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Netflix Film Documents White Helmet Volunteers Who Save Lives In Aleppo


Two years ago, rescue workers went digging in a pile of rubble in Syria. They were cutting away the concrete and steel of a building wrecked in Syria's civil war.



INSKEEP: A video that swiftly became famous shows the head of a baby amid slabs of concrete. Workers pull him out alive.



INSKEEP: The rescuers who dug out that child and many other people trapped in buildings are volunteers in a group called Syrian Civil Defense. They're known as the White Helmets. And they've been nominated this year for a Nobel Peace Prize. A Netflix documentary now follows their daily lives in the rebel-held section of the city of Aleppo.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: Filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel arranged for some of the White Helmets to wear small cameras on those iconic white helmets. The result is a tense and often claustrophobic view of men who watch Syrian and Russian aircraft overhead and then follow them through city streets to where bombs just landed.

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: The story of the White Helmets is a story of hope. This is a narrative about ordinary Syrian civilians who have decided not to pick up a gun, have decided not to leave Syria. And instead, every day, they wake up, and they run into the smoke and the fire. And they risk their lives to save complete strangers.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of a particular shot. It is a wide shot from some high point looking out over a neighborhood. And you hear an aircraft flying overhead. And then the neighborhood effectively explodes.


INSKEEP: It's an unbelievable shot. And I guess what's most amazing is it's almost as if the camera had been positioned there, sitting, waiting on that neighborhood to blow up. Do you know how you got that shot?

VON EINSIEDEL: What you need to understand is that what the White Helmets, operating in a place like Aleppo, are experiencing are daily bombardments. You know, we had dozens of hours of raw material. What's tragic is that what is in the film is one percentage of the material that we went through. And - you know, most of what is far too upsetting to share with an international audience.

INSKEEP: Those helmet cameras and other cameras show Syrian helicopters overhead. Barrel bombs are pushed out the doors and come tumbling down. Rescuers save who they can on the ground. They're identified in the film as men whose normal jobs would be tailor, baker, blacksmith, carpenter, student.

Now they work for Raed Saleh, who used to be an electronics dealer. He's the head of the White Helmets. And we talked with him during a visit to the United States. Saleh told us through an interpreter that when the war began, he chose rescue work.

Why do that, as opposed to other things you might do - join a military force, for example?

RAED SALEH: (Through interpreter) Like many of my colleagues who made a similar decision, it's the path of life, rather than the path of death.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

SALEH: (Through interpreter) A colleague of mine, Mustafa, said once, it is easy to take life. But it's so difficult to save a life. And we chose the second path, saving lives. We're more towards the quote from Quran that says saving one life is saving the whole humanity. And this is what we are working for.

INSKEEP: When you get out for a little while, as you are out now, is it hard to go back?

SALEH: (Through interpreter) It is not difficult to go back to Syria. I feel I need to go back to Syria. I've been here now for almost eight days of meetings. And I just felt more depressed and frustrated.

INSKEEP: What has been frustrating about your meetings here in the United States?

SALEH: (Through interpreter) Everything. Here's the first thing. Everything I see - no intention, no will to make any decisive actions to stop the crisis in Syria and to stop the attacks against civilians. I even feel pessimistic here because I don't see any immediate action that would give hope.

INSKEEP: Raed Saleh does receive U.S. government funding for his group but has not received any indication of when the suffering might end. And he has lived with American ambivalence about getting involved in Syria's war.

The last time he tried to visit the United States, his visa was revoked. He was not able to accept an award for humanitarian work. Saleh's rescue crews inevitably come in contact with extremists who are among the rebels who control parts of Aleppo.

Is it hard to work in an area where extremist groups have been active? There are references in the film. People make references to ISIS. Nusra, of course, has collaborated with rebel groups from time to time.

SALEH: (Through interpreter) As a neutral and independent organization, we focus our work to rescue civilians, regardless - who is the force that controls the area where those civilians are in need.

INSKEEP: You'll work with anyone, so long as they work with you?

SALEH: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course. Anyone who is under rubble - it's our duty and mandate to go and try to rescue him. We would not ask the person who was under rubble, what's your political opinion? Or what's your religion?

It's our duty to go and rescue that person, regardless of his background. And this humanitarian message that we carry is very respected by most of the parties. And for this reason, we see, sometimes, fighters or members of armed groups who make the decision to lay down their arms and join the White Helmets.

And from our side, if they pledge to respect our repentance and our principles of humanity and impartiality, we welcome them. And this is the message of peace that we carry.

INSKEEP: That's Raed Saleh, whose group the White Helmets is depicted in a Netflix documentary. The film does show that iconic scene from back in 2014, the baby pulled from the wreckage of a building. That baby is a toddler today and walking.

In the film, he's brought to a White Helmets training camp to inspire the men there. The man who pulled the baby from the rubble became a hero. Khaled Omar Harah was his name. He continued pulling people from the rubble of Aleppo until this past August, when he was killed in an airstrike. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noor Wazwaz