On a warm morning in December, a few dozen Syrians from Aleppo and Idlib—former students, teachers, vegetable sellers and farmers—gather in an abandoned firefighting training center near the Syrian-Turkish border. They have come here to learn advanced rescue skills that they will use to teach newly recruited emergency workers back home. They are members of the Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets—the largest civil society group in Syria and one that is nonsectarian, neutral and unarmed.
The site looks like a deserted campground, aside from the burned-out bus in the middle of a neighboring field and collapsed concrete buildings that they use for simulation exercises. The exact location of their training center is undisclosed, and most of them ask to be identified by only their first names, because the White Helmets have received death threats. They also know there are sleeper cells of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in the area, and there have been shootings and bombings nearby.
It’s Week Three of training, and soon the men will go home. The mood is somber—a recent bombing in Idlib killed more than 50 people—but there is a sense of deep bonding here. Some of these men have known one another since childhood, and they are bound by this vital and perilous work they have undertaken.
Their first exercise involves building a huge oil fire near the ruins of the bus, then extinguishing it. As they pull on protective gear, including gas masks, and unravel hoses, they make a few jokes and talk about their lives before the civil war and people they know in common. One of their trainers has “better than nothing” scrawled on the back of his jacket. Khaled, a father of four from Idlib, explains, “We have a strange gallows humor. We’ve seen so much. It’s a way of releasing tension.”
“Tell her about the sheep market in Aleppo,” one man says. Samer Hussain, 30, responds, “A bomb hit the market when it was most crowded—people had come out to buy food. The animal flesh was mixed with humans,” he says. “We found arms, legs, heads. We lost around 25 people that day. Some of them were beyond recognition because of the bombs. You could no longer describe them as human.”
Several other men work on building up the fire. Then they take a break, pull off their helmets and masks and take out packs of cigarettes. They exist, they say, on cigarettes and coffee. “It’s not like we worry about dying from cigarettes,” says one. “We probably have the most dangerous jobs on earth.”
With the war in Syria now in its fifth year, average life expectancy there has dropped by two decades. More than 250,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million injured, according to the United Nations. Millions more have been driven from their homes, including more than 4 million who have fled the country as refugees.
There are more than 2,800 White Helmets, including 80 women, all volunteers who work full time and get paid a $150 monthly stipend. So far, according to Raed al-Saleh, 33, the founder of the White Helmets, they have saved more than 40,000 lives.
Although they operate largely in rebel-held areas of Syria, the White Helmets don’t discriminate between victims on one side or the other. “To save one life is to save humanity” is their motto, and from the rubble they have dug out members of Hezbollah or Iranians fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Free Syrian Army opposition fighters. But most often, they save civilians. For those who live in frequently targeted areas, the Syrian Civil Defense, or Difaa Midani in Arabic, is a symbol of hope in an exceedingly bleak conflict.
This is a war that has attracted limited international humanitarian assistance, given the risks of operating in Syria, so the civilian population has suffered terribly. Nearly all structures of society have broken down, from education to health care. Schools have not functioned for years, and if you have a chronic disease, such as cancer or diabetes, you most likely die without treatment.
The White Helmets formed in 2013 as a grassroots operation funded by the British, Danish and Japanese governments to recruit first responders. It has a budget of $30 million a year, much of which is spent on equipment, such as heavy diggers to remove bodies from under concrete that has collapsed, and the stipends.
After initially working with foreign advisers, it is now an entirely Syrian operation, with around 20 to 30 new recruits coming forward each month. “The very fact that this exists in communities gives people more of a sense of security,” says James le Mesurie, a former British soldier with Mayday, a nongovernmental organization that along with skilled Turkish rescue workers helped set up and train the first cadre of White Helmets.
So far, 110 White Helmets have died on the job, and four times that many have been seriously wounded. The average age is 26, although one elderly man joined the day after he buried his son, who was a White Helmet. The youngest is 17. They work at all hours of the day and night, and their centers, although in secret locations, are frequently targeted, as are their vehicles, including their ambulances. They say this has happened with more alarming frequency since Russian airstrikes in support of Assad began on September 30.
“This is the least we can do for our country,” says Khaled, the father from Idlib. He likens it more to a “calling” than a job.
After training and pledging to abide by the code of conduct—no guns, strict neutrality and no sectarianism—they are given a white uniform and helmet and sent on their first mission. The training rarely prepares them fully for the real thing, says Abdul Khafi from Idlib. The most difficult part of the job is not the physical but the psychological impact of seeing so many dead and injured. “Killing is easy. Saving lives is much harder,” he says. “Sometimes the pressure is more than our endurance.”
Once they join, they rarely quit. One White Helmet left to become a refugee in Germany. “We need this,” says Jawad, 35, from Idlib, a married father with two children, who once worked in a fire brigade. “We need to save as many people as we can, especially as the war gets worse. It shows something. It means something. ”
“No words can adequately describe what it is like to save a life,” Saleh, the founder of the White Helmets, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in March 2015. “But for us the elation never lasts because we are constantly under attack.” A former electronics salesman from Idlib, Saleh addressed the U.N. Security Council this past summer in an attempt to explain the misery of living under bombardment.
When they race to a location that has been bombed, they are acutely aware that more bombs—“the second tap”—are probably coming within minutes. This past summer, they had to start painting their ambulances in camouflage colors. Back then, before the Russian airstrikes began, the biggest killer was barrel bombs—rusty containers loaded with nails, glass, shrapnel, explosives and sometimes chlorine gas. (The U.N. has accused Assad of using barrel bombs, though he denies it.)
For a White Helmet from Idlib named Osama, 29, the greatest challenge was overcoming his fear. “You learn, slowly,” he says. “But now, since the Russians started coming, I am more frightened than ever. It’s a different kind of bombing.”
The White Helmets have their detractors. Regime bloggers and Russian Internet trolls accuse them of being the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. In the early days of their operation, one White Helmet was photographed with a gun (he was immediately dismissed). Yet at night, gathered in the hotel where they are living for these three weeks of training, most of the men don’t want to talk about religion or politics. “If you make the decision to risk your life, to save other people, it goes against radicalization,” says le Mesurier. “They’ve emerged as the representative of the average, good Syrian.”
During the evening, there are more cigarettes, along with laughter, singing, even some planning for a wedding in Aleppo. Life at home, under regular bombardment, is hellish, but few of these men seem to exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. “The fact they are part of a strong community helps them,” le Mesurier says. “They are not isolated.”
And yet, they go out when the call comes knowing there is a strong possibility they will either be injured or not return. Khafi tells of a recent raid near his home in Idlib, when a Russian bomber first targeted a civilian area, then took out the White Helmet center. It was, he says, his worst day. “It only took 10 minutes for the bombs to land, and by the end of it seven out of nine of us were badly injured,” he says. “In a matter of minutes, our center was no longer operational. That quickly, you can wipe out lives.”
A few days earlier, Khafi and his team responded to an attack outside Aleppo involving “more than 40 cluster bombs.” People were screaming for help in every direction. “Sometimes, you don’t know where to begin,” he says, describing the chaos, the confusion, the dust. Once he spent hours building a 100-foot tunnel through the rubble to reach an 8-year-old girl who had been trapped when her house crumbled.
“When we reached her, the first thing she said was, ‘Get my sister out first,’” Khafi recalls, and she pointed to another corner of what had once been her room. Her twin sister died before the White Helmets could reach her.
“My worst day so far was at the end of October,” says Osama. He says he got a call that a Russian fighter jet had hit a chicken farm where refugees were living. As he raced to the scene with a digger to trawl out the bodies, he got another call: “Our spotter saw more Russian planes coming in for a double tap,” he says.
He got out of his vehicle and watched helplessly as the jets bombed a second time, while his colleagues continued to work. When he arrived, many of them were gravely injured. “One of my colleagues was cut in half,” Osama says. How do you abandon people, he asks, who are buried under rubble, crying out for help? “It makes you feel completely helpless.”
He and his team continued to work for hours trying to excavate a mother and seven children. “But in the end, we couldn’t do it,” he says. “By the time we got to them, they were so badly burnt I couldn’t tell if they were little boys or little girls.”
Hossam, who is 25 and was studying English literature before the war, says he joined the White Helmets in 2013 after he got out of a regime detention center, where he was held for a month. He says he entered because it was the only nonviolent way to help his country. “When I look at the last three years of my life,” he says, “I feel proud.” But his memories are also gruesome: pulling up the head of what he thought was a doll from a pile of rubble only to discover it belonged to a small girl, and finding a weeping mother who had lost all her children and asked, “Where are my angels?”
After days spent dislodging mutilated bodies covered in dust and blood, Hossam is not sure how he keeps going, but he says it is important to do so. “We know we are saving,” he says. “The bombs are destroying, but we are building. The regime is killing. We are saving.”
Hossam doesn’t know what he will do after the war ends. “I’m not sure I can go back to the life we had before,” he says. “But there is one thing: We built something here, out of nothing.”