From the besieged city of Aleppo, the disembodied voice of Ismail Alabdullah crackled over the line from a noisy Syria Civil Defense center. The 29-year-old former teacher is one of the first-responders better known as the “White Helmets” for their distinctive hardhats. A brigade of 2,900 volunteers — former tailors, builders, blacksmiths — they risk their lives daily to rescue the wounded and salvage the dead from Syrian and Russian bombings in opposition-held territories where the Red Crescent is denied access.
On Tuesday, Alabdullah’s team lifted the corpses of a young boy and an old man from five-foot-deep craters that he says were left by Russian bunker-buster bombs aimed at underground hospitals. The good news is that they managed to pull a couple of kids and a woman out alive. Syria Civil Defense centers were recently targeted by Russian planes; fire trucks, ambulances, and equipment were destroyed to prevent aiding victims, he says. The group, funded by US, European, and Japanese aid agencies, says it’s saved some 60,000 people in three years. At least 130 White Helmets have lost their lives in the process, often when warplanes drop additional bombs as rescuers arrive.
The United Nations envoy to Syria warned Thursday that eastern Aleppo, where Alabdullah’s White Helmets work, could face “total destruction” by year’s end. Some 275,000 civilians are trapped in eastern Aleppo where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia are bombarding an estimated 900 militants, the UN says.
In the five-year conflict among rival forces and foreign powers backing them, civilians are the victims and White Helmets their only saviors. More than 400,000 Syrians have been slaughtered and 11 million displaced, according to the United Nations, and it’s a Herculean struggle for Samaritans to save their neighbors’ lives.
Their story is told in a gripping new Netflix documentary, “The White Helmets,” which opens with a black screen and bone-rattling cacophony of airstrikes and screaming, evoking the panic of being trapped under rubble. The film follows three volunteers who treat every rescue as if digging for their own children. The group’s motto, borrowed from a Koranic verse, is “to save a life is to save all humanity.”
It’s hard to watch as they call for body bags, or when an anguished boy cries over his father’s dead body, “Don’t leave me!” There’s astonishing footage of a newborn pulled alive from wreckage after more than a dozen hours. Baby Mahmoud becomes a guiding light for rescuers, who see him as a sign “never to lose hope” and a promise of better days. In a tragic postscript after the film was made, Khaled Harah, the volunteer who saved the baby, was killed in August, leaving a wife and two daughters.
On Friday, the Nobel committee bestows its annual peace prize, and I can’t think of a group that deserves it more — or a political message that needs to be delivered with more urgency. Honoring the White Helmets would give hope to heroes of a hideous conflict, while shining an uncomfortable light on world powers like Russia, whose airstrikes have grossly multiplied civilian deaths, and the United States, which has stood by as the catastrophe worsens.
It’s ironic that President Barack Obama won the prize in 2009, after less than a year on the job, but leaves office with the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II having metastasized under his watch. Obama’s reluctance to try military means to end Syria’s war is rooted in his belief that intervention might worsen the situation and embroil America in a costly, unwinnable war. Worthy concerns, but his failure to act in the face of Syrian suffering will forever disfigure his legacy.
As prize day approaches, a petition supporting the rescuers was signed by activists, scholars, and celebrities, including Ben Affleck. Meanwhile, allies of Syria’s regime and fringe groups are seeking to discredit the White Helmets for taking Western government funding and supporting a UN no-fly zone. Alabdullah says Bashar al-Assad and Russia fear the peace prize would focus the world’s attention. “We need the bloodshed to stop,” he implored. “We’re not asking for airstrikes — just protecting civilians” with a UN mandate and pressure on Russia to halt bombing.
“Obama was weak and did nothing,” Alabdullah said sadly. “Honestly, Syrians are waiting for your new president more than you are.”
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.