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    Real life heroes

    BEIRUT (AFP) – Leveraging years of experience gleaned during Syria’s war, the White Helmets are spearheading rescue efforts in the country’s rebel-held north following the powerful earthquake that rocked Syria and Turkiye.

    Here is an overview of the group, whose volunteers are known for their bravery during dramatic rescue operations from bombed out buildings in the middle of the devastating, more than decade-long civil war.

    The group emerged in 2013, two years into the Syrian war that started with a brutal crackdown on peaceful anti-government protests, and operates in battered rebel-held parts of the country.

    Officially named the Syria Civil Defence, it was not until the following year that it took its current form and began to be known as the “White Helmets” for the distinctive hard hats worn by its members.

    It is made up entirely of volunteers who had different occupations before the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011 spiralled into a full-blown civil war.

    In their previous lives, they were bakers, decorators or even students. A vast majority of the group’s 3,300 volunteers are men, but it does include women.

    Syrian civil defence members, known as the White Helmets, watch as digger works at the rubble of a collapsed building in the village of Salqin at the border with Turkiye. PHOTO: AFP

    More than 300 members have died in the war, including four in the latest quake, White Helmets spokesperson Mohammad al-Shibli said.

    Some of the White Helmets’ members have received training abroad, returning to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.

    The group has received funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States (US).

    But it also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment, including its signature hard hats which cost around USD145 each.

    Since 2013, it has rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble after air strikes or caught up in fighting on different fronts of the war.

    The group’s motto – “To save one life is to save all of humanity” – is drawn from a verse in Al-Quran, although the White Helmets insist they help all victims, regardless of their religion.

    The group has deployed all of its volunteers in Syria’s northwest in response to last Monday’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake, whose epicentre was across the border in southwestern Turkiye, said Shibli.

    Cut-off from government-held parts of Syria and overlooked by Turkish first responders preoccupied with the disaster on their side of the border.

    Syria’s hard hit rebel areas have relied almost entirely on the White Helmets for search and rescue operations.

    The quake completely flattened more than 400 buildings in Syria’s northwest and severely destroyed 1,300 others.

    Since last Monday, volunteers have freed families trapped under rubble in scenes reminiscent of operations at the height of Syria’s war, according to AFP correspondents in the area.

    Using the same equipment and techniques finessed in the course of the conflict, they drilled and dug their way through piles of concrete to reach dust-covered survivors, the correspondents said.

    One video that went viral on social media networks showed a large crowd erupting into cheers as White Helmets rescuers, including women in face veils, saved two young children from beneath a flattened apartment block.

    Hundreds have been rescued, according to the group’s Twitter feed. Shibli said they did not have an exact figure.

    Despite its life-saving efforts, the group has attracted criticism, mostly from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its allies, especially Russia.

    Assad himself has accused the group’s members of being al-Qaeda extremists. He said their members “shaved their beards, wore white hats, and appeared as humanitarian heroes, which is not the case”.

    But elsewhere, the volunteers have been hailed as “real life heroes” focussed only on saving lives.

    They were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, but ultimately did not win.

    A short documentary about them won an Oscar for Netflix in 2017, helping to bring them further international renown.

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