The White Helmets: Searching for life under the rubble
Enab Baladi’s investigation team
Murad Abdul Jalil/ Haba Shehada/ Ahmed Jamal
“Uncle, I am Aisha … help me!” The call was carved in the memory of Mohammed Shamir, one of the volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense in the countryside of Homs. It was a milestone in his life, the moment that made him a “seeker of life under the rubble.”
Shamir was able to save Aisha who was on the verge of joining thousands of other children killed in the war, after pulling her from the rubble of the street, following an attack by explosive barrels that targeted a market in the city of Ar Rastan, previously controlled by the opposition factions.
Shamir recounted the details of the incident to the official website of Syria Civil Defense, to be documented along with dozens of other stories about acts of sacrifice made by the volunteers of a non-governmental rescue team that was on the verge of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Shamir is one of about 3,000 volunteers who wore white helmets and joined the Syria Civil Defense in areas controlled by the opposition, while 2891 of them are still working in the north of Syria. They perform various tasks, including saving civilians’ lives in accordance with the Quran verse: “And whoever saves a life is as though he had saved all mankind.”
Today, these volunteers are fighting in two different battles, the first under the fire of the Syrian regime’s military aircraft and cannons in order to protect people, and the second is against media campaigns launched by the regime to demonize them.
Enab Baladi depicted the reality of Syria Civil Defense since its launch and shed light on the stages of the organization’s development, in addition to the areas in which it spread, and the hidden reasons behind the attempts of Russia and the regime to distort its image, as well as the future outlook of the organization in light of the absence of a near political solution for Syria.
War on the White Helmets:
Al-Assad targets the witness
Over the past years, the Syrian regime has repeatedly branded the White Helmets as a terrorist organization. The regime’s hostility against the Syria Civil Defense volunteers reached a peak when Bashar al-Assad threatened to kill them, telling those volunteers, during an interview with Russian media on 26 July 2018, to choose between being integrated in the reconciliation process and being killed, while describing them as covers “for Al Nusra Front’s terrorists.”
Russia has also been involved in fabricating accusations against the organization, claiming that its volunteers are paid by external forces to lie about the reality on the Syrian ground particularly with regard to chemical attacks, accusing the White Helmets of having ties to ISIS and Al Nusra Front, and receiving funds from abroad to carry out provocative actions.
Russia also called on the international community to remove the Syria Civil Defense volunteers from Idlib and all Syrian territories because they constitute a “threat.” Such call came at a closed meeting of the UN Security Council on 11 October 2018, in the presence of a number of Western countries, including the United States, Britain, and France.
Agence France-Presse quoted French diplomatic sources at the United Nations then saying that the Russian delegate to the UN Security Council stated that “terrorists (in reference to the White Helmets) should leave, because keeping them in the community is not a good idea,” adding: “tack them out of the areas where they exist, especially from Idlib.”
However, the United States, Britain, and France condemned the Russian call, describing the Russian accusations as “scandalous, false, and ridiculous.” These countries considered that the White Helmets are part of humanitarian organizations. Thus, Russia continues to spread false information about them.”
Obscuring the witness
The director of the Syria Civil Defense, Raed al-Saleh, considered that the organization is a witness to the crimes of al-Assad and Russia against the Syrian people. That is why they are trying to conceal the crime by obscuring the witness.
He stated during an interview with Enab Baladi: “Syria Civil Defense as an organization is widespread in Syria and is the first responder to all human catastrophes. Therefore, Russia is working to discredit our volunteers because they are the first and main witnesses to the Russian crimes committed in there in cooperation with the Syrian regime.”
Al-Saleh added: “They cannot conceal the crimes. So, they are distorting our reputation in order to exclude the witness to their crimes in Syria.”
The health sector coordinator at UOSSM, Ziauddin al-Zamil, believed that the regime and Russia are working on demonizing the White Helmets and portraying them as liars and unprofessional because their message is based on unveiling crimes, while the plan followed by the regime and its allies in Syria is to kill and displace.
According to al-Zamil, the chemical attacks file proves the regime’s campaign against the White Helmets. Such a file is one of the most prominent atrocities committed by the Syrian regime which has been documented professionally and in accordance with international standards by the Syria Civil Defense during its work, in order to be employed as “an evidence against the regime and Russia in the event of the establishment of an international tribunal to try war criminals in the future.”
After the regime forces took control of the area, Russia and al-Assad brought 12 civilians, as eyewitnesses from Eastern Ghouta, to the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Hague on 26 April 2018, in support of allegations that the regime had not launched a chemical attack on the city of Douma. However, most of the western countries condemned the incident and considered it as “a scandalous play.”
Errors forge experience
Over the past years, the Civil Defense volunteers have made exceptional work in Syria that has earned them the trust and respect of many Syrians. However, like other organizations, the Syria Civil Defense has experienced some difficulties and some mistakes that can be overcome with experience, according to Salam Kawakibi, director of Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Paris.
Kawakibi said that “at humanitarian and professional levels, the organization played a gigantic role that can never be underestimated except for those who seek to fabricate falsehoods and accusations in cooperation with terrorist groups. On the other hand, all the emerging NGOs have been exposed to challenges, in a way or another; yet, acquired experiences will enable these organizations to overcome hardships. Thus, the volunteers’ enthusiasm and eagerness to help people are capable of pushing the organization forward although the necessary experience might not be present at the moment.”
The secret of the organization’s success and strength lies in the message and the cause that the Civil Defense elements believe in, according to al-Zamil. Such belief was embodied in saving the lives of thousands of civilians and the establishment of an integrated system that fixed the role of every volunteer, starting with the paramedic and the rescue worker and media, as well as planning and strategy.
However, al-Zamil considered that media visibility of the organization’s elements was a double-edged sword. Media documentation showed a great deal of the crimes committed by al-Assad and his allies, exposing the grievances of Syrians in the opposition regions to the world; at the same time, however, the White Helmets volunteers were exposed to the hostility of Russia and the regime because they revealed their crimes. Thus, al-Zamil noted: “Media presented a point of strength and success for the civil defense, however, at the same time it resulted in a great amount of hostility from the regime and the Russians.”
The Syria Civil Defense includes Syrian volunteers from different regions working hard to save the biggest number of civilians in the shortest time. The organization pledges to serve the Syrian people and describes itself as neutral, impartial, and disloyal to any political party or group.
The White Helmets (slogan for the Civil Defense Volunteers) work in accordance with international humanitarian law, embodied in Article 61 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The organization is also required to provide services under Article 5 of the same convention that entails the protection of civilians from threats resulting from hostilities and disasters, in addition to accelerating the process of recovery from the direct impacts of such hostilities, according to the organization’s official website.
The organization’s activities include alerting civilians to strikes, hazards, search and rescue in urban areas, evacuating the population from areas close to conflict, in addition to providing medical services, first aid at the time of injury, firefighting services and managing emergency shelters.
The civil defense team is also working on the verification and marking of hazardous areas, such as regions ambushed with mines and other deadly traps, while providing emergency supplies and repairing basic public facilities, in addition to conducting decontamination procedures and related protection measures. The organization also assists in preserving the necessary items for the population’s survival, as well as restoring and maintaining public order in affected areas and undertaking the task of the emergency burial of the dead.
The “Syrian Civil Defense” was established in late 2012 and early 2013, thanks to several groups of young volunteers. They started saving and rescuing civilians trapped under the rubble as a result of the Syrian regime aerial bombardment of residential neighborhoods. They gathered themselves into emergency volunteer centers. The first ones were established in Duma, Rif-Dimashq, Aleppo and Aleppo countryside.
According to the official website of the organization, these groups contacted each other for they are sharing the same work and goals. As they developed their work and included more volunteers, they started working to refine their activities by introducing appropriate training. They were also looking to secure the necessary equipment as the bombing and destruction swept most of the areas in Syria.
In March 2013, the volunteer group conducted its first training course, having 25 members of Syrian Civil Defense team as attendees in Turkey. This training was held after contacting one of the relief organizations concerned with supporting civil society, in an attempt to improve skills and secure necessary equipment.
The Civil Defense held its first annual meeting in 2014, hosting the representatives of the organization at the different Syrian regions, to announce the formation of a single joint official unit. It will have the same goals and a single leadership following a national framework and international humanitarian law, which defines and frames the organization’s legal function away from political or religious affiliations. The organization now has 120 centers and more than 3200 volunteers.
The organization lost 262 volunteers during the rescue operations. The Civil Defense official statistics reveal that the organization saved the lives of more than 62,000 person in Syrian areas and the number continues to increase on a daily basis, according to its official website.
The Civil Defense is omnipresent through volunteers centers deployed within Syrian opposition areas. However, the organization has no centers in “self-management” areas in northeastern Syria and is denied access to regime-held areas.
Since its inception, White Helmets has been granted 23 awards by various parties in the world and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, according to the organization’s statistics.
Civil Defense Centers: Main target during battles
At the beginning of every military offense, al-Assad forces would wage against opposition-held areas, during the last years of the war, the centers and staff of the Civil Defense Organization and the medical centers were the main and direct target of the Russian air force and jets starting with Aleppo, Idlib countryside, Hama and Homs, to eastern Ghouta and south Syria.
Bombing using various types of weapons, namely artillery, missiles and barrel bombs, killed and wounded hundreds of White Helmets members, and destroyed dozens of centers in different areas. Reports issued by human rights organizations, including the one issued by Syrian Network for Human Rights in 2016, describing these actions as systematic targeting and blatant violation of international humanitarian law.
According to statistics of the Syrian Human Rights Network in May 2016, since its establishment until 30 April 2016, the Civil Defense was subject to 66 attacks targeting its centers and vehicles. 62 attacks were carried out by the Syrian regime, three attacks by Russia, and the perpetrator of the other attack is still unknown.
The network also documented 243 attacks on the Civil Defense and the Red Crescent vital centers in Syria in 2017, and 198 attacks on the facilities of both organizations during 2018.
The reason behind al-Assad and Russia’s direct and constant targeting of the White Helmets is to eliminate any witnesses to the targeting of civilians using various types of bombardments, given that the members of the SCD refute the claim of the regime identifying its targets as terrorist and armed groups. The organization provided video clips while “pulling the wounded out of the rubble, burying the dead, putting out fires, and carrying out search and rescue operations. They were witnesses to many horrors during this conflict, according to Human Rights Watch in 2018.
The regime and Russia have adopted a double-strike policy targeting Civil Defense centers, according to the Syrian Human Rights Network issued in May 2016. This policy aims to re-bombe the same target several minutes after the first attack in order to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible.
Targeting vital centers in opposition-held areas and Civil Defense centers is a violation of international humanitarian law, which requires conflicting parties to distinguish between civilian and military targets under articles 27 and 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, article 46 of the Fourth Hague Convention, and article 48 of Additional Protocol I, which emphasizes avoiding targeting civilian sites and vital centers.
Bombing is also a violation of articles 52, 52, 54, 55 and 56 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, as well as the Security Council Resolution n°2139 issued on 22 February, 2014, which urged all parties to stop attacks and shelling against civilians and banned indiscriminate targeting of civilians.
Who is funding the “Syrian Civil Defense”?
Since they started working and launched a quest for training and care, the volunteers who established the Civil Defense have caught the attention of the relief and humanitarian organizations, given the aggravation of humanitarian needs along the Syrian conflict and the indiscriminate attacks waged by the Syrian regime on the opposition areas.
The donations, according to the organization’s official website, “White Helmets” (“Support the Heroes of Syria”), “contribute to helping injured volunteers stand on their feet again as well as helping families who lost a member while in duty.”
The Syria Campaign, an independent organization registered at the United States managing donations to support White Helmets, reported on its website that 238,372 people had initiated donations.
The Mayday Rescue Foundation, founded by former British officer affiliated to the United Nations, James Le Mesurier, is a Dutch-based non-profit organization concerned with providing training, preparing and assisting initial response volunteers in conflict. It has been raising global funds for Civil Defense since 2014, according to its official website.
US donations offered by Chemonics international company working with many donors and the private sector to manage projects in developing countries. Its activities mainly involve contracts with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), according to its official website.
The Mayday Rescue Fund estimated donations between 2014 and 2018 at 127 million dollars, 19 million dollars were offered by private parties, according to the website of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Governments of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United States, Britain, and Qatar also contributed to supporting the White Helmets.
The Civil Defense man present at International Forums
“I am not a politician or a diplomat, but I am just searching and rescuing. So excuse me for my frankness, but the tragedy of our people is unbearable.” Raed al-Saleh chose to introduce himself as such during a Security Council session in 2015, when he talked about the work of the Civil Defense.
Two years before that session, al-Saleh had participated in the establishment of the Civil Defense in Idlib, before he was appointed as director of the organization in the governorate. In 2013, he was elected as the Head of Civil Defense in Syria, and he received the first Arab award the organization had won from the United Arab Emirates.
Al-Saleh has attended international events with politicians around the world to talk about the Syrian people’s issue. He has continued to speak on behalf of the Syrian Civil Defense in all the press interviews that followed the winning of the film White Helmets of the Oscar in 2017. He has repeatedly voiced the Syrian people’s suffering under the bombing and their subjection to torture, as well as the Civil Defense’s contribution in their rescuing “impartially and without discrimination on the basis of sect or region.”
Time American magazine had classified him in its annual list of 2017 among the world’s 100 most influential personalities among politicians, businesspersons, artists, and athletes. The classification included three Arab personalities alongside al-Saleh, who was listed in the “icons” list.
Al-Saleh commented on his classification in the American magazine’s list by saying, “proud to be among the most influential people in the world. This is thanks to the collective work of more than 3,300 volunteers who work in the most difficult and darkest conditions and sacrifice their lives to save people of all sects or ethnic affiliations, to save lives from inside the rubble of death caused by the war in Syria.”
He continued: “Our winning of the nomination contributes to conveying the voice of the Syrian people’s suffering to the world. Here, in my turn, I call on all international forces to cooperate and push forward to end the war and the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Raed al-Saleh met with Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at the Security Council in New York City in April 2017, in the first meeting between Haley and a Syrian figure. The US official considered him the closest person to Syrian civilians. Their meeting focused on the need to immediately stop violence against civilians in order to bring the Syrians back to their normal lives and enable the displaced to return to their homes. The meeting also stressed the need to immediately end all the siege operations.
Raed al-Saleh, 35, is from the town of Jisr al-Shughur in the countryside of Idlib. He had left the town towards Idlib camps near the Syrian borders. He is married, has children, and worked in the commerce field before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.
The White Helmets: A nucleus of a civil defense that protects all Syrians
The White Helmets organization has arisen in response to the civilians’ need within Syria, amid the fierce increase of violence and the subjection to the siege that prevented relief and humanitarian teams from providing aids. It has later turned into a fast-paced international organization with “a vision and a goal to be an active part of Syrian society in all its activities,” said the head of this organization, Raed al-Saleh, to Enab Baladi.
However, these goals are dependent on the way out of the current situation in Syria, Salam Kawakibi, Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Paris), told Enab Baladi.
In the event of finding a political solution that would guarantee human rights and justice, it would be very logical for the organization to represent a basic nucleus for the establishment of the real professional civil defense in Syria. In contrast, if tyranny prevailed in its various forms, in the words of Kawakibi, the organization would fall like other civilian revolution forces as a victim, and the regime would deal with it as any group it considers hostile to it.
The regime against the organization
The Civil Defense is being subject to a severe defamation campaign by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia, as well as by many extreme right-wing parties in Europe and in some Arab countries by “groups claiming to belong to the national trend,” said Kawakibi. “As long as the organization’s activity is continuous, the defamation campaigns will not stop.”
Kawakibi considered that the extent to which the organization is affected is linked to the extent of the influence of these false campaigns on countries that still believe in the organization’s message and provide it with aids and funds. He added that this is less likely to occur at the current stage, as the international community’s withdrawal from helping the Syrians would prompt political leaders to hide behind Syrian civil action with aids that would be not enough yet would maintain its continuity.”
The organization has enjoyed continued international interaction, whether through material or moral support. Despite the US government’s suspension of $ 200 million for its rehabilitation efforts in Syria in 2018, it had allocated $ 6.6 million for the organization, along with more than 33 million dollars in previous years, followed by $ 5 million this year.
In addition, several countries have participated in the rescue of 422 Civil Defense members and their families from southern Syria, following the Syrian regime’s takeover of the region in 2018. The UK, Germany, and Canada have pledged to welcome them.
Western governments have denounced the defamation campaigns against the organization. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in an interview with The Globe and Mail newspaper published on June 2 that the accusations against the Civil Defense represent a “badge of honor” for its members.
Prospects for expansion towards eastern Syria
The Civil Defense intends to expand its functions to areas where it has not previously operated, including eastern Syria, said al-Saleh to Enab Baladi, revealing the organization’s efforts to reach out to the competent authorities in East Euphrates.
Al-Saleh justified the need for the organization’s expansion to the eastern region of Syria and the Badia, by the extent of the massive fires that farmers are subjected to “without response from specialized teams.” On May 30, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 25,000 hectares of wheat and barley crops had been completely burned in the region.
Kawakibi considered that the organization’s expansion towards eastern Syria amid the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces on the region will be “difficult,” as the Kurdish authorities “consider that the Civil Defense Organization is close to extremist Islamic organizations, even if it did not explicitly announce it.”
In addition, they have their own emergency work groups that carry out tasks similar to those of the Organization. Therefore, they will not open the door for the participation of The White Helmets in this field, as Kawakibi put it.
The expected future of Syria
The health coordinator at the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), Dhia al-Din Zamil, believes that the Civil Defense is supposed to be a government institution, but the failure of previous opposition governments called on the organization to distance itself from that path.
Zamil expressed his hope the Organization would join a central body in the future, which is not required to be governmental but an executive administration, since the message it conveys must be on the level of the whole country rather than the level of an organization or an institution outside the context of the Government.
For his part, the head of the organization, Raed al-Saleh, said that the Civil Defense is not an organization. It is rather part of the Syrian people that will remain attached to Syria and will never leave it.
The White Helmets pledges in its website that the future of Syria, bearing peace and stability, will be an evidence of the commitment of the organization’s volunteers in embarking on the task of rebuilding Syria “as a stable, prosperous, and peace-loving nation in which the people’s social, economic, and political aspirations can be realized.”
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