Raed Saleh really only wanted a break from the daily reality of the war in Syria. That was why he went to Turkey to participate in a workshop. A bit of relaxation, time to think and to sleep, a bit of first-aid – that was what he imagined the course on rescuing people trapped under rubble was going to involve. It was actually very different. “In one exercise we were sent into various rooms to find injured people,” he explains. It was dusty, disorientating and dark. Saleh could not see much and did not find anyone. When he came back out, he announced that there were no injured people in there. Then his tutor showed him two people who were playing the part of victims whom Saleh had overlooked. He says, “Only at that moment did I realise how much more effective you can be with good training. It was a life changing experience for me.”
Aleppo: Helpers in focus
Raed Saleh is now the Director of the Syrian civil protection organisation, the so called White Helmets. The almost 3000 voluntary helpers, some of whom are women, are the only people who are still caring for the victims of air raids and other military attacks in the embattled towns and cities. They are in particular focus especially in the battle for Aleppo and in the recurring violence in Idlib. They are active in all areas controlled by government opponents.
The White Helmets represent a glimmer of humanity in a hopeless situation. In December 2016 in Berlin, Saleh was awarded the Franco German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law on behalf of his organisation by Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart. Prior to this, the White Helmets had received the alternative Nobel Prize.
“Our work is a tragedy”
“We are often regarded as heroes,” the 32 year old states. “But for us our work is simply a tragedy.” It is difficult for Saleh not to be with his colleagues on the ground. He is constantly checking his smartphone nervously, writing messages, making phone calls. But he is also well aware that courage alone is not enough. His helpers need materials, vehicles, clearing and fire fighting equipment. Germany is the third largest donor to the White Helmets, after the United States and the United Kingdom. To date the Federal Foreign Office has provided support for the organisation to the tune of 12 million euros.
The Federal Foreign Office budget is used not only to obtain equipment but also to finance training courses such as the one Saleh initially attended. “Germany’s support is very important for us,” says Saleh. “With this assistance we have been able to purchase ambulances, as well as cameras for documenting crimes.” In addition, the White Helmets receive a monthly allowance equivalent to 175 dollars, co financed by Germany. “This money gives the volunteers an element of stability in their day to day lives and helps cover their basic needs.”
Most of the White Helmets are not professionals, but were tailors, bakers or car mechanics before the war. Raed Saleh was an electronics salesman in his former life. The helpers have set up camp in modest operations centres, where they wait for the next air raid. However, in embattled cities these, too, have already been deliberately targeted and in some cases damaged or destroyed, along with their laboriously acquired equipment.
Fear of double strikes
Double strikes are the worst: a Russian or Syrian air force fighter jet bombs a building and then flies away, only to turn around and return again a few moments later to release a second deadly round once the helpers are at the scene. “We can’t just wait and see, we have to be at the scene within three to five minutes if possible, because time is not on our side,” explains Raed Saleh. “If we hear an aircraft returning, we try to take cover as quickly as possible.” But often that does not help. Many White Helmets have become victims themselves as a result of these strikes.
The Assad regime views the White Helmets as part of a terrorist network, as accomplices of the former al-Qaida offshoot Al Nusra Front, and of “Islamic State”. Saleh counters this: “We provide help to everyone who needs it. If someone is trapped in rubble, we don’t first ask what their political convictions are.”