Who Are the Syrian White Helmets, Winners of the 'Alternative Nobel'?

Syria Civil Defense volunteers have saved over 60K in Syria since 2013.

ByABC News
September 23, 2016, 7:09 AM

— -- In the chaos and fog of a brutal conflict that has claimed an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 lives, a ragtag group of former bakers, tailors, salespeople, teachers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters and students has emerged as real-life heroes, providing a glimmer of hope in Syria's brutal five-year-old civil war.

The Syria Civil Defense group, otherwise known as the White Helmets, get their inspiration from an oft-quoted verse of the Quran: "to save a life is to save all of humanity." So far, the group of about 3,000 White Helmets have performed that feat some 60,000 times, often working in perilous conditions surrounded by violent conflict.

On Thursday, the group won the Right Livelihood Award, often described as the "Alternative Nobel." The group has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, with the support of over 133 organizations worldwide so far.

    Their job may be the most dangerous in the world. Comprised of unpaid volunteers using whatever supplies they can get their hands on, the White Helmets often place their own lives at risk, venturing into active battle zones to assist the sick and wounded.

    "We go to save as many people as we can," says White Helmet Khaled Farah. If one person was alive, that's enough for us to take the risk."

    So far, some 132 White Helmet volunteers have been killed in the line of duty, the majority from so-called "double-tap" strikes, where warplanes will drop a second bomb in the same spot of an initial strike as people rush in to aid the wounded and remove the dead.

    "I help civilians every day, knowing that this will give my daughter and my country a better future," says another White Helmet, known simply as Fatima.

    Their motto is "Humanity, Solidarity, Impartiality,” and the group says it services some seven million people in vulnerable areas of the country, some of which have been racked by unremitting violence.

    When not conducting rescue missions, the volunteers teach children and adults on safety measures to take during aerial attacks, help provide first aid and medical services, assist in the the evacuation of civilian populations from active conflict zones and help re-establish critical infrastructure like water and electricity.

    On Friday, The Associated Press reported that at least two civil defense centers were targeted in a renewed bombing campaign just days after a ceasefire backed by the U.S. and Russia unraveled.

    More than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance of some kind across Syria.

    Some 6 million people have been forced from their homes in the country — nearly 1 million of them in the past six months alone.

    Of particular concern are the nearly 600,000 Syrians the United Nations estimates are living in besieged areas, cut off from regular access to basic necessities and living with the daily threat of deadly violence.

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