Syria’s White Helmets rescue force said Sunday some of its volunteers had arrived in Jordan after being evacuated by Israel out of a southern region where rebels agreed to a regime takeover.
The Israel Defense Forces said it engaged in the “out of the ordinary” gesture due to the “immediate risk” to the lives of the civilians, as Russian-backed regime forces closed in on the area. It stressed that it was not intervening in the ongoing fighting in Syria.
According to Jordan’s official Petra state news outlet, the evacuees included 800 White Helmets personnel and their families.
Here is an overview of the group, whose volunteers are known for their white hard hats and work in opposition-controlled parts of the war-torn country.
Thousands of volunteers
The group emerged in 2013, when Syria’s civil war was nearing its third year, and operates in battered opposition-held zones.
It was not until the following year that it took its current form and began to be known as the “White Helmets” for the distinctive hard hats worn by its members.
All are volunteers who had different occupations before the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011 spiraled into full-blown civil war.
In their previous lives, they were bakers, decorators or even students.
A vast majority of the group’s 3,750 members are men, but it does include female rescuers. More than 250 members have died in the war, White Helmet chief Raed Saleh says.
‘Save all of humanity’
Some of its members have received training abroad, returning to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.
The group has received funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States.
But it also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment, including their signature hard hats which cost around $145 (124 euros) each.
Since 2013, they have rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble after airstrikes or caught up in fighting on different fronts of the war.
The group’s motto — “To save one life is to save all of humanity” — is drawn from a verse in the Quran, although the White Helmets insist they help all victims, regardless of religion.
But the group has attracted criticism, mostly from backers of President Bashar Assad’s government.
Assad himself, in an interview with AFP last year, accused the group’s members of being “Al-Qaeda” jihadists.
He said their members “shaved their beards, wore white hats, and appeared as humanitarian heroes, which is not the case.”
But elsewhere, the volunteers have been hailed as “real life heroes” focused only on saving lives.
They were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, but ultimately did not win.
A short documentary about them won an Oscar last year, helping to bring them further international renown.