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No Nobel for the noble: Should the White Helmets have won the Nobel Peace Prize?

White Helmets are an unarmed group of people who have remained in the war ravaged Syria with the sole purpose of saving lives

Peter Harrison

Published: Updated:

On Friday the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize – this was despite losing a referendum in which his fellow countrymen and women voted against an agreement with Marxist rebels that would ultimately have ended 52 years of civil war.

Another contender for the prize this year was the Syria Civil Defense, who risk life and limb on a daily basis as they run toward the bombs to pull people from the rubble after Russian and Syrian attacks.

This group of volunteers is better known as the White Helmets – an unarmed group of people who have remained in the war ravaged villages, towns and cities dotted across Syria with the sole purpose of saving lives.

They were established in 2013 with a mere 25 volunteers – in the three years since, their numbers have grown to nearly 3,000. It’s thought that at least 130 White Helmets have been killed in the course of saving 60,000 lives. Putin and Assad call them terrorists.

On the day this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner was announced another White Helmet volunteer was killed as he responded to a bombing raid in south Syria.

The prize the White Helmets would cherish the most is for the bombs to stop falling, for the children to stop dying and I guess for them to be able to return to some kind of normality where they no longer have to be heroes.

Peter Harrison

These are not trained rescue service personnel who joined up in peace times – they hail from all walks of life, including tailors, bakers, builders and teachers – they have trained since the war began – but no amount of training can prepare anyone for a falling bomb.

The work of these men and women is well documented – including the moment Abu-Kifah broke down in tears after pulling a new born baby from the rubble after a bomb raid last week in Idlib. But they don’t receive a living wage, just a small amount of money that barely pays for the basics.

The White Helmets chief Raed Saleh told reporters on Friday that his group had been hoping to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Real life super hero

But rather than griping about the decision to award it to Santos, Saleh instead congratulated the president and wished the Colombians a peaceful future. A truly humble response I say, from a real life superhero among many.

“For us, saving a life remains the most important prize that we could receive,” Saleh said. “This success makes us richer than any other prize,” he added.

In a recent interview with the UK daily The Guardian, Saleh recalled an occasion in 2013, not long after he’d joined the team – they arrived at a bombsite in Darkoush, north west Syria where at least 112 people were killed.

“The smell of burnt bodies was everywhere and the first responders felt like they were helpless,” he remembered. “We rescued just two or three people, and it was depressing.”

These people are surely the true heroes, they run toward danger not knowing if this will be their last journey. Their drive is to save at least one life, even if they lose their own in the process. They are not obviously deterred by the horrific scenes they must be confronted by each time they respond to another blast.

I have encountered many people who could fall under the category of brave, or heroes, but none so courageous as the White Helmets. They could have decided to flee the warzones in a bid to make a better life. But instead decided to stay, to fight, without taking up arms, by pulling children from the rubble as strangers in the sky above them drop even more bombs.

So should we be surprised, outraged or upset at the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Santos? Possibly not - it is without a doubt a great achievement by Santos to have finally reached a resolution with the Marxists after more than half a century of war as he did, even if the nation’s people do not support the idea.

And I guess the prize the White Helmets would cherish the most is for the bombs to stop falling, for the children to stop dying and I guess for them to be able to return to some kind of normality where they no longer have to be heroes. Their work will be done when the fighting stops.
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Peter Harrison is a British photojournalist whose career spans three decades, working for print, digital and broadcast media in the UK and the UAE. He's covered a broad spectrum of subjects, from health issues and farming in England, to the refugee crisis in Lebanon and the war in Afghanistan. He is a senior editor with Al Arabiya English and tweets @photopjharrison.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.