Syria’s White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward

Syria's White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward
The White Helmets assist Syrian civilians under bombardment and destruction. Photo: Syrian Civil Defense
Radi Saad, 23 studied typography and joined the Syrian civil defence (White Helmets) in July 2013, where he now works as the operating department manager. Following the group's nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, Saad speaks to The Local Voices about the role of the White Helmets, the day-to-day rescue work they carry out and the struggles they face.

Who are the White Helmets? 

We are young Syrians who are committed to helping civilians, to working under bombardment, destruction and rubble. We are the White Helmets that  provide light in the dark, facing the hatred of Assad and the Russian aircrafts.

So far, we have saved 62,000 lives.

When did you start and how?

The first team was created in Aleppo, on March 1st 2013, and in Idlib we started in June 2013. When we started in Idlib we were two teams of 50 people, and we founded 25 civil defence centres.

After a year and a half, we evolved and expanded; we had many departments in different cities. Then we unified our task and message, our duty to help civilians of the Syrian war.

We decided all to gather under one name: “The Syrian civil defence.” Or as we are now called “The White Helmets.”

We now operate in 120 spots all over Syria. Every location includes three centres, and we have around 360 teams for inspecting and rescuing.  Each team has around eight to ten members, though  it differs from a place to another.

Photo: Syrian Civil Defense

How did you get involved?

First I volunteered and started helping out, then later I became a manger in Maarrat al-Nu'man before I moved finally to Idlib.

I am one of the founders in Idlib and Syria, although I am quite young. The war has taught me a lot. I got married recently and I am about to have my first child (a girl) at around the same time of the Nobel Prize announcement, today or tomorrow. 

Where do you work?

We operate in 9 different Syrian cities from Aleppo to Damascus suburbs.

Have any White Helmets died or been injured?

The White Helmets lost 145 of their members, and the last victims lost their life in east Aleppo last week. There 400 injured, some have experienced limb amputation, and others have lost their hearing and sight.

Radi (L) with a colleague. Photo: Syrian Civil Defense

Assad's supporters claim that you have ties to western governments, and that you get paid millions of dollars. What do you think of those claims?

We are not hiding the fact that we get support from countries which support us. We as members get monthly symbolic rewards.

We don’t get direct support from countries or governments because we are not licensed, neither are we a registered organization. Our major supporters are the UK, US, the Netherlands and Germany (The Syrian support group).

In terms of direct contact, we get support from the ‘Syrian regional support’, and the ‘mayday rescue’.

Assad said, referring to the White Helmets, that some organizations are politicized and use humanitarian mask to implement their agendas. He raised doubts about your achievements – how do you feel about that?

Assad doesn’t recognize our job, nor the 62,000 civilians we have helped so far and says “what have the White Helmets achieved?”.

Of course he is not going to recognize us, because he can’t admit to the civilians he has killed. Assad is behind the torture and death of hundreds of thousands. We are not waiting for recognition from a war criminal. Isn’t he the reason the White Helmets have to exist?

Are you politicized?

What we are doing is humanitarian; we are not political. But as Syrians we still have messages that we don’t consider political; we ask the international community to stop Assad, to stop bombarding civilians and his army’s usage of chemical weapons.

This is our only plea to the whole world, and to the United Nations, to take action – as implied by the international law – to protect civilians.

Photo: Syrian Civil Defense

Some say you are a masked organization for al-Nusra front (currently Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). How do you respond to that? 

Assad has claimed that we are al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda affiliates, Isis considers us as of western fantasies and are an extension of the Islamic brotherhood, while the west treat us suspiciously.

The White Helmets are made up of 3000 thousand Syrians from every walk of life, and of course not all of them commit to the same ideologies or beliefs. Everyone is free to have their own beliefs and political partisanship but these are not to be expressed, practised or publicly shown while on a white-helmets duty.

There are early members who were part of the Assad or the free Syrian armies, but then opted out of fighting, dropped their weapons and decided to help people instead.

Any member who commits an offence or contravenes one of our internal system of laws will be expelled right away.

No-member is allowed to raise a flag, a motto or any political or ideological alliance while on duty and wearing the White Helmets uniform. We have a law about this.

Photo: Syrian Civil Defense

How did you feel about being nominated for a Nobel Peace prize?

We didn't actually care about the Nobel prize money. No money can be put on a scale with the tragedies we have been living for 6 years now. We would have dedicated the money to the ‘Hero Box’ which helps take care of the injured victims of the White Helmets and their families.

For us it would have meant a lot to win the Nobel prize – symbolically and morally. We, the Syrian people, are so desperate and feel like we have been left alone. We'd like to feel like there are still people in this world standing with us.

It's an honour that we got the international community’s attention and support. 

But when we started helping our families, the Nobel prize never entered our minds. Our aim is to keep helping the victims of this war; pulling a child from rubble and saving a life is our greatest reward. We’ll continue our job and pull the civilians out of rubble.

Are the White Helmets targeted by other groups?

We and our vehicles are direct targets for the  Assad regime. All over the world, ambulances and rescue workers have safe routes and are protected, but in Syria every White Helmet member is a target to the Syrian or the Russian aircrafts.

How do the White Helmets' volunteers make a living?

As you said, we are volunteers and we don’t work for anything in return, not even a dollar.

Our work has always been divided, each person has a work shift of 24 hours followed by 48 hours off. Most of the White Helmets have other jobs when they aren't working with us, so they can support their families. Now, every volunteer gets a monthly $150 reward.

Photo: Syrian Civil Defense

How do you run the rescue operations and assign tasks? 

Our managerial body is very big and well-organized in order to smoothly coordinate our on-the-ground operations. We have three different departments: media, finance, and human resources. The financial department is separated from the others; it functions in a sophisticated way with autonomous management. It manages payments and audits.

No managers receive money, and no other body has any intervention in this department’s functioning. All payments are issued and processed through committees work for the financial department.

Do you have equipment? Where do you get it from? 

We have a plan that we provide to our supporters, countries and partners. We give them the lists of our needs for equipment in every centre.

How do you see the future of the White Helmets?

We wish to see the White Helmets as the nucleus for Syria’s future, the post war Syria. We have an operating strategy until 2020. We want to help refugees come back to their homes, reconstruct, open roads and rehabilitate the civil society organizations. We’ll keep using our vehicles, our committed members and the message we believe in.