Syria’s white helmets, to life and death

By Cécile Hennion

Posted on December 10, 2021 at 2:30 p.m., updated yesterday at 6:23 a.m.

A salvo of Russian missiles, plumes of smoke behind a row of olive trees, bodies under rubble. Thus ended, on the morning of November 11, the journey of a displaced Syrian family. She had found refuge on a farm in Maarat Misrin, in the north of Idlib governorate. Three children and their parents were already dead when the Syrian Civil Defense (Al-Difaa Al-Madani) rescuers arrived, who managed to save six other injured family members by transporting them in time to the hospital. Two years to the day, after the disappearance of their tutelary figure, James Le Mesurier, whose alleged suicide put an end to their media coverage, the voluntary rescuers continue their mission in Syria, like Sisyphus pushing his rock: “When the bombs are raining, we come running. “

The territories in which they operate have continued to shrink since the fall of East Aleppo in December 2016, and are now limited to the northwestern corner of Syria: a region where living conditions are dire and where the bombs continue to fall in general indifference, including that in particular of the United Nations, stricken with asthenia in the face of the war in Syria. The vocations aroused by the heroic white helmets – a nickname they owe to the color of their headgear – have not weakened, however.

At the height of the Syrian conflict, they searched with their bare hands the rubble of buildings crushed by barrel bombs or missiles, in search of a breath of life. For thousands of families caught in inextricable situations, they continue to personify the ultimate hope of seeing a loved one alive again. They currently have more than 3,000 volunteers, including 250 women.

Prohibited weapons

Like most non-governmental organizations born in the wake of the Syrian uprising, white helmets emerged spontaneously, at the initiative of organized young people. in small neighborhood units. Ordinary men and women, from all trades, who joined a handful of pre-war firefighters determined to make themselves useful, in Idlib, in Aleppo, in areas lost by the regime and deprived of public services .

Mounir Moustafa was a firefighter in Aleppo when the city fell into war in the summer of 2012. While a fire ravaged a Kurdish neighborhood beyond the control of the regime, the authorities forbid his team to intervene. Defying orders, Mounir and his men set off to extinguish the flames. They immediately defected and founded the first emergency intervention center in Aleppo. Raed Al-Saleh, who will lead the group, was born in 1983 in Jisr Al-Choghour. He was an electrical equipment salesman before the war. Many participated in the 2011 protests and witnessed the regime’s crackdown on the civilian population. Some fought in the rebel ranks before giving up arms, prohibited by the code of conduct for volunteers. They all have in common that they rejected violence without turning their backs on the revolution.

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Syria’s white helmets, to life and death

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