Murtaza Hussain reports: Raed Al Saleh says that before Syria’s civil war he could never have imagined the position that he is in today. A former electronics trader from the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, Saleh, 33, is now head of Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer force dedicated to rescuing victims of bombings and shellings. The 3,000-member group, also known as the “White Helmets,” are first responders at the scenes of airstrikes by Russian and Syrian government forces, pulling survivors from the rubble of collapsed apartment buildings and homes.
Saleh spends most of his time between Turkey and opposition-held areas of northern Syria, but is currently visiting the United States to promote Civil Defense’s work as well as a new Netflix documentary about the group. Soft-spoken and reserved, Saleh expresses deep frustration over the civil war that upended his quiet life, thrusting him almost by accident into an extremely dangerous occupation. “Starting from 2011, after the government’s crackdown began, I started helping with humanitarian relief and the evacuation of wounded people in our area following attacks,” he told The Intercept during an interview in New York this week. “We got experience from this practical work and later received some training from a Turkish NGO. By 2013, we started to do search and rescue work after airstrikes, and that year created the Civil Defense.”
The group’s work has garnered international attention, including a Nobel Peace Prize nomination as well as the Netflix documentary, which is titled “The White Helmets.” The film chronicles the experiences of several members of a Civil Defense unit in Aleppo, following them between missions as they spend time with their families, conduct training, and reflect on their reasons for volunteering with the group. It also includes harrowing footage of government airstrikes on the city. The aftermath of many such aerial attacks, recorded by Civil Defense members and broadcast on social media, has provided crucial evidence of government war crimes and attacks against civilian targets. [Continue reading…]