How Mayday Rescue was betrayed

‘We were their only hope’

Idlib, Syrië, 22 maart 2020 © Izzeddin Idilbi / Anadolu Agency / ANP

The White Helmets daily rescue people from bombed buildings in Syria and collect evidence of war crimes. How did it happen that Mayday Rescue, the organization which was their mainstay, collapsed? A reconstruction, with central roles for political opportunism and the weapon of disinformation.

March 2014. The road into East Aleppo runs through miles of rubble. Floors and ceilings bulge from carcasses of buildings. Bombardments rumble around the small office of the Syrian rescue workers. Between boxes of pickaxes and two saggy brown armchairs, Khalid Hajjo recounts how his team started its work in the besieged district.

After the Syrian regime brutally crushed mass demonstrations that set the country in motion in 2011, the war ignited. Armed with shovels and axes, Hajjo and a group of volunteers set out to rescue victims from bombed-out houses and buildings. Citizens elsewhere in the country also sprung to action. That is how the Syria Civil Defense came about, an organization that works in opposition areas.

Three members of Hajjo’s team died a few days ago. It is a sinister rule that after the first airstrike a second one follows to kill the rescuers who rush in.

The volunteers are still short of material. The sole excavator is broken. ‘Recently a baby girl died because there was no equipment’, says Hajjo. Recently they have been receiving more help. His colleagues are washing a white truck that just drove in from Turkey. The arrival of the shiny vehicle causes great excitement, as if it were a long-awaited guest.
The truck was sent by Mayday Rescue. The organization, set up in 2014, assists the Syrian aid workers with equipment, training and fundraising and will become the main pillar of support. At the height of the operations, rescuers have 200 teams in Syria with over 4,000 volunteers. Their white helmets are equipped with cameras that record the horrific consequences of the bombing. Worldwide they become known as the White Helmets. They are nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Netflix documentary about their work receives an Oscar.

The United Kingdom and Germany are the main donors, but The United States, France, Denmark, Qatar, Japan and the Netherlands also contribute. Between 2014 and the end of 2019, more than 120 million euros from donor countries will go to Mayday for the White Helmets. The then Minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders calls them ‘heroes’ and states that ‘the life-saving and courageous work that the many volunteers carry out under terrible circumstances deserves our lasting support’. Between 2015 and the end of 2018, the Netherlands will donate a total of 12.5 million euros.

Fast forward to 12 August 2020. On a summer day in Amsterdam, the judge confirms the bankruptcy of the Mayday Rescue Foundation. What happened between the years when the organization was the supporting linchpin for the rescue operations in Syria and the moment it had to close its doors? What role did the Netherlands play? A reconstruction.

Mayday Rescue is the brainchild of James Le Mesurier, a British ex-army officer who left the military in 2000. He worked for the United Nations in Kosovo and for Western governments in the Middle East. After a job in international private security, he switched to humanitarian aid. Le Mesurier is a charismatic and passionate man who gets a lot done and inspires others. ‘He was the linchpin, the visionary and the driving force’, says Ethan Wilson, the former Mayday Rescue program director. ‘James was a hard working ceo with moral courage, humour and humanity’, said Emma Winberg, his wife who worked as chief impact officer for Mayday. ‘He had organized the training of many rescuers and felt very close to them. The work was his life. It was his identity.’

The dramatic situation in Syria causes Mayday to operate in an atmosphere of constant crisis. The daily reports of dead and injured White Helmets affect the staff in the office hard. The workload and stress are enormous, but so is the sense of mission in the close-knit team. ‘It was like a family’, says Ed Bicknell, head of procurement and personnel policy.
Everyone at Mayday is well paid. The fees for the directors are in the high segment of the international aid sector. James Le Mesurier initially has a monthly salary of $18,000, but after a cut it becomes $14,800 – plus benefits. Donors set the limit for the stipend that the volunteers receive at $150 a month, which the White Helmets agree with. Le Mesurier regularly battles to increase the contribution. As of July 2019 the stipend is raised to $250. (Because of whooping inflation the monthly salary of government officials in Syria in 2021 has plummeted to approximately 22 euros.)

While contributions from donors increase, Mayday is growing rapidly and struggles to adapt its structure, which is lagging behind. ‘Initially the organization had the culture of a start-up and operated with an informal structure’, Wilson says. There is no supervisory board. In the first years income and expenses are kept with cash books and Excel-sheets. Due to the lack of banks in the war zone, money from Turkey to Syria is almost always sent in cash or via the hawala system. The donors each have their own conditions and Mayday is constantly dealing with financial accountability. The organization passes those controls, but the accountants point out vulnerabilities. ‘Everybody was happy with how we worked, but suddenly they expected us to be a kind of established NGO like Oxfam, which was impossible of course’, says Winberg. While facing ‘a volatile conflict environment, a fluid political context and financial uncertainty’, the organization develops ‘solid procedures and systems’, Wilson states.

As of September 2015, Russia, Damascus’ key ally, takes part in the air war. ‘Don’t ask our teams anything. They are too busy excavating victims’, shouts an agitated rescue worker over the phone. Russian warplanes have just dropped their deadly load on northern Syria.

The rescue workers also document war crimes with their cameras and play an indispensable role in collecting incriminating material.

To undermine the White Helmets and Mayday, Russia also starts using another infamous weapon: disinformation. The rescue workers are portrayed as terrorists and as propaganda tools of imperialist Western governments that want to enforce regime change. Le Mesurier is accused of espionage, terrorism, pedophilia and even trafficking in human organs. Never before a humanitarian organization has been so vehemently attacked, notes Graphika, a company that analyses data on the internet.

Vanessa Beeley, a British blogger and pro-Palestine activist with a background in sales and marketing, plays a pivotal role in the smear campaign. As early as 2015, she tweets about the Syrian rescue workers: ‘We know they are terrorists. Makes them a legit target.’ After her first meeting with Assad in July 2016, she spends much of her time in Damascus, nowadays driving around in a pink Beetle with a portrait of the Syrian dictator on the rear window. In Moscow she is welcomed with respect and mainly due to the Russian networks she will become an international ‘expert’. According to Graphika, part of Beeley’s 60,500 followers on Twitter are clusters of users who are spreading the same messages simultaneously – an indication of a coordinated campaign.

The extent of the influence of the disinformation becomes clear when the Dutch Christian-Democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt (cda) expresses doubt about the rescue workers. The Parliamentarian has a lot of attention for the conflict. This has a one-sided focus though. About thirty times Omtzigt – partly with colleagues – asks parliamentary questions, which are mainly about the Syrian opposition, armed rebels, jihadi, Islamic terrorist movements and the role of Turkey. Only once in the parliamentary questions he shows concern about the Syrian regime, which is responsible for most of the crimes.

On 21 December 2017 Omtzigt and his colleague Martijn van Helvert want to know how the cabinet assesses reports that the White Helmets ‘would be guilty of terrorist activities in Syria’. Their source: Vanessa Beeley. The new cabinet has ‘no indication at all that these accusations are based on truth’, respond Halbe Zijlstra (vvd), Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Sigrid Kaag (D66), Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. ‘Rather there seems to be a conscious campaign of disinformation aiming to discredit the work of the White Helmets.’ The Ministers state they are in ‘close contact’ with the organization and other donors, and stress how important the work of the rescue workers is, who saved more than 100,000 lives from the rubble. The two Ministers share the portfolio. Kaag, who was previously under-secretary-general of the UN leading the mission to dismantle the chemical weapons in Syria, knows the country well.

17 oktober 2016 © Karam Al-Masri / AFP / ANP

Kaag and Stef Blok – who succeeded Zijlstra after he had to step down when his false claim that he had been present years ago in Putin’s dacha was uncovered – present themselves as committed leaders. In their letter to Parliament of 14 March 2018 they write that the White Helmets ‘save people in bombed areas every day with Dutch support’. In the UN Security Council Minister Blok on 27 March raises the alarm about the fate of Syrian citizens. He shows photos of seven-year-old children, the same age as the conflict, who have never known peace. ‘In the horrific war in Syria any form of humanity seems to have disappeared’ and the international community doesn’t seem ‘to meet one of the oldest norms: protecting innocent citizens’, Blok states. Several months later he himself will strike a heavy blow to the rescue operations.

People are panicking in the clinic in Douma where children are rinsed with water and treated with inhalers. On 7 April 2018 the besieged city near Damascus has been attacked with chemical weapons. Immediately the disinformation campaign goes wild. Moscow states that the images made by Syrian rescue workers are fake news. When on 26 April 2018 Russia organizes a press conference in The Hague and argues no chemical took place, the event is an item on the Dutch talkshow Pauw. Journalist Sinan Can says that the Russians are good at ‘sowing doubt’. He continues: ‘Because of those big flows of disinformation one doesn’t understand things anymore.’ Journalist Can sees through the machinations, but unintentionally also spreads noise himself. ‘In this war there are simply no good guys anymore. Everyone has dirty hands. So who can you believe’, he says. Pauw wants to know: who are the White Helmets? Can tells that they rescue citizens from the rubble, but ‘they include also people with an agenda, and use propaganda from time to time’.

Doubt seeps through the coverage of the nos as well when the national broadcaster reports on 22 July 2018 on the ‘evacuation of criticized White Helmets’, who are in acute life danger in the south of Syria as the regime is advancing. ‘Critics’, the online news report states without presenting any name, think that the rescue workers portray ‘a one sided view’ of the Syrian conflict. ‘Furthermore some rescue workers are said to have links with extremist parties’, the nos writes.

It is Le Mesurier who leads the daring evacuation. He uses all his talents and skills to save the White Helmets. In haste Operation Magic Carpet is set up. Western diplomats, including the Dutch, join the planning. With all her might Nadera Al-Sukkar, country manager at Mayday in Jordan, works on the complex and risky rescue efforts. On her mobile phone continuously emergency calls from Syrians come in. ‘Everybody desperately tried to get out. We were their only hope’, she recounts, while fighting her tears.

Le Mesurier travels to Mayday’s office in Amman, where he non-stop manages the whole operation working with staff, donors and government agencies. Under international pressure Israel opens its border crossings with Syria. On 21 July, after nerve-racking days, more than a hundred White Helmets and about three hundred family members are brought to safety. Some get asylum in the Netherlands. (The framing by the nos: ‘Possibly they will be extensively screened the coming months in Jordan, for instance to see whether they are not radicalized.’) However, four hundred rescue workers and their families don’t make it to the border crossing. Everybody knows: for their fate has to be feared.

Dazed from tension and sleep deprivation, Le Mesurier returns to Istanbul. Of the 50,000 dollar in cash he took with him to finance the operation, just 9,200 dollars have been spent. He keeps the remaining 40,800 dollars and has the amount deducted from his income. It is correctly arranged and confirmed in e-mails, but they forget to make a receipt. This will have major consequences.

Mayday, which established itself since late 2015 as a foundation in the Netherlands, is demanding his attention. After the Syrian opposition lost a lot of area, millions of people fled to Idlib in the north-west, where extremist armed groups were mostly in charge. Donors insist Mayday requires stronger procedures to be financially accountable and demand more solid guarantees that the money ends up with the rescue workers.

There are not many reactions to the advertisement for the job of cfo. After initial enthusiasm the ideal candidate withdraws. Number two on the list is Johan Eleveld, who worked for companies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is employed as development director/controller on 23 Augustus 2018 when Mayday is going through difficult times, and will turn out not to be a solution, but a big problem.

The news comes as a bolt from the blue. On 7 September 2018 Blok and Kaag send a letter to Parliament. The Netherlands has ended its support to the Syrian opposition – from moderate rebels, to Mayday Rescue and the White Helmets. Syria is in ruins, the Ministers write. More than half a million people died. Millions are fleeing. ‘A sustainable peace’ is ‘further away than ever’. It is ‘disappointing’ that the seventy million euro of Dutch stabilization support for the opposition has ‘not produced the desired result’, the Ministers state. ‘Because of the shrinking space for the Syrian opposition and the increasing influence of extremist groups in the remaining opposition area, the possibilities on the short term to turn the tide have become extremely limited’, they state. While the crisis in the province of Idlib is deteriorating and the White Helmets are more needed than ever, The Hague is withdrawing its support. The Ministry will pay Mayday and the rescue workers for just another two months until the end of the contract in November.

‘It was a slap in our face. Especially because we were a foundation established in the Netherlands. And now this government didn’t support us anymore’, says Winberg. Dutch officials of the Syria-team in Istanbul and in The Hague tell Mayday they are shocked as well and that ‘the decision came from the highest level’. Winberg: ‘The Dutch diplomats in the field said: this is bullshit, it is political. This has nothing to do with Mayday and the White Helmets, but with a new political wind.’

Attached to the letter to Parliament, the Ministers offer a report by their Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (iob) about three Dutch supported projects of the Syrian opposition, including the White Helmets. The report was already finished by 1 August and seems to be used now to underpin the decision to end the Dutch contribution to the rescue workers. Winberg tells that the iob-researchers brought a flying visit of a few hours to the office of Mayday in Istanbul. It all seemed fine then; the Dutch even stayed a bit after the work was done. Le Mesurier is shocked when he reads the evaluation, which he only receives on 10 September, when the news is already out. The capacity of the White Helmets to monitor and evaluate activities is ‘below adequate’, the report states. While improvements have been made, the system would still have ‘crucial limitations’. ‘It’s damning’, says Le Mesurier, as he sends the report as ‘high priority’ to his colleagues.

Why does the Netherlands drop an organization that rescues people and collects evidence of war crimes like a hot brick? ‘In the Netherlands they had an excellent reputation as the most courageous and humanitarian important organizations that could still work in Syria’, says Bram van Ojik, former MP for GroenLinks. He thought the Ministers’ argumentation to end support of the White Helmets was ‘shaky’, wondering whether the reason was the shrinking opposition area or the monitoring system. ‘If the books are not in order, but they do very important work, then you don’t stop subsidies because of that. Just send a bookkeeper or an accountant to help them’, he says, while concluding: ‘Parliament never received any satisfying explanation for the discontinuation.’

A controversial aid program, which has nothing to do with the rescue workers, also appears to influence matters. On 10 September 2018, current affairs TV program Nieuwsuur and newspaper Trouw publish their scoops about Dutch support to groups of the moderate armed opposition in Syria. The Hague has been delivering goods worth 25 million euro such as pick-up trucks, food packages, uniforms, satellite phones, cameras en medical kits. According to these two media, an organization that has been identified as terrorist by the public prosecution service has been supported as well. Nieuwsuur airs video clips of rebel groups racing to the frontline in white pick-ups with machine guns. The footage gives the impression that a range of jihadi fighters is fighting using Dutch support.

‘The atmosphere changed the moment these images were aired’, tells Van Ojik. ‘I think the Ministers were very shocked by the revelations’ and ‘didn’t want to run new risks’, he says. Immediately they decided to end all support. ‘But it was my fear that in the rush to come clean, good organizations would be the victims. The White Helmets were, according to me, the most striking example.’ In Parliament, Van Ojik is the only person standing up for the rescue workers. On 2 October he files a motion to continue support to the humanitarian work of the White Helmets – in vain.

At the office of Mayday Rescue the conviction is they were sacrificed because of the political sensitivity of the entire portfolio. ‘We were collateral damage’, states Wilson. That is exactly how Kaag will remember it, when she tells her staff that ‘already in February 2018 has been decided’ to end the support to Mayday and that ‘it had to do with nla’, the controversial ‘non-lethal assistance’ to the moderate armed opposition, as becomes clear in an e-mail from the Ministry’s director-general dated 19 December 2019. The forces behind the disinformation campaign seize on the opportunity and claim that ending the support proves that Mayday is a terrorist organization.

The work takes a physical and mental toll with the usually energetic Le Mesurier. The long years of confrontation with the war in Syria and the increasing number of deaths and wounded among the rescue workers, are affecting him. (According to the White Helmets in total 252 rescue workers died.) He finds it increasingly hard to ignore the Russian-Syrian smear campaign. But Le Mesurier is relieved because with the arrival of Eleveld his organization has at least a financial professional at the office, who also knows the laws and rules that Mayday as a Dutch organization has to deal with.

What Le Mesurier doesn’t know, is that Eleveld is engaged in lengthy procedures related to previous jobs. The Dutchman has been dismissed because of his ‘maladministration’ as secretary/treasurer of Enforsa which has been declared bankrupt in November 2017. This foundation would invest in a solar park in Romania with the profits going to social projects in mental health care. Eleveld and co-board member Schotte are accused of causing the bankruptcy by extracting large sums of money from the foundation, say curators in their public report. The organization has been ‘completely plundered’, the new directors state. More than 600,000 euro was transferred from Enforsa to a company owned by Schotte. Another 200,000 euro was booked to an unknown third party. Eleveld himself transferred 67,000 euro to the company 3C BV, of which he was a board member. He also borrowed 10,000 euro which hasn’t been paid back. The new directors filed a criminal complaint. The Public Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute Eleveld, but the curator is still investigating his role. This is – after the bankruptcies of family enterprise Eleveld Meubelen and Radius, a company that traded in solar panels – the third bankruptcy of organizations where just before the collapse Eleveld had been board member.

During the first weeks at Mayday, Eleveld is introducing improvements such as a software program, though it is in Dutch language. He becomes a board member on 1 December 2018. Gradually irritations about him are piling up at Mayday. About the software program that causes complications, late payments to suppliers and the White Helmets, breaking rules and protocols, and delays in reporting to donors. Eleveld mainly works from the Netherlands, from home and the Amsterdam office – and is mostly unreachable. Ed Bicknell, former head of procurement and HR: ‘He actually made things worse.’

When in March 2019 an audit ordered by the British government is carried out, the financing of Operation Magic Carpet is also raised. To explain to the British controllers what happened with the money, Le Mesurier takes a wrong decision: he has two antedated receipts made – Eleveld knows about this.

In May 2019 the Dutchman becomes cfo. The tensions about his functioning are increasing. On 22 October 2019 Le Mesurer writes Eleveld a formal notice about ‘informal complaints’ by staff to the HR manager about his behavior on three occasions: ‘uncontrolled anger’, ‘shouting’, banging with his fist on the table, addressing team members in ‘an intimidating and disrespectful manner’.

Le Mesurier is looking into possibilities to dismiss him, but also tries to get the work relationship on track. Eleveld is convinced that the end of his time with Mayday is nearing, tells Bicknell, who would occasionally have a beer with him. He noticed how the Dutchman starts to agitate against Le Mesurier and especially his wife Winberg.
Meanwhile Mayday wants an external evaluation to see whether the organization is on track with the changes implemented on the advice of the British controllers. For that assignment Eleveld hires SMK, an accountancy firm in the Dutch province of Twente, which previously worked on the Mayday annual reports 2017 and 2018, but which has no further international experience, let alone with ngo‘s operating in war zones.

Early November Eleveld boards the plane with two accountants of smk to Istanbul for a four-days visit to perform the advisory evaluation assignment. To the astonishment of the Mayday staff, the Dutch accountants don’t ask about the recent changes, but about matters from the past, such as cash withdrawals, the position of Le Mesurier and his wife Emma Winberg and their finances. Also the receipts of Operation Magic Carpet are looked at. ‘It was an ambush’, says Bicknell.

On 7 November 2019 the Dutch accountants have a closing meeting in the five star hotel Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus with Le Mesurier and Eleveld. It comes crashing down on Le Mesurier that this conversation is especially about his personal finance. The matter with the two receipts appears to be a ticking time bomb. This will be marked as fraud, the accountants state. Eleveld tells several staff that under Dutch law their boss will probably be awaiting prison sentence because of fraud.

Le Mesurier is full of self-blame. He fears that the donors will have no mercy and will close the money tap. On 8 November he writes them an e-mail, in which he reports he committed fraud, and offers his resignation. The donors reject the gesture. But they do demand a forensic investigation.

Le Mesurier is overwhelmed by stress. After a sleeping pill and having rested for a short while, he gets out of bed in the night of 11 November. Winberg sees him standing near the window smoking a cigarette. Then she drifts off to sleep. She startles awake in the early morning as the Turkish police is knocking on the door. When she looks through the window, she sees her husband lying dead on the street.

Immediately speculations gather steam. Is it suicide? Or a hit job as the Russians have performed against their enemies? Voices from the Syrian-Russian smear campaign are dishing out their own conspiracy theories: Le Mesurier would have been a British spy eliminated by his bosses because he knew too much. Early July 2021 the British coroner concludes there are no indications for suicide. An unfortunate fall ended the life of 48-year-old Le Mesurier.

After his death the Mayday staff remains behind, devastated. They design a plan to handle matters in a correct way as to make sure the White Helmets can continue their work. Eleveld is now in charge as the sole board member. While the office is in deep mourning, the problems increase. Many staff are not receiving their salaries, and Eleveld refuses to get those payments running. Meanwhile he has himself salary and benefits paid. People are desperate, but the Dutchman often doesn’t respond, or reacts aggressive and cursing, ex-staffers say. ‘There were problems that he should have fixed, but he used it as a weapon’, says Bicknell. Eleveld asserts his power. In the week before Christmas he orders the lawyers to send a letter to Winberg in which she is accused of ‘unlawful enrichment of herself and others at the expense of the organization’; he suspends her as chief impact officer.

The developments at Mayday are causing much concern at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. On the basis of meetings with Eleveld, officials mention ‘suspected fraud’, money for ‘private affairs’, ‘dubious cash withdrawals’ up to approximately 800,000 euro or more, or write about ‘confirmed fraud’ referring to the smk minutes. The specter of possible malpractices with Dutch subsidies for Syria is looming. Minister Kaag wants to publicly inform Parliament. But her officials advise to wait for the conclusions of accountancy firm Grant Thornton which has just started the financial forensic investigation. They get their way.

In January 2020 a Supervisory Board gets started. Its chairman is Cor Vrieswijk, a troubleshooter pur sang who handled many complex crises in the world of the international aviation, such as at Easyjet. Initially Eleveld manages to put him on a wrong track as well. The cfo dishes out stories about a loose way of dealing with cash, the 50,000 dollar and the lavish lifestyle of the couple Le Mesurier: a wedding gown of 90,000 dollars, a speedboat of 50,000, a year-long honeymoon. All this with Mayday as cash-cow.

It doesn’t take long before that impression completely turns around. Vrieswijk discovers that Eleveld told lies about Le Mesurier and Winberg. He becomes impressed with the work and dedication of the Mayday staff, while noticing weak aspects of the organization as well.

End of January the donors decide to stop financially supporting Mayday. While Vrieswijk is preparing a closure of the organization, the relation with Eleveld goes off the rails. He frustrates the planned trajectory. Vrieswijk reports to the Ministry that Eleveld refuses to share the bank passes with the Supervisory Board, and threatens to stop a software program possibly erasing all e-mails and databases.

On 13 March 2020 Eleveld is suspended as statutory director of Mayday, and dismissed on 30 April. Vrieswijk becomes ceo. Meanwhile Mayday is thoroughly investigated by Grant Thornton. After almost half a year of interviews, plus digging in ledgers, receipts and e-mails, the forensic experts report on 29 May in their summary: ‘The key finding of our investigation of the flagged transactions leads us to believe that there is no evidence of misappropriation of funds. For the most part we have been able to refute the alleged irregularities. (…) In particular, the cash withdrawals by James Le Mesurier and Emma Winberg were justified and are accounted for.’

The uncertainty about the ‘50k Emergency Fund’ is the result of ‘a misunderstanding’. The researchers find proof that Le Mesurier had the remaining 40,800 dollar deducted from his income. ‘The only mistake he made is that he had forgotten about it, and had a receipt made’, says a financial expert who is acquainted with the forensic investigation.
Grant Thornton does find ‘significant gaps in the administrative organization and internal control environment of Mayday’ and ‘significant cash transactions that have not been (fully) recorded in the cash books and/or general ledger’. But the financial expert says: ‘All allegations have been refuted. The book keeping was sloppy, but in light of the complex circumstances and the millions the organization was dealing with, it is actually remarkable that apart from a few thousand euro, all transactions could be traced.’

Vrieswijk: ‘It was clear that at Mayday no money was embezzled. It confirmed my impression of James, as it developed during the last months, of a man of integrity who I came to really admire.’

However, the researchers find malpractices from a very different source. It is Eleveld who turned out to have awarded himself extra’s. On 30 June 2020 the Dutch court decided that Eleveld has to pay back over 18,000 euro to Mayday. The judge says the work relations between de former [kapitaal]cfo[kapitaal] and Mayday are disturbed and orders the foundation to pay his full salary and a transmission fee until the end of his contract.

The reputations of Mayday and the White Helmets have taken a serious blow. Ironically, this time the disinformation comes from an internal source, CFO Eleveld.

[aanhef]The Dutch daily de Volkskrant[aanhef] also contributes to the fraud-frame. On 17 July 2020 the newspaper goes big with a news report that Mayday ‘embezzled’ donor money plus a longread by Ana van Es and Anneke Stoffelen with the headline: ‘The dark page of the White Helmets’. Leitmotiv in this long feature is the question: what has happened with the ‘missing’ 50,000 dollars? On the basis of anonymous persons – except the deceased Le Mesurier – and other sources, a picture is painted of an organization which has a loose and unclear way of handling money and an self-enriching top. Although Eleveld is never mentioned by name, he is a source for the article. Recurring figure is the unknown ‘Dutch accountant’, who wants to know about the 50,000 dollars.

But the longread does not mention that the matter has already been clarified by Grant Thornton. The conclusion of the forensic investigation, that lasted for months, that no financial embezzlement had occurred, is not included in the article itself, but added in a separate box. As if the exonerating information is less important.

Several Dutch media copy the news. In the English online versions de Volkskrant continues to emphasize the ‘fraud’ claims with a news story, ‘Founder of Foundation behind White Helmets Admits Fraud’, and a matching longread with the headline ‘The confession of James Le Mesurier’ and ‘$50,000 goes missing’ in the lead. One day later Beeley tags the Volkskrant-journalist on Twitter referring to her own articles. Also Russia Today refers to the Volkskrant-story.

A few months later The Guardian refutes the accusations of fraud. The bbc, in a podcast series ‘Intrigue, Mayday’, of twelve episodes about the tragedy, comes to the same conclusion.

How did the Dutch government proceed with Mayday? There was still an outstanding payment. After a debate at the Ministry, Kaag decides on 30 June 2020 that the amount of 57,435 euro, which Mayday is entitled to depending on the outcome of the Grant Thornton-investigation, won’t be transferred to the organization. The curator objects to the decision to not pay the money to Mayday. To Vrieswijk’s astonishment the tax authorities claim 114,000 euro. ‘This seems to be a mistake of the tax authorities which we are still discussing’, he explains. In fact, he says, everything had already been settled with the tax authorities and Mayday had actually also received money.

While the Dutch government doesn’t support the Syrian rescue workers, The Hague presents itself still as a ‘large humanitarian donor’ in Syria and the region. Since the Syrian conflict the Netherlands has contributed about 130 million euro to the work of the United Nations, 6.9 million through the Red Cross and 65 million through the Dutch Relief Alliance. Assistance in regime held area is very risky, states Human Rights Watch. In an alarming report Rigging the System the human rights organization concludes in 2019 that Damascus manages to co-opt humanitarian assistance and reconstruction and development funding, and to divert these to fund atrocities, punish opponents and reward loyal persons. ‘Hostages’, that’s how hrw-director Kenneth Roth labels the aid organizations that, out of fear to lose access to Syria, give in to the demands of the criminal regime. While the support for the White Helmets, who save people’s lives and can justify their expenses, has been stopped, The Hague remains silent about the risks that Dutch aid money channelled through Damascus ends up in the networks of the regime and contributes to crimes.

In the international arena Minister Blok presents himself as the figurehead of justice with the announcement on 18 September 2020 that the Netherlands will hold the Syrian regime accountable for the ‘horrific crimes’ it commits. ‘The evidence is clear. This can’t stay without consequences’, the Minister states. As first a series of procedures has to be followed, it will take years before the Netherlands can take the case to an international court. In order to be successful, solid evidence is needed – evidence that is also collected by the Syrian rescue workers with cameras on their helmets. But the Dutch government doesn’t support them and leaves it to others to financially fund the organization. In fact, all other donors remained loyal to the White Helmets.

Mayday had to close its doors on 12 August 2020. To date the tragedy remains painful for the former staff. And the White Helmets? Despite all the terrible adversities they continued. Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets, writes that his teams documented this summer at least 287 attacks on civilian areas in southern Idlib, killing two team members and 89 civilians and injuring hundreds more. ‘To our horror, 27 children have been killed in less than two months, including our teammate Omar’s young daughters Nour and Iman, who were killed when the shelling hit their home. We are heartbroken for Omar’s loss.’

The international community ‘has run out of even empty words of condemnation’ to these ‘horrific crimes’, he writes. The feeling of abandonment is in sharp contrast with the commitment of the White Helmets. Al-Saleh thinks about the promise by rescue worker Husam to two girls who were trapped under the rubble of their bombed home: ‘We will not leave you.’


This investigative longread is based on months of research. About twenty persons have been interviewed for this article: former staff of Mayday Rescue, persons from the political and diplomacy circles, experts and other involved persons. SMK says that the law prevents the accountancy firm from reacting. De Groene has repeatedly contacted Johan Eleveld. He states that the paragraphs about him contain inaccuracies, but doesn’t give a concrete explanation or correction on the content of the points which are raised.

De Groene also possesses the SMK-minutes, the summary of the Grant Thornton-investigation, the e-mail of James Le Mesurier to the donors and other documents. Also used are: online sources like court and bankruptcy records, reports, documents of Parliament and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, articles and media-productions.