The Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are informally known due to their characteristic white helmets they wear when doing their life-saving work, have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2016. They perform an important search-and-rescue function in opposition-controlled Syria, where regime bombardment often leaves civilians trapped and injured.
Nour al-Atiq, a young man in his twenties from the city of Anadan, joined the civil defense in the middle of 2013. He loved the work of saving lives, lives that were tragically lost every day to regime bombs and rockets.
“Some of the happiest times where when I was able to pull someone out of the rubble and they were still alive,” said Nour. This is what happened during the Anadan massacre on July 7 2015, in the city’s Martyr’s Square, in which more than 20 civilians were killed. Thankfully after hours of frantic work with only for basic equipment, Nour was about to get a young man out from under the collapsed roof of his house.
Hearing more calls for help over the walkie-talkie, Nour and his coworkers ran to the scene of another bomb’s impact. However, Nour didn’t expect a piece of shrapnel to lodge itself in his spine, turning him from a rescue worker to a victim. After a long period of treatment in Aleppo’s different field hospitals, Nour ended up in a wheel chair, suffering from a spinal cord injury.
“I’m going to physical therapy at a medical center in the Idlib countryside, but the distance and the risk of getting there mean I don’t go regularly, so I am getting better but slowly.
Nour still receives a monthly salary from the Civil Defense, but it isn’t enough to cover the cost of his medications. The equipment necessary for his physical therapy is also expense and not available in Syria. Even if he could afford to leave the country it would be difficult as he doesn’t have a passport and the Turkish authorities have closed the border crossings.
There are many more cases like Nour; according to the Civil Defense directorate in Aleppo, 100 of its workers in the province have been injured and 39 have been killed. Overall, 127 Civil Defense workers have died across Syria. Many have been permanently injured and can no longer take care of themselves, having previously made it their mission to take care of others.
The organization has been praised by international institutions and human rights groups for standing with civilians. In Aleppo, the organization has more than 500 workers who are exposed daily to random rain of barrel bombs on opposition-controlled areas of the province.
For his part, Nour wanted to take an opportunity to call on aid and medical organizations to do something for the thousands of injured, “to help them return to a normal life.”