On Monday morning, James Le Mesurier, the founder of Mayday Rescue, a charity that supported and trained the White Helmets, the Syrian civil defense group, was found dead in Istanbul. His body was found outside a building in the Beyoglu district where he had an apartment and office. It is unclear whether Mr. Le Mesurier, who was 48 and healthy, fell or was pushed from the balcony of his apartment. The Turkish authorities have started an investigation.
Mr. Le Mesurier, a former British army officer, had worked in Iraq and Kosovo before turning his attention to Syria. He was committed to ensuring war-torn communities learn how to take care of themselves when no one else was coming to save them. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2016 for his work.
The White Helmets are emergency medical workers. They have, according to their own estimate, rescued about 115,000 people and lost more than 250 of their own volunteers — they have a high chance of being killed themselves when they rush to the scene of a bombing. This was the world the funny, smart, brave and principled Mr. Le Mesurier worked in.
His work earned him many detractors, including Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Three days before his mysterious death, Ms. Zakharova claimed that Mr. Le Mesurier was a “former agent of Britain’s MI6, who has been spotted all around the world.”
Most foreign correspondents, humanitarian workers and United Nations officials frequently get landed with the sobriquet. There is no evidence that Mr. Le Mesurier was a spy.
I saw him as a humanitarian who accomplished enormous feats in alleviating the suffering of civilians in Syria. I first encountered him after spending time in Aleppo during the terrible days and nights of fierce aerial bombardment, where barrel bombs were dropped on the city by the Syrian regime’s jets.
I have been under fierce bombardment before — in Sarajevo, Chechnya and Iraq — but Syria was something else. The sheer terror of civilians buried under the weight of concrete buildings, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, was unforgettable.
Mr. Le Mesurier’s concept of the White Helmets was to train civilians to look after their neighbors, to pull them out of the rubble, to bring them back to life. He always told me that people were more likely to search for others if they knew it was a member of their community. “If you get buried, you know someone is looking out for you,” he said. “Someone is coming for you. This is how community strengthening works.”
The White Helmets were formed in 2014. Soon after, Khaled Omar Harrah, a former home decorator and father of two, pulled a 10-day-old baby, who had been buried for 16 hours, out of the wreckage of a building. The YouTube video went viral. Mr. Harrah was killed in an airstrike in 2016.
By then, the White Helmets were superheroes. They were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. A Netflix documentary about their work won the Academy Award in 2017, and Hollywood stars signed petitions in solidarity. George Clooney bought the rights to a film about them.
But the White Helmets had dangerous enemies, most notably those attached to Russia. By 2015, the Russians had joined the dogfight over the skies of Aleppo as a partner to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The Russians bombed many civilian targets, including hospitals. The White Helmets became more vulnerable; more than half were killed in “double-tap” strikes, where Syrian regime and Russian warplanes returned to the site of a bombing to target the rescue workers.
The Russians unleashed an army of trolls to discredit the White Helmets by branding them “Al Qaeda.” Mr. Le Mesurier took on these adversaries, dismantling their accusations about funding and the lies the White Helmets supposedly spread about Russian and Syrian government attacks.
There were also personal slurs, about his character and his background in the British army, from pro-Assad trolls and bloggers, but he shrugged them off with a kind of nonchalance. The only time I saw him get truly angry was when one of the trolls mentioned his wife, Emma Winberg, who works for Mayday. She was asleep in their apartment at the time of his death.
Mr. Le Mesurier’s enemies were persistent and their reach was wide. According to a study by One Syria Campaign, an international advocacy group, “Bots and trolls linked to Russia have reached an estimated 56 million people with tweets attacking Syria’s search and rescue organization, the Syria Civil Defense — also known as the White Helmets — during ten key moments of 2016 and 2017.”
Since the Russians joined the war in 2015, the White Helmets have been filming attacks on opposition-held areas with GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets. I was told by countless United Nations officials and human rights activists that what the Russians feared most was evidence that could land them in a war crimes tribunal.
The White Helmets caught the Russians red handed and recorded their crimes on video. In a secret villa on the grounds of the United Nations Office in Geneva, a group of forensic experts are going through thousands of hours of videos and photographs made by civilians and others, which will hopefully one day bring justice. Syria is probably the most-documented war ever.
I often spoke with Mr. Le Mesurier and traveled with him to a White Helmets training exercise at a secret location in Turkey in 2016. “Why a secret location?” I asked. “Security,” he replied. “Do you know how many people want us dead?”
I watched former vegetable sellers, teachers and scuba diving instructors learn how to dig for babies under concrete slabs and put out fires. At night, I listened to them tell stories, play music and prepare for a friend’s wedding in Aleppo the following week.
They were weary and embattled. Aleppo fell a few weeks later, changing the tide of war for good. The United Nations stopped counting the dead. The peace process stalled. Syria came off the front pages.
The misery and the bombings did not stop. Mr. Le Mesurier continued working. He planned to bring the concept of the White Helmets to other war zones.
What saddens me most, aside from the loss of a good man, is that front-line humanitarian workers are protected by international law under the Geneva Convention. But in Syria, no one is immune from death: not civilians, not those helping to ease their misery.