The Current

Ordinary Syrian people 'biggest losers in this war,' says White Helmets leader

Rescue team of Syrian civilians called the White Helmet has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for saving tens of thousands of lives during Syria's civil war.
Members of the Civil Defence rescue children in the al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, June 2, 2014. (Sultan Kitaz/Reuters)

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When bombs fell in Syria this weekend, the White Helmets were there, searching through the rubble for survivors. The group has been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives during Syria's civil war, regardless of the survivors' identities.

Raed Al Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defence — better known as the White Helmets — tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti through a translator what the White Helmets stands for.

A civil defence member holds an injured boy inside an ambulance after cluster bombs were dropped in Maaret al-Naaman town in Idlib province, Syria. Oct. 7, 2015. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

"The White Helmets are from all different backgrounds — doctors, traders, carpenters, teachers, taxi drivers — who are ready to dedicate themselves to rescue others... complying with the principles of the White helmets and the values of peace and humanity."

For its efforts, the group has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

A Civil defence member looks for survivors at a site in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, July 27, 2014. (Hamid Khatib/Reuters)

The White Helmets comply with the international humanitarian law and serve as a humanitarian neutral and impartial organization offering assistance for all people without any differentiation based on religion or ethnic background, says Saleh. The rescue team consists of almost 3,000 volunteers and have saved the lives of more than 62,000 people during the past three years. However, the White Helmets have lost 134 colleagues who were killed while on duty. 

Civil defense members search for survivors under the rubble at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-controlled town of Ariha in Idlib province, Syria. July 13, 2016. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)
Saleh says going into a rescue situation requires "a very strong tolerance and patience" to save people who are still alive. He explains the intensity of the moments after a barrel bomb has hit.

"We may face fires, the smell of burnt bodies people, and children crying. It's very difficult and delicate, and I can't explain that feeling."

The White Helmets rescue mission in Aleppo and other devastated Syrian cities is the focus of a new Netflix documentary.

Saleh says the team stays focused and committed through the "hope of saving lives and children from under rubble is the main power that keeps us focused."

"Regardless of all the pressure that we face and the frustration that we have because of the ignorance of the international community."

He tells Tremonti that saving lives is "the prize that we feel we are awarded after the hard work."

A civil defence member carries an injured girl in the Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria, June 2, 2016. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

"Honestly, for us these are the only moments of happiness and joy that we live in Syria now."

"The ordinary Syrian people are the biggest losers in this war," says Saleh.

"Their lives were dramatically changed and we lost a whole generation of children without a question, which is the biggest price for us as a nation for the future."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry, Lara O'Brien and Pacinthe Mattar.