A group of volunteers called the ‘White Helmets’ who risk their own lives to rush into newly bombed areas in Syria to save as many people as they can were candidates in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize 2016. They lost out to the Colombian President who took the prize but their nomination has raised their profile to demonstrate that human kindness prevails even among the ravages of bombs dropped by hostile countries.
The White Helmets are a team of 3,000 civilians who work in the rebel held areas of Syria where fighting is at its most intense with the Assad regime’s forces. They are distinctive from the white helmets that they wear and have rescued about 60,000 civilians to date. Quite often they use only their bare hands to search for people among the debris of bombed infrastructure.
While the world is used to watching scenes of carnage beamed onto TV screens from Syria the White Helmets’ actions act as a counter weight because their story is one of bravery and tenacity. It doesn’t take bravery to drop bombs but these men and women have to work quickly in a situation where time is of the essence to save those who are still alive. While doing so they put their own lives at risk from the danger of secondary bombs.
The White Helmet volunteers are people who once had normal lives. They worked as carpenters, engineers or were students and their current lives, in contrast, involve the aftermath of human lives and injuries resulting from barrel bombs, cluster explosives, phosphorus bombs and chlorine shells. The leader of the team, Raed al-Saleh, who worked as a builder before has been commended for his work but he is quite modest and describes his motive as wanting to help fellow Syrians.
Syria is a country in short supply of humanity. Citizens are being bombed daily by the Government’s own forces. The situation has been made worse by Russia and Iran’s support for the war. In the last week civilian hospitals have been deliberately bombed in the city of Aleppo which is a rebel held stronghold. The Syrian government and Russia are determined to stamp out any opposition through the muscle of military might. The Western world seems at a loss as to how to proceed next after the recently negotiated ceasefire between America and Russia was broken by the latter.
What the White Helmets show us is that while political wrangling goes on between politicians at organisations such as the UN there are ordinary people on the ground trying to make a difference. In war there are always two stories – the catastrophic damage that is purposely wreaked through the use of ever more forceful military hardware and the human stories of death, injuries and defiance.
It is also quite a feat that the White Helmets were recognized as being worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize because of the sovereignty principle which deems the sitting Government as the only legitimate body of a state. President Assad of Syria views the White Helmets as terrorists but the Nobel Peace Prize committee deemed them worthy of a nomination.
I, for one, am enraged by the inaction of the world to stop the bombings. How many more crying Syrian children do we need to see? Why do we see the war as a political problem and not as a humanitarian issue? Any political argument at this point can easily degenerate into a ‘Muslim’ problem/prejudice which takes it into another realm but this course must be resisted. Basic human values apply to everyone regardless of religion or skin color and this is what the White Helmets stand for.