The remarkable story of Syria’s White Helmet rescuers
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The remarkable story of Syria’s White Helmet rescuers

The volunteers came from all walks of life to help people trapped in the rubble, but President Assad accuses the group of being ‘Al-Qaeda’ jihadists

In this photo taken on October 5, 2016, Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, work around destroyed buildings following reported airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP PHOTO / Sameer Al-Doumy)
In this photo taken on October 5, 2016, Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, work around destroyed buildings following reported airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP PHOTO / Sameer Al-Doumy)

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.

Members of Syrian civil defence forces known as White Helmets evacuate a victim of an air strike in the rebel-held enclave of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus on February 8, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Amer ALMOHIBANY)

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.

This Sunday, April. 8, 2018 image released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a rescue worker carrying a child following an alleged chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

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.

Nobel nomination

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.”

A Syrian civil defense volunteer, known as the White Helmets, carries a boy rescued from the rubble following a reported barrel bomb attack on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 24, 2016. (/ AFP PHOTO / AMEER ALHALBI)

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.

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