No Days Off: Syria’s White Helmets
I’m sitting in the centre of Istanbul in the Mayday offices, the organisation that supports the White Helmets (aka Syrian Civil Defence). There’s a clear blue sky outside and, aside from the battling traffic, there is relative peace in this fragile capital city that is home to 14 million people. Inside a converted, three-story townhouse, I am watching a video of an infant being rescued by White Helmet volunteers from under a massacre of rubble, images of children being carried by young men wearing white helmets just visible through clouds of smoke and mounds of rubble. Their clothes are shredded, their bodies bent, sprayed with blood and mud. They appear semi-conscious, stunned from or killed by the attacks. There are posters of these images with slogans like “No Days Off’ and “What Will Save More Lives” printed in bold graphics. It’s a shocking, visual introduction to the reality of this group of civilian defenders.
I have spent the weekend in a completely alternate headspace, having been invited to this city primarily to speak and take part in IST, the Istanbul Arts and Culture Festival. I first heard about the White Helmets through the British director, Orlando von Einsiedel. He told me about how these people – people who led ordinary lives as doctors, bakers, bus drivers before the revolution — were the people who volunteered as first responders to the onslaught that is being wreaked daily upon Syria. Instead of running from bombs, they run towards them, their white helmets often providing their only form of protection. I wanted to meet some of these people, to find out more, so von Einsiedel arranged for me, and some of the other creative cultural participants of IST (Waris Ahluwalia, Anja Rubik, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Ferdinando Verderi and Caroline Lever) to meet them at their Istanbul-based co-ordination centre.
Inside this centre, the White Helmets comprise about 15 individuals working under the banner of the Syrian Civil Defence. They have been developed and supported by Mayday rescue, a supportive non-profit run by James Le Mesurier. He tells us how this Istanbul-based team uses satellite communications, social media and phones to reach out to the 120 or so White Helmet teams situated across Syria, and continues to explain some of the extreme dangers that permeate their work on the ground. “One of the tragic tactics that the regime uses, and that the Russians use, is something called a double tap,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s when a helicopter or a jet will bomb a building and then continue circling, waiting for the rescue workers and medical workers to go in and start doing their work. And then, when they’ve seen them going in, they hit it again. We’ve now lost 121 volunteers — and the vast majority of those knew that the helicopters were still circling, but they also knew that people were trapped under the rubble. They still went in to try to rescue and recover them, but the timing just didn’t work, so they got by one of these double attack strikes.”
I look up and see a chalkboard inscribed with the memorial names of White Helmets: civilian men and women killed in action. When they go to work for the day, it must feel like a roll of the dice as to whether they are going to make it home. It’s a chilling thought that this indiscriminate shelling of innocent civilians has been going on for several years with only limited international intervention.
“Being a civil defender [White Helmet] is not only hard physically, but you carry in your heart all the pain of the families that you don’t rescue,” shares 25-year-old Mohamad Rady Saad, one of the organisation’s liason officers. He was forced to leave his studies in 2012, and joined the White Helmets in July 2013. He tells us that, in late 2012 and early 2013, there were two attacks by the Assad regime against his hometown of Maarrat al-Nu’man; 47 civilians were killed in the first, and 37 in the second. This was the first time Rady engaged in civil defence, but he explains that “saving somebody’s life, helping them from under rubble made me feel how great this kind of work is.” Since he left the city, so have many others. Where 120,000 people once lived, now 500 are left.
“Being a civil defender [White Helmet] is not only hard physically, but you carry in your heart all the pain of the families that you don’t rescue” — Modhamad Rady Saad, White Helmets
Not only is the double tap attack a shockingly inhumane reality within this new, accelerated history of war, but the indiscriminate and deadly barrel bombs that rain down upon Syria are strictly against the Geneva convention. In theory, their use alone is enough to have Assad convicted of war crimes. As long ago as February 2014, the United Nations unanimously adopted Resolution 2139 which called for, amongst other things, an end to the use of barrel bombs in the Syrian conflict. It made no difference. Human Rights Watch says more than half of the civilians killed in the Syrian conflict have been killed by explosive weapons, including barrel bombs. Raed Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, says that they are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today. On the wall, just next to where we are speaking about these atrocities, is a poster quoting president Bashar Al-Assad in response to the Paris attacks: “We are against killing innocent people anywhere,” it reads. Underneath is the statistical death toll of the population: 1.9% Rebels. 2.7% Isis. 95.4% Regime.
It’s a shocking statistic because it’s so one-sided. Assad’s regime, with the support of the Russians, have a stronghold on the dark skies over Syria, the attacks that pour from them vastly more powerful than any that could feasibly come from the ground. It’s also shocking because it repeals the popular narrative that the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey and across Europe is linked to Isis attacks. The idea that the ongoing terror campaign for a separate Islamic State is mainly responsible for the casualties on the ground is not true; even if these statistics were merely a shadow of the truth, then we are more complicit than we know. How sophisticated has the spin and rhetoric of these wars become that we hear what we want to hear, believe what we want to believe?
The message that Assad is trying to show the country is, ‘if you’re not with me, I’m going to make your life impossible” — James Le Mesurier, Mayday Rescue
I am handed some scrap metal by one of the White Helmets. “Here’s the guts of what goes inside a barrel bomb: just ordinary bits of metal and scrap, bits cut off from railings,” says Le Mesurier. I’m holding it in the palm of my hand and I feel the weight of his words in the twisted metal shards. “That’s then put inside a barrel, wrapped with fertiliser, nitrate, and then pushed out of anything that flies. We’ve had people who’ve put explosives in a fridge and pushed it out. So that’s only designed to cause civilian casualties, nothing else. The message that Assad is trying to show the country is, ‘if you’re not with me, I’m going to make your life impossible: you will not have safety and security.’” He continues, “On a regular day in Syria, we respond to a minimum of 30 attacks. The White Helmets are being hammered every single day, and the only way out of this is for greater consciousness and understanding of the injustice of what’s going on.”
Cities like Aleppo are being bombed constantly: on the day that I write this, July 10th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported the death of scores of civilians killed by government helicopters, by locally-made rockets, by Russian shells. It seems that shelling in rebel-held territories is now an everyday occurrence, with constantly shifting tactics — such as the targeting of hospitals, aid and rescue workers — coming into play: “Hospitals have become the new front line,” says Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International Crisis Response Director. “Syrian and Russian forces have been deliberately attacking health facilities in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. But what is truly egregious is that wiping out hospitals appears to have become part of their military strategy.” As reported by The New Yorker (via Physicians for Human Rights), in the past five years, the Syrian government has assassinated, bombed, and tortured to death almost seven hundred medical personnel.
“Hospitals have become the new front line” — Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International
When I talk to these four White Helmets, it’s clear whose side they are on: they are all opposed to the al-Assad regime. Yet, despite their obvious political leanings, it’s their unbelievable, pro-life ethic in the face of daily death and destruction that makes their cause so compelling. Their motto “to save a live is to save all of humanity”, comes from the Qu’ran and, much like a Doctor’s Hippocratic Oath where the job is to save lives not judge them, it is humanitarianism in its most pure form. When they pull people from the rubble, they do so regardless of their political inclinations or affiliations. As Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK’s Crisis Campaign Manager tells me, “Syria’s White Helmets are redefining what it means to be brave and heroic. No matter what side of the conflict they’re on — their bravery provides hope in a place where there is little else.”
It’s not surprising to learn that the White Helmets have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. It almost goes without saying that this recognition of their work would focus the world’s attention once more on the real stories of what is happening on the ground in Syria.
Amnesty International — via the UN Special Envoy — report that 400,000 people have been killed so far in the Syrian Conflict, although estimates vary depending on which source you choose; there are no official body counts. Political tallying aside, there are now a total of 13.5 million people in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Unicef has reported that, as of May 2016, there are 2.5 million Syrian refugee children — that’s the psyche of an entire generation of kids shot through with the horror of war. Syria is a wound that won’t stop bleeding until the world’s attention is focused back on it.
“All the money in the world won’t protect children in their beds from barrel bombs. We need action” — Raed al Saleh, White Helmets
As Raed al Saleh, leader of the White Helmets said in his address to the United Nations Security Council last year, in a speech that is, tragically, as pertinent now as it was then: “All the money in the world won’t protect children in their beds from barrel bombs. We need action to stop the indiscriminate bombardment of Syrians, to protect those under siege and facing starvation, and those barred by violence or bureaucracy from safely accessing food, water and shelter. We urge all those with influence to exert concerted diplomatic pressure on all parties to comply with international humanitarian law and with the UN Security Council’s binding resolutions.”
As we get ready to leave, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac is invited to draw on one of the white helmets. As he turns the helmet to draw, he realises that upside down it resembles the shape of a bird; so, using a marker, he pens a white dove. Sometimes it takes an artist’s eye, or the touch of their hand, to help map new territories, to help bring the public imagination into complex politically warped realities. Like white doves, the white helmets fly above and beyond reproach, for their message of peace is a true message of hope and faith in a conflict torn by disaster and despair. They wholeheartedly deserve our support; in fact, that’s the least we can offer.
Sources and Further Reading
- White Helmets
- The Shadow Doctors, The New Yorker, June 27th 2016
- White Helmets Are White Knights for Desperate Syrians, The Wall Street Journal, 1st May 2016
- Leader of Syria Rescue Group, Arriving in U.S. for Award, Is Refused Entry, The New York Times, 20th April 2016
- The Syrian war’s death toll is absolutely staggering. But no one can agree on the number, The Washington Post, 15th March 2016
- Syrian and Russian forces have deliberately targeted hospitals near Aleppo, Amnesty International, 3rd March 2016
- ‘Now turn pledges into action’ — civil society verdict on Supporting Syria donors’ conference, Amnesty International, 4th February 2016
- As a patriotic Syrian, I never imagined I would do this, The Syria Campaign, 29th June 2015