A young man, wearing a white helmet and a distinctive yellow-and-blue badge on his arm, digs for four hours in the rubble of a building destroyed by a Russian-regime airstrike in Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
Finally, he sees what he’s looking for: an infant, only weeks old. He gently lifts her, still breathing, from the wreckage and takes her to an ambulance. Crying uncontrollably, he cradles her as she is treated, wounded but alert. He says, “I feel like she is my own daughter.”
Warned that Russian warplanes are overhead, volunteers in a civil defence centre get out of their beds and dress, preparing to help victims at the next bombed site. As they arrive, the warplanes target them in a “double tap” attack, dropping one bomb and then another minutes later. One rescuer is seriously wounded. His colleagues wait anxiously, and suddenly he revives, insisting on lighting a cigarette. A sigh of relief as the pack is taken from him: “No smoking for you now.
These all-too-numerous episodes often don’t end so well. Generally it’s bodies rather than survivors that get pulled out of the rubble, and the volunteers are vulnerable: 141 have been killed and many more wounded.
As Syria’s nearly six-year conflict rumbles on with no end in sight, the country’s so-called “White Helmets” continue to offer a desperately needed humanitarian response. More than 62,000 people have been rescued since the volunteer humanitarian force was formed in 2013.
So who are the White Helmets, and how did they come into being?
Pick up a stretcher
By 2013, the Assad regime was well embarked on its strategy of targeting civilian sites with intense aerial bombardment. The city of Homs had been decimated by months of attacks in early 2012, ensuring that the overstretched Syrian Army could occupy almost all of the area, and the approach was being rolled out across the country.
Those who died in opposition areas often lay unburied, while the injured were left to perish. Ad hoc groups of residents tried to cope after the attacks, but they were usually untrained and not organised.
James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer already working as an adviser on Syria civil defence at the UAE-based consultancy Analysis, Research, and Knowledge (ARK), decided to go further and seek the finance and infrastructure for a full-time service. With initial training and courses from ARK and the Turkish NGO AKUT, the first volunteers – starting with a team of 20 people – were soon in the field. Further support came from governments and NGOs in countries such as the US, Britain, and the Netherlands, and the White Helmets were formally organised as Syrian Civil Defense in October 2014.