Heroes

Syria’s ‘White Helmets’: The Life Savers Putin Calls Terrorists

In this war the world will not end, these volunteers continue the grim, grueling work of rescuing the wounded, and retrieving the dead from Aleppo’s rubble.

10.03.16 6:17 PM ET

In one of the finer poems ever written about the twentieth century, W.H. Auden managed a careful balancing act between offering a brief, symbolized history of civilization (such as it is) and explaining the strange lure of a heavily internationalized conflict in the form of the Spanish Civil War:

“Our moments of tenderness blossom

As the ambulance and the sandbag.

Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.”

Here it may be worth noting that Auden originally had intended to fight on the Republican side against the Fascist forces of Francisco Franco or, at the very least, drive an ambulance to rescue those who did. (Perhaps fortunately for poetry, neither contingency came to pass, although he did turn up to broadcast anti-fascist propaganda.) 

And what was “Spain,” exactly, but a revolutionary struggle against a foreign-backed dictatorship that was coopted and denatured by another murderous totalitarianism? 

George Orwell, who didn’t much care for Auden’s romanticized (and slightly Communist-inflected) verses about Catalonia, knew first-hand about the firing squad and the bomb and what cynical agents of Moscow could do to a people’s army.

For these and other surface similarities, the Syria catastrophe has often been likened to the Spanish one, although no poet of distinction has yet emerged to capture the competing devastation and humanity of Aleppo (even if there are many brave Arab Orwells chronicling the catastrophe in real time).

It is also too soon to tell if revanchist imperialism, reactionary politics and waves of refugees will be able to curtain-raise an encompassing world war, although the prospect doesn’t seem as remote as it once did.  For all that unpleasantness, we are not without a few moments of tenderness blossoming, as Auden would have it, among altruistic first responders.

“All lives are precious and valuable,” says Mohammed Farah, a former tailor. “A child, even if he is not my son, is like my son. I cannot explain it.”

As a matter of fact, he can, with the help his brother Khaled, a former builder, and Abu Omar, a former blacksmith.  All three are volunteers with the Syria Civil Defense, more commonly known as the White Helmets, owing to the identifiable headgear all of these humanitarian rescue workers wear. 

Their impossible mission — pulling civilians from the rubble of pulverized buildings — is powerfully chronicled in an new 40-minute Netflix documentary, which I have now watched three times and forced my wife, who has had to live with constant accounts of the misery of Syria for half a decade, to watch, too.

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Because we are the parents of an 18 month old, the scene that haunts us most is the one that Mohammed, Khaled and Abu Omar recount in “White Helmets” as the source for their enduring optimism amid the body parts and ruins of their ancient city.

About two years ago, they narrate, two barrel bombs were dropped on the Ansari district of Aleppo. The first bomb only injured people, Mohammed says, but the second killed scores. “We went into the area,” Khaled continues. “It was like a small village, made of ten houses, and all the buildings had been leveled to the ground.” 

The White Helmets toiled for 16 hours in search of victims, either dead or alive. They were made aware of an infant buried beneath the debris, whom they had marked for a corpse. “But all glory is to God,” Abu Omar says. “We were not meant to leave the area without hearing a sound. When I heard the sound of a baby, my feeling was indescribable.”

Ceilings had collapsed on and around the newborn, whose name we later learn is Mahmoud; and despite having been trapped for half a day, he was still alive and, unbelievably, unharmed. 

“We called him the ‘miracle baby,’” Mohammed says. “The baby was one week old and at that time my son, Abdul Hameed, was almost two weeks old. I don’t how it came to my mind, but I imagined that this was my son. And I started to cry. I couldn’t hold it in, and all my colleagues started to cry.”

Real-time footage of Mahmoud’s rescue, inter-cut with a reunion between a now healthy toddler and his rescuers in southern Turkey, where the White Helmets attend a month-long training course, is likely to leave one speechless.

According to Raed al-Saleh, the founder of the organization, whom I met in Bryant Park last week amid his shuttling back and forth between New York and Washington, D.C. to promote the documentary and meet with diplomats and policymakers, “all the footage was filmed by the White Helmets inside Syria and photographers who work with and cooperate with us in Aleppo.”

Established in 2013, the White Helmets, which has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, originally had a mere 25 volunteers, all unpaid and hailing from various personal and professional backgrounds. “The numbers kept increasing. Now we have almost 3,000 volunteers. Some of our colleagues have been killed or wounded, but we always have new recruits to replace those who we lose, or to expand and cover the new areas.” 

Al-Saleh says the NGO is funded by democratic governments, including the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Japan, France, Denmark, and Germany as well as from private crowd-sourced donations. He mentions by name the Jo Cox memorial fund, so called to honor the murdered British Labour MP whose widower earmarked a portion of the charitable proceeds to go to her favorite relief organization, and the Heroes Fund, which the White Helmets themselves established. The total operating budget is around $26 million. To date, this money has saved close to 60,000 lives, although it’s still not quite sufficient to protect the 275,000 civilians at risk from starvation and rockets in Aleppo.

More than 140 volunteers, meanwhile, have died in rescue attempts, including, as al-Saleh ruefully informs me, Khaled Harah, one of the miracle baby’s saviors (not to be confused with the above-mentioned Khaled Farah), who perished during the siege of Aleppo two months ago.

The losses have kept coming since the Assad regime and its proxies have escalated a scorched-earth campaign to retake rebel-held Aleppo. As The Daily Beast reported last week, three White Helmets facilities in the city were destroyed in Russian and/or Syrian airstrikes which al-Saleh had warned U.S. and European officials were imminent after his men intercepted pro-regime chatter on non-secure communication channels.

“No one from the U.S. government has reached out to apologize or account for why they didn’t take my warnings seriously,” al-Saleh says.

Shortly before our interview, he also learned of the deaths of two more of his colleagues, this time in al-Bab, the only ISIS-held town in Aleppo province where the White Helmets operate, albeit warily.

“There was an airstrike at night but we didn’t respond because it was in the area controlled by Daesh,” al-Saleh says, using the pejorative Arabic acronym for ISIS. “We don’t move at night. Maybe it was the coalition or the Russians, we don’t know. By 9 a.m., the rescue team went to the building to check if anyone was under the rubble and the same building was targeted again, and that’s how we lost the two volunteers.”

The White Helmets, he adds, have saved people injured in ISIS car bombings and have sacrificed their own to do so. “We even rescued fighters affiliated with the Syrian regime and Iranian militias in Syria, back in 2014. For example, there was a destroyed building close to a front line between regime and opposition forces and we were informed that there were people under the rubble there. So we went there and we rescued three Afghani fighters who were fighting for the regime.”

That said, the only categorical no-go zones in Syria for these volunteers are those held by the regime, “even though we are happy to help in those areas if needed because we work for all the Syrian people,” al-Saleh says. 

Instead, the regime has embarked upon a systematic and vicious disinformation campaign — abetted now by the mullahs and the Kremlin and every species of far-left and far-right fellow traveler of Moscow, Tehran and Damascus — to portray the White Helmets as an elaborate front for both jihadists and the West, which, in this conspiratorial rendering, are also in league with each other.

“When the Russians talk about the White Helmets,” al-Saleh says, “they try to undermine our efforts and throw fake accusations against us. Like we are not neutral or we are affiliated to radical armed groups or we are armed or have fighters. Actually, we don’t deny that our doors are open to fighters if they want to lay down their arms and join us, if their pledge to respect our charter of principles, which is in compliance with international humanitarian law, and if they want to join our rescue team which saves lives instead of takes lives.”

Mohammed Farah, for one, had been a rebel before deciding to trade his Kalashnikov for a concrete-cutting circular saw. His brother Khaled never fought for any faction — yet another example of how the extremities of Syria have both torn apart families and united them, a phenomenon “White Helmets” director Orlando von Einsiedel tells me strikes a personal chord. “I’m half German. During the Second World War, I had members of my family who fought for the Nazis; I also had relatives who tried to assassinate Hitler.”

As to the accusation leveled by the Assadists and Putinists, von Einsiedel and his producer-partner Joanna Natasegara have little but contempt and derision for them.

“We went through dozens and dozens of hours of footage,” he says. “I don’t think anyone with any serious background thinks they’re collaborating with extremists.”