Ordinary people turn superheroes

Mr James Le Mesurier, a founder of Syria's White Helmets, hopes Singaporeans can glean lessons from the conflict there. Volunteers from the civil defence group stand up to rescue others, for example, by extracting those buried in the rubble after bom
Mr James Le Mesurier, a founder of Syria's White Helmets, hopes Singaporeans can glean lessons from the conflict there. Volunteers from the civil defence group stand up to rescue others, for example, by extracting those buried in the rubble after bombs fell on the rebel-held town of Saqba in eastern Syria last Tuesday.PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The man who helped form Syria's White Helmets - an unarmed civilian group credited with saving the lives of over 85,000 people since 2013 and which has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - has a message for Singaporeans.

While Singapore is a distance away from Syria in terms of location and situation, Mr James Le Mesurier, 45, who is British, hopes people here, who have enjoyed security and peace, can glean lessons from the conflict in the Middle East.

He told The Sunday Times: "These are ordinary people in trying circumstances who are standing up to do extraordinary things.

"During times of crisis, all it takes is for someone to stand up and say enough is enough."

When bombs fall, ordinary people are often injured and killed. But in Syria, they are also the first to crawl into the rubble to help.

A GROUND-UP MOVEMENT

It's a social movement, when people in the midst of war decide not to pick up guns, instead they pick up stretchers, shovels, anything to save a life.

MR JAMES LE MESURIER, a founder of the White Helmets civilian rescue team in Syria.

Mr Mesurier was in Singapore last week to speak at Milipol Asia-Pacific 2017, an exhibition dedicated to homeland security in the Asia-Pacific region, where he gave a talk on the role of civil protection as demonstrated by the White Helmets.

He said the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defence, is a ground-up movement.

"It's a social movement, when people in the midst of war decide not to pick up guns, instead they pick up stretchers, shovels, anything to save a life."

Mr Mesurier, who is also director of Dutch non-profit organisation Mayday Rescue Foundation, has spent most of his working life in active war zones - first in the British army, and then as a UN diplomat.

Mayday Rescue provides support for communities in unstable regions, linking them up with groups or funding to further civilian defence efforts. It also helps to train White Helmets volunteers.

Syria has seen more than five years of armed conflict since a civil war broke out. More than 470,000 people have died in the conflict.

Earlier last week, the Syrian government was accused of using military planes to launch chemical attacks on its own people, killing 86 civilians, including 27 children.

Last Friday, the United States responded by launching more than 50 missiles at a Syrian government airbase.

The White Helmets was formed following a bombardment in March 2013. A call for volunteers in the city of Aleppo was answered by 25 people - among them, students, bakers and taxi drivers. They were taught basic rescue skills during a five-day course in Istanbul.

The group now has 110 rescue teams comprising 3,200 volunteers all over Syria.

About 600 volunteers have been killed or injured in the conflict.

Mr Mesurier describes the volunteers as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But the Syrians call them superheroes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Ordinary people turn superheroes'. Print Edition | Subscribe