On Watching the White Helmets

I’ve just finished watching the Netflix documentary “The White Helmets” about the Syrian first responders who help civilians in bombings perpetrated by both the Syrian regime and the Russians helping them. The White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, are about 2800 civilian volunteers who are spread out amongst cities not under the Syrian government’s control. Unarmed and neutral, they risk their lives to rescue men, women and children. They have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and I wouldn’t be surprised if this documentary is nominated for an Oscar.

The documentary is only 40 minutes long but I was in tears from nearly the first few minutes. It shows these men, ordinary people, former tailors, blacksmiths, builders, who have dedicated their lives to rescuing anyone who needs their help. The film follows them as they rescue people after a bombing, pulling out both the living and the dead from underneath rubble. They can’t save everyone, but so far they’ve saved over 60,000, and lost 130 of their own.

This truth is brought home when the film follows the team across the border to Turkey, where they’re receiving specialized training in rescue work. They learn advanced firefighting techniques and how to listen using devices for people trapped under the rubble. Each day, they receive messages and news from home about the bombings, which are growing worse – barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and new types of rockets that destroy entire buildings in one go. One of the White Helmets loses his brother in a hospital bombing, and his grief and pain are documented, as well as the support and brotherhood of his colleagues. “Your brother is our brother,” says one.

It’s this feeling – that there’s no difference between your son and mine, if my son is targeted then your loss is as great as mine – that is the film’s biggest lesson. The White Helmets again and again speak out about their duty, their need to save human life because it is precious. One of the White Helmets was a soldier until he gave up armed struggle for humanitarian work because he thought it was better. “If you save one life, it’s like saving all of humanity” is the popular saying, deriving from a verse in the Quran that says essentially the same thing.

What makes these men go on under such dire conditions, especially when they have families and children to support? It’s impossible to fathom, and you wonder why they don’t give it all up and take their families across the border to Turkey. But then we learn the story of Mahmoud, the miracle baby, who was rescued under rubble and survived when he was less than a month old. The ending frames of the film show Mahmoud, nearly two years old now, brought to meet the men responsible for saving his life. Their faces are a study in joy and happiness as they hold him, kiss him, and put on one of their outsized helmets on his small head. He is the reason, they say, that they go on.

A superb documentary which is available on Netflix Pakistan. Highly recommended to understand that the conflict in Syria has a human side, that Syria is the theater where we will see both the worst and best of humanity. To make us understand that this isn’t some far-off conflict that doesn’t affect us, but rather the crucible in which the fate of humanity is being tested even as we speak.

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