By 2013, news about the work of different volunteer teams began to spread. These groups became aware of their respective efforts which eventually opened communication channels aimed at coordinating and sharing available resources between teams.
The conditions that Syrians went through since the 2011 uprising have imposed a major change in all aspects of life, and the most prominent aspect of that period was the vacuum in vital aspects of civilian life that was caused by the withdrawal of government service bodies and other entities in a systematic process by the Syrian regime. In late 2012, the regime began bombing as a form of collective punishment on the neighborhoods and areas from which it withdrew. This campaign was combined with the withdrawal of state services such as firefighting, emergency ambulance services, maintenance of water and electricity networks turning Syrians’ lives into a living hell. The continuous bombing, destruction of infrastructure, and the absence of any official actors to assist civilians or provide them with basic services to enable them to survive the hardships of life under the war conditions, prompted Syrian civil society to align again and organize its efforts for civilians to fill this growing gap and to provide all civilians with assistance regardless of circumstances and without discrimination.
How did it all start?
Several civil initiatives were developed driven by visions of achieving the positive change called for by the peaceful movement in Syria. At the time of its establishment, the Syria Civil Defence (SCD) was not as organized as it is today, rather it developed organically as the result of the dozens of voluntary initiatives and hundreds of volunteers coming together in different regions across Syria. Volunteers were from different backgrounds: there were teachers, engineers, carpenters, tailors, merchants and self-employed persons all joining the initiative. These volunteers sought to assist their communities by responding to bombing and calls for help. Volunteers’ efforts began to organize in their neighborhoods to dig out their neighbors and family members. Motivated by pure humanitarian compassion, and without the professional organization we know today, everyone worked in their areas without knowing much about other groups in the same geographical area. These times were crucial as the Syrian regime weaponized siege to punish civilians, a tactic that was no less destructive than bombardment or the withdrawal of services. At the same time, efforts in Aleppo province were organizing on rapid pace to rise up for the challenge.
On major incident in 2012 allowed a team of specialists to take an important decision. The regime forces prevented a government-owned firefighting team in Aleppo city from responding to a fire in a residential neighborhood under the pretext that the neighborhood was no longer under the control of the regime. In an act of defiance to their commanders, the team went ahead and put of the fire. This incident sowed the seeds and served as a turning point for Munir Mustafa, a firefighter who later became the deputy director of the Syria Civil Defense, and his fellow team members. The firefighters were aware that defying orders would have consequences and turn them into enemies of the regime, and that their lives would be in danger.
On the same day, they established an emergency response center to serve all Syrians, despite their lack of equipment; however, their expertise and skills enabled them to start responding to the bombing operations and save the lives of people trapped under the rubble. Thus, their efforts established one of the first Civil Defense centers in Aleppo province.
The situation across other regions in Syria was no different as bombardment and forced displacement were intensified, critically increasing the need for emergency services. This need urged Raed al-Saleh, who later became Director of the Syria Civil Defense, to help establish shelters and find support for internally displaced persons and transport injured civilians to receive treatment in Turkey. Al-Saleh heard about civil defense training and decided to attend one of the first training courses offered in Turkey in 2013. He came back to establish the first Civil Defense center in the Idlib Province, near al-Yaqoubia, west of Idlib.
In Damascus and its countryside, Daraa, and Homs, groups of young volunteers were building towards the same goals. Eventually, these groups established Civil Defense centers to help residents and pull them from under rubble in the aftermath of bombardment using basic equipment available. Despite the lack of specialized resources, their efforts were monumental in meeting needs on the ground while operating in deadly circumstances.
Moving to Unify as Single Institution on October 25, 2014
By 2013, news about the work of different volunteer teams began to spread. These groups became aware of their respective efforts which eventually opened communication channels aimed at coordinating and sharing available resources between teams. In addition, some teams began to receive training courses in search and rescue methods from experts. By this stage, the volunteer groups’ efforts started getting attention; local communities saw them as heroes. Moreover, volunteers were being supported by several international organizations and donors who provided rescue and emergency equipment.
In 2014, more formal discussions about unifying the efforts of volunteer groups to form the one organization dedicated to saving the lives of people in Syria. While discussions were taking place, regime forces besieged several areas resulting in total isolation. These developments prevented teams in Northern Syria from accessing those in Damascus, Damascus suburbs, Homs, Daraa, and Quneitra.
On October 25, 2014, the first founding meeting was held in the Turkish city of Adana, attended by nearly 70 team leaders from different parts of Syria. The members negotiated and approved a charter of principles for the organization to operate under international humanitarian law; and it was agreed to establish a national umbrella to serve all Syrians to be called “Syria Civil Defense”. The newly formed organization adopted a slogan from a verse in the Holy Qur’an, “to save one life, is to save all humanity”, aiming to help all Syrians with impartiality, transparency, and without any discrimination.
At the beginning of 2015, the White Helmets was adopted as a second name to the Syria Civil Defense recognizing the famous white helmets worn by volunteers during search and rescue operations. By 2017, the number of volunteers reached 4,300 volunteers, including 450 female volunteers.
The Syria Civil Defense is funded through several sources, the most important of which are popular campaigns, states funding, humanitarian organizations, and individuals. In addition, the organization fundraises through online campaigns that contributed significantly to developing the organization’s capacity, especially in emergency situations.
The White Helmets have received funds from various humanitarian and relief institutions, including the Turkish Red Crescent, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Agency (IHH), the Qatar Charity Foundation, and several charitable institutions operating in Canada and Europe.
In terms of funding from countries, the Syria Civil Defence accepts funding from any country or entity as long as it is not tied to any political restrictions or conditions. The White Helmets receives funding from Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, the United States of America, the Netherlands, Qatar, Germany, and France. Similarly, the Syria Civil Defence receives funding from any individual who wants to help the Syrians without any restrictions or conditions.
The Syria Civil Defence seeks to provide services to all civilians across Syria where volunteers can safely access without any threat to their lives. Since its establishment and until 2018, SCD volunteers provided their services in most provinces. However, due to the Syrian regime intensive military campaigns that resulted in recapturing large areas, and the direct threat to the volunteers by regime forces, White Helmets’ access have been limited to northwestern Syria. There are currently around 3,000 Syria Civil Defence volunteers, including 230 female volunteers, assisting civilians in northwestern Syria and providing them with services aimed at enhancing civilians’ sustainability and resiliency.
Syria Civil Defence Activities
The Syria Civil Defence conducts search and rescue operations that proudly more than 122,000 civilians, mostly impacted by Syrian regime and Russian military operations in Syria. SCD is prepared and equipped to deal with all kinds of where it provides emergency services that range from rescuing lives from under rubble, rushing the injured to hospitals, to dealing with chemical attacks and protecting civilians impacted by such attacks. In addition, SCD runs an early warning system that warns civilians from aerial raids giving them enough time to shelter which contributes to decreasing the number of casualties.
Beyond emergency services, SCD provides a verity of other services that contribute to rehabilitation and maintenance of the remainder of infrastructure where civilians reside. The teams provide services, such as restoring electricity, water and sewage, and removing rubble from houses and structures that collapsed due to the regime and Russian bombardment. In addition, SCD helps civilians displaced by establishing camps, opening roads to connect camps to cities or towns, leveling campground, and helping to develop camp infrastructure.
Moreover, since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, SCD deployed resources available to rapidly confront the threat and limit the spread. Its work has focused mainly on raising awareness and providing medical and preventive equipment.
Unexploded Ordnances Disposal
Established in early 2016, UXO teams provide one of the most dangerous and difficult services. SCD’s trained team scan and mark infected locations to later remove and dispose of ammunitions and unexploded ordnances. This service, in particular, requires high proficiency as it includes several aspects such as scanning areas to identify infected locations, awareness-raising campaigns among civilians, and disposal operations to eliminate the danger of unexploded ordnances.
The regime and its Russian ally’s bombing campaign has resulted in thousands of unexploded ordnances in northern Syria alone. The specialized Civil Defense teams continue their work to clear as many locations as possible by removing the unexploded ordnances to protect civilians.
The SCD Women’s Centers are a core pillar of the organization’s humanitarian work. In January 2017, Women’s Centers were first introduced to the community through a number of centers that expanded later to 33 Women Centers located in areas of SCD operations in Idlib, the countryside of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. A total of 230 female volunteers work at these centers providing essential assistance to residents and displaced persons alike. Currently, SCD is working to reinforce the number of female volunteers within its teams.
These centers provide basic services to beneficiaries including medical services, nursing, awareness raising campaigns on security and safety related issues for civilians in the areas under bombardment, in addition to health education courses. Volunteers at the Women’s Centers led the operations when SCD responded to influx of displaced persons from different parts of Syria, working to help them settle and providing them with vital services they urgently needed.
SCD’s work in saving lives and assisting civilians subjected to regime and Russian bombardment as well as documenting these attacks, has made it a key target for the regime and Russia. Regime and Russian forces have used double tap attacks to target SCD centers and volunteers while on duty. Since 2013, 287 volunteers have been killed, the majority were killed by direct targeting or double tap strikes while undertaking humanitarian work.
The attacks on SCD went beyond direct targeting to the digital world. A Russian sponsored and smear and misinformation campaigns aimed at destroying SCD’s reputation. The campaigns portray SCD volunteers as “terrorists” or “agents of the West”. These attacks aim at undermining the credibility of the evidence SCD has gathered concerning some of the most heinous crimes committed by the regime forces and Russia including chemical weapons attacks on civilians and bombing a UN aid convoy.
Russia has repeatedly made allegations about SCD and presented misleading information at the United Nations only for European governments and the United States of America to categorically rejected them.
Much of the smear campaign focuses efforts on using the internet to attack SCD where tt has been proven that sphere in which these campaigns operate consists of bots and complicit individuals who intentionally spread false evidence about the work of SCD. These attacks align with Russia’s infamous strategy that seek to undermine confidence in democratic institutions around the world.
SCD volunteers have carried on despite these direct military or digital attacks. They continue to perform their humanitarian work, saving lives, shedding light on the truth, and demanding accountability for all those complicit in crimes against Syrians.
Awards and Honors
The services and heroism of the Syria Civil Defence were admired and recognized internationally which enabled SCD to give a voice to the millions of voiceless Syrians.
Since its establishment, the SCD has been nominated for numerous international awards and was awarded more than 20 awards presented by many international humanitarian organizations and institutions. Most importantly, SCD was nominated for the Nobel Prize for three consecutive years, between 2015 and 2017. It was also awarded an Oscar for the Netflix feature documentary “White Helmets” published in 2017, the alternative Nobel Prize in 2017, and the World Peace Prize in 2016 among other international awards.
Dream and Aspirations
Syria Civil Defence volunteers dream of the day when their work of retrieving bodies from under the rubble is over. They dream of the day when they will no longer see blood and limbs torn apart due to bombing. They dream of the day when they can turn to cultivating hope and devoting all their efforts to rebuilding Syria, the country and society, and for a time when Syria can enjoy a lasting peace. Lasting peace can only be achieved when all the perpetrators of the attacks against civilians are held accountable and brought to justice.
The organization is committed to helping civilians and will continue its work to secure stability. The volunteers will continue collecting and gathering evidence and testimonies about war crimes committed until justice is served for every Syrian family that has suffered from injustices as only then will it be possible to begin to heal the wounds of the war and to achieve peaceful coexistence.
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