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Syrian White Helmets don’t get Nobel Peace prize but win hearts

world Updated: Oct 07, 2016 15:54 IST
Zehra Kazmi
Zehra Kazmi
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Syrian civil defence volunteers, known as the White Helmets, may have lost out the Nobel Prize for Peace to the Colombian president, yet their work speaks for themselves.(AFP/Getty Images)

Syria’s White Helmets may have missed out on the Nobel Prize for Peace, but the graciousness of their reaction to the announcement shows how much they deserved to win.

Soon after the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos,was announced as the winner, the official Syrian Civil Defence Twitter account congratulated him.

People around the globe were rooting for the White Helmets -- the nickname for the Syrian Civil Defence, a 2,900-strong volunteer force that carries out rescue and search operations in the conflict-ravaged country. Till date, the organisation has saved more than 62,000 lives.

There is no denying that the humanitarian work undertaken by the White Helmets has made them the frontrunners for the prize, with popular opinion dubbing them the “people’s choice”. Hollywood celebrities such as George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Jude Law, Daniel Day Lewis had publicly expressed their admiration, while many international publications had supported their Nobel nomination.

Who are the White Helmets?

Former bakers, carpenters, painters, engineers, students – the force is made up of civilians who lead serach missions and deliver crucial emergency services, even as Syria’s public infrastructure lies in shambles. Their name comes from the signature uniform - white-coloured hard hats -- worn by the members while they are out on rescue missions.

Their motto, on their site , says: “We act neutrally, impartially and for all Syrians.”

How do they operate?

When a bomb is dropped at any area – close to 50 bomb and mortars are dropped on Syrian neighbourhoods and markets – the White Helmets rush in to start evacuate the population and launch rescue and search operations.

Their other work includes warning people of potential targets, providing first-aid at the spot, fire-fighting, managing emergency shelters, repairing critical public utilities, and emergency disposal of dead, among others. With no equipment and no support services, the White Helmets often have to pull out people from the rubble using their bare hands.

How did the organisation form?

Self-organised volunteer groups sprung into action in late 2012-early 2013 when the Syrian regime started aerial bombardment on rebel areas. These groups then started communicating with each other and banding together. The first centres were started in Aleppo City, Douma and Al Bab and have expanded to 120 centres across Syria. They received funding from Western air organisations and in March 2013, basic training on search and rescue was organised in Turkey.

What are the dangers they face?

The volunteers risk their lives every single day -- in the past three years, 142 have been killed and more than 400 injured while saving others. The White Helmets are specifically targeted by government forces. Just yesterday, a barrel bomb was dropped on one of their centers in Damascus, putting it out of commission.

Why did they deserve the Nobel Prize for Peace?

Syria is often called the world’s deadliest conflict till date -- according to a UN estimate, more than 400,000 people have died since war broke out in 2011, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights pegs the number between 301,781–422,317.

In a departure from previous conflicts, medical workers have been fair targets. UN investigators say that more than 700 doctors and medical personnel have been killed in the Syrian conflict. In the past five years, many parts of Syria, especially markets, hospitals, mosques have been reduced to rubble. In Syria’s climate of unmitigated despair and horror, what the White Helmets bring to the Syrian people is some much needed hope.

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