Syria has been embroiled in a bloody conflict for six years with over 400,000 civilian deaths and millions displaced by war. Marie Claire meets two women on the frontline.
Interviews by Hilal Seven & Rosie Benson
Amidst all the death and destruction in Syria, there is one organisation which exists solely to protect civilians. They call themselves the White Helmets and they’re made up of over 3,000 volunteers, 100 of whom are women. Before the war they were in normal civilian jobs – teachers, bakers and tailors. Now, they specialise in saving lives, every day.
Gardenia, 33, was studying English in Damascus when war broke out. She joined a network of humanitarian volunteers that crossed between the regime and opposition areas to help people – each time risking arrest. Now she is a full-time volunteer with the White Helmets. ‘When bombs strike, most of the victims lose their clothes,’ she says. ‘One of our roles is to keep the dignity of the human being.’ Training even extends to midwifery: ‘Even in a war zone, life goes on. Women are still having babies, and there are no doctors to help them – someone has to.’
Manal, 45, was an accountant in her former life. She volunteers as a White Helmet in Daraa, the site of anti-Assad graffiti by teenage boys in 2011, which is often said to have sparked the Syrian revolution. Daraa has suffered siege and heavy aerial attacks since: ‘All the medical staff and doctors in Syria have either been injured, killed, detained or had to flee. Someone had to bridge that gap and act to protect civilians, so we had to do it.’
The White Helmets have rescued over 85,000 people since the war broke out. Their work led to a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. An eponymous Netflix documentary about them won Best Documentary Short at this year’s Oscars. (George Clooney is said to be in talks to make a feature length film version).
The White Helmets will save any one, regardless of which side they are on. They believe every single person in Syria is a victim of the war. Yet by saving people they regularly put their own lives at risk – volunteers dig with their hands to help free people from the rubble, and there is always the threat of ‘double tapping’ (repeated strikes) in the same location. Over 160 volunteers have been killed during rescue operations and many more injured.
How do they feel, risking their lives on a daily basis?
‘We live in a war zone,’ Manal tells us. ‘We are risking our lives whether we choose to rescue people or not – so it’s better to help people.’
‘Syrians are exposed to death on a daily basis,’ Gardenia adds. ‘It’s an indiscriminate bombardment – you’re in danger just being in your home.’
The White Helmets are supported by a mixture of international government and private funding, including the Jo Cox foundation – the late MP was a champion of the organisation during her career.
New volunteers first attend training sessions in either Turkey or Syria where they are introduced to ‘urban search and rescue’ techniques. They are also trained to deal with trauma injuries and removal of UXO’s (unexploded ordinances). In addition to this, they conduct emergency burials, repair roads, and provide warnings and advice to civilians.
Yet as well as all this, the female White Helmets are helping to change the perception of women in their country. ‘Just by being a part of the civil defence, it shows what women can do,’ says Manal. ‘If women can face this, they can face anything. It turns the role of a woman from victim to someone with power.’
However even with their extensive training, they can still find themselves out of their depth.
‘A bomb fell near my house, and I didn’t have my equipment with me.’ says Manal. ‘I was with my family at the time. I looked outside and I saw that my neighbour was lying in the street – heavily wounded. I rushed out and tried to stop the bleeding. I screamed for help but no one could hear me – all the defence teams were scattered around, responding to different attacks. I kept on talking to my neighbour, asking him to stay conscious. Finally a car came and transferred us to the hospital. It was only when I came back home that I realised my one-year-old niece, who I was holding in my arms when the bomb fell, had also been injured – I was holding her and I didn’t even see that she was bleeding.’
Thankfully, both Manal’s niece and neighbour survived the attack, but there are many who haven’t, and won’t, if the war goes on.
‘There is no international will to end this war,’ says Manal, ‘everyday we are losing friends, neighbours and loved ones.’
Gardenia nods, ‘We don’t want to pull people from under the rubble any more.’
You can donate to the White Helmets here