CARACAS, Venezuela – As thousands of people fled tear gas at a recent anti-government protest, a single young woman stood still, protected only by a gas mask and a white helmet with a green cross.
The woman took shelter under a bridge and attended to a person whose right ankle was bloody and injured. She splinted the leg, and then took the man away on a motorcycle.
The rescuer belongs to the "Green Helmets," a group of about two hundred medical students, dentists and doctors who attend the marches that have been rocking the South American country daily for two months. Protesters applaud the so-called brigadiers as heroes and pose with them for selfies when they arrive at rallies marching in single file, waving a giant white flag and howling military-like cadences. It's all part of a pre-protest ritual intended to steel the volunteers for another day at the frontline of violent clashes.
While the group's priority is to attend to injured protesters, members are not immune from serious risks themselves.
One Green Helmet volunteer, Paul Moreno, a 24-year-old student in his final year of medical school, was killed in mid-May when he was run over by a vehicle in the western city of Maracaibo while helping the wounded. The death generated sorrow and solidarity with the group and residents changed the name of one of the avenues of Maracaibo to "Paul Moreno Street."
"It was very hard news to accept because he (Moreno) was on the street helping just like us," said Julio Sosa, a medical student and member of the relief group.
The group was born during the anti-government demonstrations of 2014 and reactivated in April after a new wave of protests against President Nicolas Maduro kicked off. Green Helmet chapters have sprung up in at least six of the country's 24 states and students from at least 12 public and private higher education institutions have lent their support.
"When the police get aggressive, they go out to find people among the tear gas and stones, and they save them," said Patricia Colmenares, a 50-year-old psychiatrist, as she participated in a protest in Caracas.
Government supporters have attacked the first-aid group, which has attended to dozens of injured, as part of a terrorist movement. A prominent presenter on state television called the rescue workers a "paramilitary group" and accused them of creating "false positives" to tarnish the image of Maduro's government.
Soldiers and police too have been hurt in the demonstrations as protesters hurl back gas grenades or launch rocks, but they are generally cared for by official ambulances.
The volunteer group generally only sends about 30 people at a time to the hottest areas of protests. The rest of the members wait in calmer areas far from where rocks and tear gas are flying to attend to the most seriously injured in small tents or inside ambulances.
The group's director, Daniella Liendo, a 22-year-old medical student, said that all volunteers receive advanced first-aid training.
She added that unlike 2014, the group now has numerous specialists in trauma, pediatrics, anesthesiology, gynecology, dentistry and even psychiatry, who reinforce the work of the rest of the members. The specialists have had their hands full with head trauma cases recently.
The Venezuelan health sector has been hit by shortages of more than 90 percent of imported drugs and medical supplies. But Liendo says that thanks to donations, the Green Helmets have so far been able to operate with all the supplies they need. In recent weeks it has become common to find donation boxes for the group in housing developments, churches, public squares and on the streets.
Fabiola Sánchez is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn