Earlier this week, in Istanbul, the world lost one of our century’s few true humanitarians. The death of James Le Mesurier was unexpected, and its cause remains officially unconfirmed. But the sum of his too-short life, though difficult to measure, is very great.
The ease of that description shows us what we have lost in Le Mesurier, and what his life was worth.
Le Mesurier ran the non-profit Mayday Rescue Foundation. He also helped found and organise Syria Civil Defence, otherwise known as the ‘White Helmets’.
The White Helmets are Syria’s civilian rescuers. Volunteers, ordinary men and women, they rush towards craters and bomb sites in the aftermath of attack. White Helmets pull people – alive, half-dead and dying – from the rubble. They save as many as they can with what little they have.
Their director, Raed al-Salah, and Le Mesurier did all they could to stop that little becoming less. As time passed, and Syria’s war ground on, theirs became a harder and more arduous task. The sum of suffering increased; but international funding, upon which the White Helmets depended, waned capriciously.
Previously friendly governments cut back their meagre assistance under the pretence of fiscal or foreign policy prudence. Syria’s neighbours and other purported friends of its people allowed the regime of Bashar al-Assad freer and freer rein in killing, and conquering territory.
Many hundreds of White Helmets have been killed in Syria’s war: in the crossfire, and in ‘double-tap’ strikes, which are designed to kill those who rush to aid the victims of the first attack. The names of the dead are written in chalk on a wall of honour in Istanbul. It is a war memorial updated every day.
The regime’s capture of territory, even more than its bombs, means persecution and death for the White Helmets left behind.
They face arbitrary arrest, torture and execution. The Assad regime and its allies considered White Helmets ‘terrorists’ – a grotesque charge which has stuck, and come increasingly to dominate popular perception of the group, despite its absolute lack of evidence and validity.
With much of Syria left, defenceless, to Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, the job of the White Helmets and its backers became at once more urgent and closer to impossible.
The pressures on all involved, already great, mounted. For Le Mesurier, a former British soldier who moved to the Middle East in 2014 to do good, and whose office contained a painted banner which asked simply ‘what will save more lives?’, the slow, monolithic failure of the world to stop Syria’s mass murder occurring must have proven difficult to bear.
There is little reason to speculate on the manner of Le Mesurier’s death. But it is right, and vital, to concentrate on what his work meant; and how much the goodness of his life’s work threatened those whose tools are violence and death, whose enemies are those who save lives.
Syria Civil Defence and the Mayday Foundation built and supplied hundreds of teams who risk their lives to protect the lives of others. They provided the logistical support to, and marshalled international goodwill for, the heroes of our times. Their mission is to save and to preserve life, and in that mission they prove that amid the giving over of Syria’s state to the shedding of blood, and the collapse of Syrian society in war, there were those who still see the value of life.
The value of Le Mesurier’s life is found in the tens of thousands of lives his work helped to save. Tens of thousands, rescued from rubble and from death, saved from pain and from fear. The good of these acts is not calculable. Tens of thousands saved. Their children, and all the generations which will come after them, born from their survival, will be testament to the humanity of a few.
It is not right that Le Mesurier can no longer see that his life’s work was good. It is unjust that he did not live to see the children and grandchildren of those whose lives he rescued and restored. It is criminal that the world is willing to allow the work of his life to go to waste, and the country that he tried so hard to save to go to ruin.
The White Helmets’ work is proof of the humanity of the rescuers, and those who give them aid.
But their opposite – real evil – also exists; and Syria’s war demonstrates that it does. That evil is more powerful and difficult to overcome in Syria than many thought possible.
The White Helmets, including Salah and Le Mesurier, are the subject of a frighteningly effective and continuing campaign of deligitimisation and dark propaganda by the Assad regime, its Russian allies, and their useful idiots and supporters in the West.
This campaign tried to convince the world that rather than humanitarians and rescuers, the White Helmets were first imperialist agents. And then, when that charge failed to distract from the fact that these people saved lives, and that many of them had died in the process, a new, vile lie was born: that they were not rescuers at all, but were, in fact, terrorists.
There is no escape from these lies, so far have they travelled and so thoroughly have they polluted discussion of Syria around the world. The lies made the lives of many of the good difficult to endure.
But the truth told about the good is good itself. The truth of Le Mesurier’s life, and his loss, can do more than justify the grief of those who mourn him, and lessen the brutality of so senseless and unexpected a death.
We must hope that, in restating the profound good Le Mesurier and his organisation did – the tens of thousands saved, the lives restored – the circumstances of his loss and the propaganda which struggles to defeat the White Helmets’ work, and undermine their voice, can be overcome.
‘What will save more lives?’ is a question now asked by one less voice. But it is a question which still contains great moral force – and which still requires an answer.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.