Between the eviscerated buildings, Aleppo’s streets are strewn with rubble. Houses are shattered, the belongings of families who once occupied them ground into dust by the airstrikes slowly disassembling the city. Even the most beautiful buildings in the city, once home to markets, grocery shops, and theaters, are now nothing but stone skeletons, desolate and void of the life that once bustled inside. In all this there are few respites from horror, the schedule of the day is usually pencilled in with sorrow and grief. The saving grace of the unsalvageable situation is the White Helmets.
The White Helmets are the Civil Defense organisation set up in the rebel-held areas of Syria. The all-volunteer group was founded in 2013 by a British security expert and is trained in search and rescue technique and practice in Turkey, before they return to Syria to undertake the task at hand. To undergo this training and join the White Helmets is to make a sacrifice for the greater community that is truly heroic in its scale.
For starts, in joining the Civil Defense, these men and women give their time and effort. To be a White Helmet is one of the most demanding jobs in the world, working around the clock in a dangerous, hostile environment. The ranks of this group are filled with “tailors, bakers, teachers and other ordinary Syrians” who decided to abandon their careers and attempts to eke out an existence for themselves in the pockmarked, bombed-out alleys of Aleppo and instead volunteer to try and save lives.
They also give up their safety. By putting themselves onto the streets to dig out survivors from the aftermath of bombings, they often become the target of Russian and Syrian air power. Often, in the immediate aftermath of an air strike, a second attack will follow quick on the heels of the first, a tactic known as double-tap strikes. This kind of attack often claims the lives of first responders and family members searching for loved ones. Close to 150 members of the group have already given their lives in the course of the conflict, and as the conflict drags on, the number is only sure to rise.
Finally, the Syrians who join the Civil Defense give up their innocence. To work day in and day out in the carnage of bombed out buildings, pulling neighbours dead and dying from the wreckage of their homes, seeing children battered and bloodied takes an emotional toll on an individual. As a volunteer told the Economist, “we have all become ill. We need an asylum for all of us. When this is over I will go home and sleep forever.” However, when the time comes that it is all over, he likely will have no home to return to.
The group has been criticised as a tool of Western governments, a propaganda machine aimed at initiating a bombing campaign against the Syrian government, but the organization’s calls for a no-fly zone are inherently logical. The bombs coming from above are the reason the White Helmets are called to do the bloody work that they do, and it is only natural that they would wish for it all to cease. To call for a no-fly zone is not some kind of nefarious plot by scheming Westerners to grind Damascus into the dust, rather it is a call for a policy decision that might bring some respite to the embattled residents of the city. No doubt many members of the Syria Civil Defense are strongly opposed to the powers that be in Damascus, as are many policy makers in Washington, but that is no reason to smear the work that is done by hard working Syrian volunteers, who dare to face down death whistling from the blue sky every day in order to minimise the damage done to their community.
The White Helmets are ultimately the silver lining in a horrendous situation. In an intractable conflict like the Syrian Civil War, with the great powers backing opposite sides and internal factions warring amongst themselves, it is difficult to find hope amidst all the suffering. These volunteers provide just that. They provide an example of humanity persevering through its darkest hours, fighting against hopelessness, and working to preserve the future. Even in the moments when it feels the center cannot hold, sometimes there is hope, if only a glimmer. Not all is lost as long as some are willing to work hard for the survival of their community.