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The White Helmets: As Syria Death Toll Mounts, Meet the Rescue Workers Saving Thousands of Lives

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In Syria, renewed bombing has reportedly killed more than 150 people this week in rebel-controlled Aleppo. On Wednesday, at least 15 people died after airstrikes hit East Aleppo’s biggest market. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least four children were killed and 10 wounded earlier today when shells landed near a school in western Aleppo, the area controlled by the government. On Wednesday, Pope Francis issued what has been described as his strongest appeal to date for an end to the fighting in Syria. We turn now to look at a group in Syria known as the Syrian Civil Defense, or the White Helmets. The group of some 3,000 volunteers has been credited with saving over 60,000 people from the rubble of buildings in war-torn Syria. Last month the group won a Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. We speak to Orlando von Einsiedel, director of the new documentary “The White Helmets.”

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn to Syria, where renewed bombing has reportedly killed more than 150 people this week in rebel-controlled Aleppo. On Wednesday, at least 15 people died after airstrikes hit East Aleppo’s biggest market. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least four children were killed and 10 wounded earlier today when shells landed near a school in western Aleppo, the area controlled by the government. On Wednesday, Pope Francis issued what has been described as his strongest appeal to date for an end to the fighting in Syria.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] I want to underline and repeat my closeness to all the victims of the inhumane conflict in Syria. It is with a sense of urgency that I renew my appeal and implore with all my strength those responsible that an immediate ceasefire is put in place and that this is enforced and respected at least to allow the evacuation of civilians, especially children, who are still trapped by cruel bombardments.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, at the United Nations, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has criticized the Security Council for failing to act on eastern Aleppo following a Russian veto of a resolution drafted by France calling for a ceasefire and demanding the grounding of Syrian and Russian warplanes over Aleppo.

ZEID RA’AD AL-HUSSEIN: The Security Council was unable to take any decision in respect of halting the actions in eastern Aleppo last week. And it very much raises the question in my mind, when speaking of the Security Council: Security for whom? Certainly not for the people of eastern Aleppo. Certainly not for them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to look at a group in Syria known as the Syrian Civil Defense, or the White Helmets. The group of some 3,000 volunteers has been credited with saving over 60,000 people from the rubble of buildings in war-torn Syria. Last month, the group won a Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. The group is also the focus of a new documentary titled The White Helmets. This is the trailer.

WHITE HELMET VOLUNTEER 1: [translated] Don’t give mom a hard time, OK?

REPORTER: The latest missile attacks on hospitals and schools in rebel-held areas that left up to 50 civilians dead.

WHITE HELMET VOLUNTEER 2: [translated] We are the first to arrive when there is a bombing. Everyone knows the truth about Syria, but no one can stop the killing. In the White Helmets, we have a motto: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the new Netflix documentary The White Helmets. We go now to London, where we’re joined by Orlando von Einsiedel, the director of The White Helmets. His previous films include the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by laying out just who the White Helmets are and why you did this documentary about them, Orlando?

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: Sure. The White Helmets are a group of nearly 3,000 volunteers, made up of ordinary Syrian civilians. They are teachers. They are builders. They are carpenters. They are students. They’re just normal people, just like me or you, who decided not to pick up a gun, decided not to flee Syria, and instead decided to every day wake up and risk their lives to save complete strangers.

We wanted to make this film for two reasons. The first is that Syria is such a hard issue to engage with. The war has been going on for five years now. It’s so sad and it’s so upsetting that there isn’t—the international community hasn’t been able to find a solution. And I think a lot of people have just turned off. But the White Helmets, their story is a story of hope. It’s a story which cuts through politics, and it’s a story which resonates with people around the world. And also, the narrative which has come out of Syria for the last couple years, until very recently, has really focused on ISIS and terrorism and the refugee crisis. And clearly, those are very important issues, but the story of what’s happening to the millions of Syrian civilians who daily live under horrendous bombardment from the Assad regime and, more recently, its ally, Russia, that’s a story which has slipped down the headlines. And the story of the White Helmets brings that very much back into focus.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Orlando, the film was actually shot—the footage was shot by a White Helmet member, Khaled Khateeb. So, can you talk about when you met him and how you gained the trust of the White Helmets, who allowed you to use this footage?

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: Sure. Well, I mean, this film was very much a collaboration. We were invited to collaborate with the White Helmets at a—in a particular group in Aleppo. The White Helmets film many of their rescues, because they want to share with the world what’s happening. And they put—they put those rescues online.

We worked very closely with a young man, a young White Helmet volunteer called Khaled Khateeb. He was 17 when the war started, and he began documenting it on his mobile phone and then moved to cameras and eventually to video cameras. And many of the White Helmets’ most, I guess, iconic photographs were taken by—by Khaled.

We shot the film in southern Turkey during a training course by the White Helmets, and Khaled joined us on that training course, and we spent five weeks living and working with him. And the very small contribution we could make to his filming was to help improve his documentary filming techniques. And then, after the training course, Khaled went back into Syria along with the other White Helmets that we’d been filming with, and he continued to do his everyday job of documenting their rescues, except in this case he shared the raw footage with us. So what you see in the film is a combination of the material we gathered and Khaled’s work inside Aleppo.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from your film. This is the clip that was seen around the world, the one about the “miracle baby.”

WHITE HELMET VOLUNTEER 2: [translated] I thought that I was searching under the rubble for a baby that had died. But all glory is to God. We were not meant to leave the area without hearing a sound. After 16 hours under the rubble, a baby less than a month old, still alive, under the dust, under the ceilings that had fallen on him. We called him the “miracle baby.”

AMY GOODMAN: The baby was saved, but the man who saved him eventually died. Orlando, can you tell us about this scene and how his savior was killed?

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: I mean, as your viewers can see, it’s an extraordinary scene. There had been a barrel bomb, which is basically a barrel filled with explosives and metal fragments, was chucked out of a helicopter, and it destroyed a number of buildings. One of those was a three-story building which had baby Mahmoud in it. And he was trapped under there—the baby, he’s only a week old at the time, and he was trapped under there for 16 hours. And I think the guys had almost given up hope that there was anyone left alive, and then they heard the cry of the baby, which gave them renewed hope, and they kept digging, and eventually they rescued him. It’s an extraordinary scene.

The reality is that this is what the White Helmets are doing day in, day out, in Aleppo and across Syria at the moment, especially in Aleppo, because the last 10 days have seen horrendous bombardment. And you’re right, the man in the clip, Khaled Harrah, was killed about six weeks ago on a—during another rescue that he was doing, and a mortar round landed and, sadly, killed him.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Orlando, in total, you had something like 70 hours of footage. Can you tell us—and the documentary itself is 40 minutes. What went into the decision to include the part of the footage that you include in the documentary and that—all that you excluded?

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: Sure. Well, we wanted to try and capture the reality for what the White Helmets live through. And like I said, these guys are normal—they’re normal Syrian civilians. A lot of them have no prior rescue experience. They are—they are teachers. They are builders. They are blacksmiths. And so, the way the film works is that half of the film is set in Aleppo as you witness the very visceral, very immersive material of them saving lives on a daily basis. And then the other half is in a training center in Turkey, where they learn—because they don’t have these skills, where they learn rescue techniques to help save more lives.

I think what was—what was very shocking making this film was the violence that they experience every day in Aleppo, you might expect, but even when they’re in somewhere safe, like Turkey, the psychological violence these guys go through every day was incredibly shocking. Almost every evening, when they came back from the training and they’d get back online, their phones would start to vibrate wildly as the day’s news came in. And it was very common that there would be a message saying, you know, one of your colleagues, one of your friends, one of—even one of your family members, has been killed. So, yeah, I mean, it was a difficult—it was very difficult to witness that.

But I think, despite all of that, one of the things which is most striking for me, personally, was the hope that these guys still have. After all that they’ve been through, in spite of everything, they still have hope. And as long as they have hope, I think we all have to have hope, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the White Helmets featured in your film was previously a member of the armed opposition. Let’s go to a clip of Mohammed Farah.

MOHAMMED FARAH: [translated] Before joining the White Helmets, I was with an armed group. I fought for the opposition for three months. But I saw that the regime’s campaign was targeting civilians. And I thought, “It is better to do humanitarian work than to be armed, better to rescue a soul than to take one.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Mohammed Farah, who says that he was a member of an armed group and then decided to give up and join the White Helmets instead, to do humanitarian work. So, Orlando, can you talk about that and also the criticism that some of the people involved in the White Helmets are armed rebels from the opposition?

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: Sure. I mean, I think, you know, part of the reason we wanted to include that was this just shows how extraordinary this—the White Helmets are, that there are a number of people, you know, in Syria who were fighters, and they’ve then seen the work of the White Helmets, they’ve seen a path which is different from the one they’ve been on, a neutral path, an impartial path, where they can lay down their weapon and they can devote their life to saving lives. And I think this is something that the White Helmets are very proud of.

In terms of criticism, I mean, frankly, in making this, we did a lot of in-depth research. We went through dozens of hours of material. It’s very clear to us that this is—the White Helmets are nothing but a humanitarian group.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about, Orlando, the criticism that the White Helmets only operate in rebel-held or opposition areas and not in areas controlled by the Assad regime?

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: I mean, that’s absolutely true. I think you need to ask the Assad regime why they don’t—they won’t let the White Helmets operate there. The White Helmets would certainly like to operate throughout the entire country, but they’re not allowed to operate in regime-controlled areas. And the regime actively targets them. I mean, you know, just two weeks ago, four of their centers in Aleppo were destroyed. And, you know, that was direct, deliberate targeting.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to a clip of the White Helmets spokesperson, Farouq al-Habib, speaking to Al Jazeera in September, asked to respond to the claim that the White Helmets are biased toward the rebels.

FAROUQ AL-HABIB: We know that there are always political games trying to politicize everything happening in Syria. But our humanitarian message is obvious and clear for everybody. It’s working impartially and neutrally to help all the Syrian people, wherever and whenever. The White Helmets teams are allowed to respond to attacks in any area in Syria. They will be always ready to help.

AMY GOODMAN: Orlando von Einsiedel, your final comment on the White Helmets and what you just heard?

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: I would—I would urge all your viewers to watch the film. And I think when people watch the film, they will have no doubt in their mind exactly what these men represent, and the women, that work for the White Helmets.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you say, very quickly, before we conclude, Orlando, how has the film been received so far? And what would you like audiences to learn from it?

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: Like I said at the start, I think the two things are, that we’d like people to take away from this, we’d like people to be able to watch a film about humanity, about real-life heroes, that cuts through the politics, and also to understand what’s happening to Syrian civilians who are experiencing a horrendous bombardment daily from the regime and from its allies.

AMY GOODMAN: Orlando von Einsiedel, thank you so much for being with us, director of The White Helmets. Previous films include the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Stay with us.

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