As the volunteers scrabbled through smashed cinder blocks, the whimper they’d been hearing for hours grew louder. It was the only sign that this rubble had once been someone’s home.
“Go slowly, go slowly,” shouted one as the noise turned into a sharp cry. This was always the critical moment, a time when the person making that sound hovered between life and death and one wrong move could push them over the edge.
It was August 2013 in Aleppo, Syria, and this was Khaled Khatib’s first rescue mission.
“You don’t forget the first time you see a child pulled out like that,” the 20-year-old remembers. In the video, it’s the leg that appears first, then a bloodied hand and, finally, the head of a 7-year-old boy, bent underneath his body as if trapped in a backward roll. “In that moment, you are so happy. You know we brought someone back into life,” Khatib says.
Khatib is a member of the Syria Civil Defense force, a grass-roots volunteer group that assists civilians in the aftermath of airstrikes and is popularly known as the White Helmets. The group's daily rescue missions — running toward the sites of attacks as others flee — are among the most dangerous in the world.
Made up of almost 3,000 volunteers, the group is believed to have saved more than 60,000 lives since Syria’s conflict began in 2011. This month, that dedication has earned the White Helmets a second Nobel Peace Prize nomination in as many years.
“You hear the explosion before the radio call,” Khatib says. “It shakes the ground, it shakes the buildings. Then we run toward the screams.” Sometimes, the volunteers use diggers to remove mounds of shattered concrete to free trapped survivors. On other occasions, the volunteers dive right in with just their hands.
The State Department said earlier this year that the U.S. government provides, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, $23 million in aid to the White Helmets. The group works across eight provinces outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, part of a parallel health network that bloomed in response to the government’s brutal suppression of initially peaceful protests.
Assad sympathizers accuse the group of aiding "terrorists.” Many of the areas serviced by the volunteers are controlled by extremist rebel factions, including al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in northwestern Idlib province. But civilians — numbering 1.5 million according to the prewar population estimate — live there, too. The group's founder, Raed al-Saleh, said in a Washington Post opinion piece in 2015 that his group is "nonsectarian, unarmed and neutral" and has saved people from "all sides of this conflict, including fighters for the regime."
Human rights groups say the White Helmets offer hope in areas where death has become the norm. “Syria’s ‘White Helmets’ are redefining what it means to be brave & heroic,” said Kristyan Benedict, crisis response manager for Amnesty International UK.
Monitoring groups say the Assad regime has killed more civilians than any other side in the five-year-old war. Most have died from airstrikes and barrel bombs, the sorts of attacks the White Helmets wake up and wait for.
It’s exhausting, says rescue worker Bebars Mashal, “but it’s a huge duty — we have to save those lives.”
The 31-year-old with a degree in English unwittingly shot to global fame last week when a video showing his team’s rescue of Omran Daqneesh, the dazed and bloodied 5-year-old pulled from rubble in Aleppo, was shared millions of times around the world.
“We see cases like this all the time — no one thought it would go viral,” Mashal says.
The child’s image became a symbol of the war’s human cost, appearing on newspaper front pages and bringing television anchors to tears.
More than 300 civilians have been killed in Aleppo since the end of July, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said this weekend. Hundreds have been injured, many surviving only because they were pulled from the rubble.
Few of the White Helmets volunteers had medical experience before the war. Saleh, the group's founder, was an electronics engineer in Idlib province. Others like Khatib were still in high school.
At night, the young man watches the footage he has captured again and again, finessing a final package for official broadcast. “Getting it right — that’s the most important thing,” he says.
The scenes make their way into his nightmares: “When I close my eyes, those first rescues are still there. After the boy in the rubble, we saw many massacres and carried back many victims. I still see their legs severed off onto the ground, their hands in pieces.”
One-hundred-and-thirty-five volunteers have been killed in the line of duty. Most died in what have come to be known as double-tap airstrikes, where warplanes bomb an area, then bomb again, often after rescuers have arrived.
The group’s nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize has won at least 130 endorsements from "qualified persons,” a phrase that usually refers to individual members of governments, former peace laureates or former members of the Nobel Committee.
In comments last week, Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, which nominated the group, told the Associated Press that the White Helmets represented “the true values of the Nobel Peace Prize.”
But in Syria, the volunteers had other things on their mind. As he mulled his answer to what the prize would mean for his team, a rescue worker who identified himself simply as Majd stopped abruptly. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to think about this later,” he said. “There’s been another bomb.”
Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.
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