Editor’s Note: My Hero is a series profiling remarkable people around the world who have touched the lives of anchors and correspondents at CNN.
Hala Gorani remembers Aleppo before civil war struck in 2011; the streets, the sights, the sounds.
The CNN host holds an intimate knowledge of Syria’s largest city; both her parents were originally from Aleppo. But the landscape has changed forevermore after years of sustained bombing by regime forces and its allies. Swathes of eastern Aleppo have been destroyed, piles of rubble building in the streets, the loss of homes, businesses and human life forming collateral in a war thousands of civilians want no part of and yet cannot escape from.
The Syrian regime reported it had reclaimed Aleppo on December 22, 2016 after four years and a prolonged offensive (the progress of which can be seen below).
Driving out rebel forces, the assault also created thousands of new refugees fleeing the city.
The fall of Aleppo marked the end of a lengthy chapter for volunteer organization Syria Civil Defence. Known around the world as the “White Helmets,” Syria Civil Defence have found countless admirers for their humanitarian mission, delving into the ruins of Aleppo and other Syrian cities, and retrieving survivors in the face of remarkable danger.
“Being a White Helmet is Syria has been called the most dangerous job in the world,” says Gorani, who chose the organization as her heroes. “There is nothing more dangerous than running towards a building that has become a pile of rubble.”
The host, who met Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, describes the ever-present danger of “double taps” – secondary bombs sent down with the explicit purpose of attacking first responders. White Helmet volunteers throw themselves in to this environment with the full knowledge they might be the next victims of a civil war which has already cost at least 470,000 lives through 2015, according to estimates from the Syrian Center for Policy Research.
On the side of humanity
It wasn’t always this way for these men and women.
“They used to be tailors and electricians, bakers and civilians, leading pretty ordinary lives in Syria, with all the issues the country had before,” says Gorani. “They were thrust into this new world of death, horror and destruction.”
Now White Helmets are so attuned to warzones they can tell the difference between aircraft models just by the tone of their engines.
Meet the White Helmets
First formed late 2012, the White Helmets began training as a 25-strong unit, working for a small stipend of $150 a month. Twenty-five men have become 3,000, but not without losses. One hundred and forty five have been killed in the line of duty and 500 injured, says Gorani.
“A handful of them decided – whether or not it would kill them – they would help their countrymen and women,” she says. “That’s what makes them so special.”
“When I saw footage of some of the White Helmets saying goodbye to their own kids before heading off to war… it really brought home to me that the risk they are taking isn’t just a risk to their own lives – that they would leave small children fatherless, and their wife a widow.”
The organization has brought home the scale of the conflict in a painfully visceral way, documenting their recovery operations whenever possible. Some of the defining images of the civil war, of bloodied bodies covered head to toe in concrete dust – yet miraculously alive – have come from the very people who have saved them.
CNN’s host described the difficulty in watching the heroic acts of the White Helmets in Aleppo.
“The buildings are destroyed, the neighborhoods are unrecognizable, the hospitals are being targeted – ambulances they travel in as well are being targeted,” says Gorani. “But in the end it’s the human beings that are being injured, getting killed, in some cases being deliberately attacked. It’s very difficult to watch, but it’s also our duty to watch it and tell the world this is going on.”
Put forward for a Nobel Peace Prize by murdered British Member of Parliament Jo Cox, Gorani says the White Helmets have been forced to counter accusations from the Syrian government and Russia, who claim they have become politicized and help extremist groups, Gorani says.
Their defenders say conversation is necessary to move freely through checkpoints in embattled locations. “They have always emphasized their neutrality,” says Gorani, “[and] say they would help anyone trapped in those buildings, regardless of what side they were fighting on.”
What cannot be disputed is the White Helmets’ drive to inject hope and humanity where for many there is none.
“They are making a difference, they’ve potentially saved tens of thousands of lives,” says the CNN host. “It would be very easy for them not to do it, and yet they do it. I think that’s real bravery.”