Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

James Le Mesurier: White Helmets co-founder always put others first

The rescue worker saved countless lives from the rubble of Syria and trained hundreds to do the same

Former British army officer James Le Mesurier in Istanbul. He helped found the White Helmets volunteer organisation in Syria. AP 
Former British army officer James Le Mesurier in Istanbul. He helped found the White Helmets volunteer organisation in Syria. AP 

At the end of the film Schindler’s List, the Jews who were rescued from Nazi concentration camps by Oskar Schindler present him with a gold ring that bears a Talmudic inscription: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

There is a similar verse in the Quran, which states: “Whoever saves one [life], it is as if he has saved all of humanity.”

James Le Mesurier, who was found dead on Monday, saved humanity many times over. A former British army officer, Le Mesurier went on to found Mayday Rescue, which trained and oversaw Syria’s White Helmets, a heroic collective of hundreds of civilian volunteers who rush to the site of regime airstrikes to try to rescue people from the rubble.

Due to their penchant for saving lives, as well as their documentation of atrocities and war crimes by the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and its backers, they have been repeatedly smeared as terrorists in a campaign of disinformation. Just last week, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman described Le Mesurier as a spy with ties to terrorist groups.

I don’t know if James Le Mesurier was killed or died by suicide. I only wish that, in those final moments, he knew in his heart of hearts that he had done immense good

On Monday, he was found dead near his home in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, apparently having fallen from his balcony.

The circumstances of Le Mesurier’s death remain unclear and authorities in Istanbul have opened an investigation and conducted an autopsy on his body. Online and in local and regional media outlets, conspiracy theories and speculation abound.

But I want to talk here about what we do know, which is that Le Mesurier’s work in Turkey was instrumental in conceiving, supporting, equipping and training emergency response teams in Syria, including the White Helmets, also known as Syria Civil Defence.

Over the past five years, during which atrocities have accumulated in Syria, they have saved more than 100,000 people from the rubble of Syrian regime airstrikes.

Even as Al Assad’s forces clawed back most of the country through scorched earth campaigns and starvation sieges, the White Helmets have continued their rescue operations. They elicited such animosity that Al Assad and his proxies have often singled them out in interviews and surrender negotiations with rebellious communities for retribution. When they were trapped last year in the Syrian city of Deraa before an advancing Assad military that pledged to treat them as terrorists, Canada negotiated a middle of the night spectacular rescue operation to evacuate them through Israeli-occupied territory.

Despite all this, they continue to risk their lives every day to do so, given that Russian-backed Syrian forces frequently conducted so-called double-tap strikes, dropping barrels filled with explosives and TNT on civilians and then striking a second time, targeting the rescue workers who arrived to help the wounded – a modus operandi identical to that of extremist groups in the region, who use car bombs instead of planes.

To date, 252 White Helmets volunteers have been killed in the line of duty, out of a total of about 3,000 volunteers, most of whom are ordinary bakers, farmers, and civilians who refused to abandon their own communities.

We also know that Le Mesurier was, like most of those documenting or resisting atrocities in Syria, subject to repeated smear campaigns and abuse. Since his death, alongside thousands of tributes, social media has been awash with vicious conspiracy theories, including the suggestion that he was linked to extremists in the Balkans from his time serving in Kosovo.

The volunteer rescue force he helped organise and train gained renewed prominence when Russia intervened in the Syrian war in 2015 to save Mr Al Assad. The White Helmets repeatedly documented and published videos of the aftermath of airstrikes, the majority of which targeted civilians rather than terrorists.

Heartbreaking imagery of the volunteers rescuing infants from the rubble and rushing to the scenes of attacks captured the brutality of Mr Al Assad and his allies. In one such video, a two-week old baby was rescued after 12 hours under the rubble of a building in Aleppo. In another, a rescue worker breaks down in tears after he rescues a baby girl. The courage of the group earned them accolades, and short documentary about the volunteers won an Oscar in 2017.

But an investigation by the Guardian newspaper identified bot networks that amplified online conspiracy theories and abuse towards the group to discredit their mission and the evidence of war crimes that they gathered. The campaign was akin to a factory churning out falsehoods.

And I do know that the smears, lies, disregard for human life, cowardice of the international community, the daily suffering and loss in Syria and our powerlessness amid witnessing great evil, can tear through the toughest emotional and mental carapace.

I don’t know if James Le Mesurier was killed or died by suicide, whether he fell or was felled. I only wish that, in those final moments, he knew in his heart of hearts that he had done immense good, that he had saved lives. I hope that he experienced love and gratitude and knew that he was on the right side of history. That he did so much; that he saved humanity so many times.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 11: The sealed entrance of a home reportedly belonging to James Le Mesurier, where his body was found dead in the early hours of this morning on November 11, 2019 in the Karakoy district of Istanbul, Turkey. Le Mesurier, a former British army officer, founded Mayday Rescue, a non-profit group that helped organize Syrian volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets. Last week, Le Mesurier was accused of being a spy in a tweet from the Russian foreign ministry. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)
The entrance of James Le Mesurier's home in Istanbul was sealed. Burak Kara / Getty Images

Updated: November 13, 2019 08:22 PM

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