Send in the White Helmets

By Stephanie Van Hook

“Satyagraha brigades can be organized in every village and in every block of buildings in the city.” –Gandhi (Harijan, March 17, 1946)

We’ve all heard of the Blue Helmets — the United Nations armed peacekeeping wing. But have you heard about the White Helmets, the unarmed peacekeeping and first responders in Syria?

Seeing organized nonviolence in the midst of violent conflict is not expected and not often found, but it’s on the increase. There are Peace Brigades International, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, and the White Helmets in Syria.

Hard to believe, yet here they are: an unarmed group of ordinary people: doctors; lawyers, teachers, store owners, you name it, who are most known for running into buildings destroyed by the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and helping people out alive, regardless of religious or political creed. According to one of White Helmet’s team members, Abed, “When I want to save someone’s life I don’t care if he’s an enemy or a friend. What concerns me is the soul that might die.” The youngest person they’ve saved was only two weeks old, and it took them a day to go through the rubble to find him. (He was ok.)

So far, by October 2015, this volunteer, neutral, nonviolent force has saved more than 30,000 lives, and the number is only increasing. It’s not easy work and some have lost their lives. If courage and self-sacrifice are the basic ingredients of nonviolence (and they are), these brave people have it to spare.

In 1946 in India, a year before Independence, violence–from all sides–was on the rise. Someone must have asked Gandhi what could be done about it–what could the Satyagrahis do in the midst of a violent climate. Always concrete, he offers the utterly practical idea of the Satyagraha brigade–teams of people “in every village and in every block of buildings in the city.”

Such people could be called on in emergency situations, but they also work in the “down time” of no violence on constructive activities that support the emergence of a nonviolent civil society. Rather than go away when relative peace emerges they should take advantage of the lull to expand and blossom, increase their numbers, strengthen their resolve.

Perhaps where you live, there is no war in the streets, no liberation struggle to confront daily. Does this mean that a brigade is unnecessary? Not at all. It’s a sign that this is the time to start. Train people in first aid; train them to stay calm in scary situations; and train them, most importantly, in nonviolence. What if you “only” stopped one school shooting? What if you “only” recruit one team member whose history is violence—a combat veteran, a former gang member, a retired police officer, a disaffected loner with guns—and give that person another avenue, another path, toward transformation, toward robust nonviolent engagement?

Time to learn from those who have put it into practice in the world’s toughest conflicts, like the White Helmets in Syria.Φ

Stephanie Van Hook, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

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