“WHEN the bombs rain down, the Syria Civil Defense rush in. In the most dangerous place on earth these unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need regardless of religion or politics.”
These poignant words were penned by the then Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox on February 1 this year when she wrote to the Norwegian Nobel Committee to recommend the ‘White Helmets’ for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The winner will be announced on October 6.
Now the late MP’s widower Brendan has released the correspondence as the world recoils from this week’s horrific atrocities in Syria which have led to countless aid workers – humanitarians like Jo Cox – being killed by deadly airstrikes as the United Nations General Assembly appears powerless to act.
Together with the Royal Voluntary Service and Hope Not Hate, the White Helmets were one of three charities to receive public donations from the charity appeal launched in the immediate aftermath of Mrs Cox’s death when she was shot and stabbed to death outside a constituency surgery in Birstall on June 16.
Since the letter was written, it is estimated that the White Helmets have saved a further 20,000 lives – and the charity is now asking supporters to purchase rescue equipment like gas masks, safety goggles, elbow and knee protectors, helmets, defibrillators and fire extinguishers to assist the life-threatening work of its selfless volunteers.
Further details can be found at www.whitehelmets.org.
Dear Members of Norwegian Nobel Committee,
I AM writing to nominate the Syria Civil Defense or ‘White Helmets’ for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The White Helmets are a group of nearly 3,000 volunteer rescue workers operating across Syria.
When the bombs rain down, the Syria Civil Defense rush in. In the most dangerous place on earth, these unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need regardless of religion or politics.
Since their formation in March 2013, they have saved more than 40,000 lives.
The war in Syria has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced half the country. As the UN has said, most of the killing of civilians today comes from the Syrian government’s “indiscriminate aerial weapons”.
Many of these are barrel bombs: old rusty drums or containers filled with high explosive, nails, shards dropped out of helicopters.
They accelerate down on markets, hospitals, schools and places killing and civilians and shattering communities who want no part in the violence.
It is in this chaos that the White Helmets operate.
The volunteers come from all walks of life. Bakers, tailors, salesmen, and teachers are now trained firefighters, search and rescue workers and medics who save the lives of all who need help regardless of political or religious affiliation.
The volunteers pledge commitment to the principles of “Humanity, Solidarity and Impartiality” and their work is recognised under International Humanitarian Law as laid out in the Geneva Convention.
This pledge guides every response, every action, every life saved so that in a time of destruction all Syrians in danger have the hope of a lifeline.
The White Helmets believe strongly in the dignity of all human life, and they have adopted a motto drawn from a verse in the Koran that ‘to save one life is to save all of humanity’.
Both men and women volunteer with the White Helmets.
Women’s teams were formed in October 2014. In some cases, they are the only hope for other women or girls who are trapped under rubble.
In Syria’s most conservative communities, people have refused to let male volunteers rescue women and girls, but the women volunteers of the White Helmets have intervened to help those who wouldn’t have been helped otherwise.
The female recruits had the support of other male White Helmet volunteers when they first joined but faced scepticism from their communities for engaging in what was thought to be “men’s work”.
They have since earned the trust of their communities and now play an indispensable role in their communities.
In addition to the dramatic rescues the White Helmets have become famous for, they provide a range of other services to a population of over six million, all of which fall under the Geneva Conventions and are the mandate of Civil Defence services in conflict. These services consist of two broad categories.
Firstly, they provide warning and advice to the civilian population. Using posters, videos, school visits, public events and pamphlets they provide essential information on what civilians can do to protect themselves.
A second, but equally important aspect of this warning role is the operation of air raid siren networks. Using spotters, approaching aircraft are tracked and the sirens activated; these warnings give civilians a precious few moments that allow them to flee buildings and this has saved countless lives.
Secondly, in a place where public services no longer operate, the Syria Civil Defense provides a range of essential services: reconnecting power, emergency burial of the dead and repatriation, clearance of rubble from municipal buildings (e.g. schools, medical clinics), and repairs to roads and bridges.
From beginning as a small team of volunteers in 2013, the Syria Civil Defense is now the largest civil society organisation operating in Syria and it enjoys the respect and trust of the Syrian people.
As such, its leadership are already looking at what role it will play once the fighting stops and the process of reconstruction and reconciliation begins. Its volunteers have pledged to ‘commit to embark on the generational task of rebuilding Syria into a stable, prosperous and peace-loving nation in which the social, economic and political aspirations of her people can be realised’.
The Syria Civil Defense believes it can do so through providing support resettlement of refugees and internally displaced people, rebuilding communities, providing training opportunities and continuing to provide essential services such as ambulance care, fire rescue, debris clearance, and broad community-level utility rehabilitation until the state is able to provide these.
Just as the Syria Civil Defense are the ones saving Syria now, they are the best placed organisation to rebuild it in the future.
Many Syrian civilians say that the White Helmets have given them back a sense of hope. Some areas in Syria have been under intense aerial attack for nearly three years.
What’s changed for those living in them is that when the bombs fall everyone has the hope that should the worst happen they too could be pulled out alive.
The White Helmets have given visibility and a voice to the ordinary Syrian civilians who make up the vast majority of the population and who want peace and security. Their work has drawn desperately-needed attention to the plight of civilians caught between the brutality of the Syrian government and Isis.
Raed al-Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defense, has addressed the UN Security Council and governments around the world on the need for international action to protect civilians.
At a time when the Syrian conflict is perceived to be a war of violent polarisation, and the voices of the majority of the Syrian people are drowned out and obscured from world view, the White Helmets have inspired hundreds of thousands of people around the world to support them.
From Peru to Moldova to Pakistan, ordinary citizens have donated money to their cause, contacted decision-makers in support of the White Helmets, written messages of solidarity directly to the teams, and watched and shared videos featuring their heroic rescues.
The White Helmets’ humanitarian work and their deep commitment to humanity has the potential to unite Syrians on all sides, and the world behind them.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to these volunteers would do much to ensure their long-term success and survival as the heroes of the greatest humanitarian crisis of our era and to emphasise peaceful co-existence and solidarity in Syria.
Jo Cox MP, Member of Parliament for Batley & Spen.