The most dangerous job in the world – Syria’s White Helmets

Published:  17 November, 2015

The Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, operates in some of the most hostile conditions on the planet. Established in 2013, the rescue teams of volunteers have saved thousands from almost-certain death while risking their own lives in the process. Jemma Dempsey interviews the man who set it all up, former army officer and UN security advisor turned Mayday Rescue founder, James Le Mesurier.

How did you get involved in Syria?

My background for the last 20 years has been in conflict zones, delivering what western governments call ‘stabilisation operations’ where you try to bring stability to what are inherently very unsafe environments. The typical approach builds up a good security sector – training police, military forces and engaging with local political leaders. The theory is that if people at a community level feel safe and secure they’ll have the confidence to start businesses, to plant their fields and that will overtake the desire for conflict. Billions have been invested in places like the Balkans, the African states, Iraq and Afghanistan. But ultimately I haven’t seen much of it work.

The reason I got involved was largely accidental – it was early 2013 and the political leaders of the revolution in Syria painted a bleak picture of the situation. Shortly afterwards, I had a conversation with Dundar Sahin who runs AKUT, Turkey’s national search and rescue (SAR), which specialises in earthquake recovery. He’d never worked in a war zone, but I had worked in many. I had never done any technical SAR but he had much experience. It resulted in a concept to identify local members of the community – be they bakers, builders or taxi drivers – and give them basic equipment and training to rescue people trapped in bomb-damaged buildings.

We ran the first course in April 2013 and the guys who attended it sent us an email afterwards with photos of a family they had rescued – a husband and wife and couple of children – saying: ‘Thank you, this works, can we have more of it?’ That was in April 2013. It’s now October 2015 and we’ve got 110 different rescue teams, there are 2,790 volunteers and they’ve saved just over 25,000 people.

What does your training programme look like?

The start point was a cup of coffee with Dundar. With photos, videos and some building samples we sat and deconstructed a standard textbook called: Earthquake Rescue Response and then put it back together, with the Syrian conditions in mind. We had to make changes: those we’d be training would literally be people off the streets with no prior SAR training. And then there was the equipment; there are no fire hydrants, the streets are narrow, there’s no electricity and fuel is very expensive. So we needed equipment which didn’t require a lot of technical training and which could run off a generator or be battery operated. It needed to be light so it could be carried on peoples’ backs or whatever vehicle was to hand.

For the training itself, typically one of the first SAR actions is to put a cordon in place and bathe the scene in light. Now, if you try to do that in Syria it acts as a big aiming mark for you to be bombed again, so we had to train the teams to work in total darkness. One of the regime’s tactics was that they would bomb a target, wait for the first responders and then bomb it again. Normally in a disaster situation there are secondary risks but nobody’s deliberately trying to kill you: in Syria they are.

There are well-established standards from the UN international SAR advisory group that classify teams and training as either light, medium or heavy, so we started off with light urban SAR. We’re now delivering medium. Heavy is on its way and other courses – trauma medicine and pre-hospital trauma life – support this.

Is the type of training changing because the need is growing or has it always been there?

We envisaged it was going to be a short and tactical programme because we thought the war would be over soon. At the time, the moderate opposition was taking more territory and the Assad regime was withdrawing from different areas. Then, in August 2013, there was a chemical weapon attack outside of Damascus at Ghouta where the nerve agent Sarin killed 1,400 people, 400 of them children. The lack of international response left everyone thinking, if there’s not going to be a reaction now, there’s not going to be one. It was then it went from a short-lived but highly impactful arrangement to a national programme and the primary means of support for the Syrian population.

You’re based in Turkey but how do you get the rescue kit into Syria?

Getting things into a warzone is always difficult because while we’re wanting to get equipment into an active conflict zone, the governments which border Syria are – for quite legitimate reasons – concerned about only the right stuff getting in. We want stretchers and first aid kits, drills and all equipment to get in and it makes for a much more complicated border regime than you would typically have. But we’re very fortunate to be supported by the government in Turkey, by the Turkish Red Crescent and by the Turkish Presidential SAR, which have been terrific helping us get our rescue shipments in.

Is anyone else doing this or is this concept unique?

There are many tremendous groups conducting urban SAR but we’re not aware of any others helping people living in conflict to protect their communities better. After 18 months we met team leaders and asked what they did when not in emergency response mode. They described how the tools and equipment were also used to help in other ways. For instance, the digging tool for removing rubble can be used for digging a drainage ditch, or the tool-boxes could be used for the reconnection of water, electricity or to clear a kindergarten of rubble or put a roof back on a local municipal building. Without realising it they were doing exactly what is allocated to civil defence in international humanitarian law under the Geneva Convention, for example grave digging and marking and identifying the dead.

The breadth of what they were doing resulted in a very positive cycle on the ground. Before there was the certainty that: ‘If my house gets bombed, I’m going to die because no one will come and get me out.’ Now, there is a shred of hope, no matter how irrational, so those same people say: ‘If it’s going to happen we’ve got a civil defence team and they’re going to save me.’ So it’s been like the sons of the community standing up in the most dreadful conditions imaginable and faced with the choice of becoming a fighter, a refugee, or a black marketeer, the contribution they’re going to make to the revolution is to risk their lives to save others.

Have you lost any members who’ve said they can’t take it any more, that they’re going to leave the country?

We surveyed members on why they volunteered and also why they stayed or left. After suggested reasons there was a section saying ‘other’ and we expected people to say because it was extremely traumatic, that they couldn’t cope or because of financial pressures. But the primary reason someone left their rescue team was because they’d been killed on the job. Now nobody, that we’re aware of, has left and subsequently joined an armed group, but there are lots of people who’ve left armed groups in order to join civil defence.

You’ve been quoted as saying the war in Syria represents the Mount Everest of war zones, what do you mean by that?

The United Nations describes Syria as the most complicated conflict for a generation, others as the worst since the end of WW2. It’s a Gordian knot of politics, of armed action, of international versus regional versus local policy confrontations, resulting in this debilitating cauldron of conflict. But only a small percentage are fighters, the vast majority are ordinary civilians and they just want to be able to go about their lives without being killed. This is the conflict of our time.

How are you funded?

Mayday is a not-for-profit organisation. Our day-to-day running costs are very low. We are funded by governments which, loosely speaking, are connected to Friends of the Syrian People (an international diplomatic collective of countries and bodies). The UK in particular has taken a leading role in funding the White Helmets, as have the governments of Denmark, the Netherlands and the US. Everything in Syria is funded from outside and the teams are well aware of where the money comes from and they’re very grateful for it. There are a number of privately run campaigns to help provide for some of the families of the 108 members who’ve been killed on the job and the 440 members who’ve been so seriously wounded that they cannot work again. That’s why some people refer to it as the most dangerous job in the world.

What do you think when you see the pictures of those leaving Syria searching for a better life?

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated the other week that the pre-war population of Syria was 22 million. Of those 11 million are no longer living in the same home that they were living in at the start of the revolution. If the bombing stopped it would be a solution to the refugee problem. These people aren’t moving to Britain or Germany for better economic opportunities, they’re moving because if they stay they’re going to die. And we are judging them for making that decision.

What helps you remain positive, gives you hope for the future?

One story out of Aleppo City was that the kids, instead of playing soldiers, sit outside waiting for the alarm to go off and chase after the White Helmets because they think civil defence is the coolest thing ever.

If you would like to donate to the cause of the White Helmets, please contact: James LeMesurier at:

You can find the White Helmets on Twitter at: @SyriaCivilDef

  • Operation Florian

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