“The White Helmets are a neutral, all-volunteer organisation of nearly 3,000 Syrian civilians who act as first responders in a country where public services no longer function. Unpaid and unarmed, the White Helmets rush into bomb sites to rescue fellow Syrians from the rubble, regardless of religion or politics.
“The White Helmets provide medical attention, emergency shelter, and safety information to nearly seven million people. They are the largest civil society organisation operating in areas outside Syrian government control, and their actions provide hope for millions.
“Their efforts to save lives in the most dangerous place on earth are awe-inspiring, and merit the deepest respect.”