by Mark Campbell
The flower helps the bee by giving it nectar, and the bee helps pollinate the flower by moving pollen from flower to flower.
Horrified by the barbaric videos that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were uploading onto the internet of beheadings, mass executions of civilians and bodies being thrown down cliffs and from rooftops, Jordan Matson – an American man of a strong religious Christian faith from Wisconsin, the United States (US) – decided he was going to do something to help stop them. And so arrived the first International Volunteer in Rojava to fight alongside the Kurds.
Jordan arrived in Rojava in October 2014 and very quickly became respected by the Kurdish fighters for his bravery and commitment to the fight against ISIS. He was the first in a long line of International Volunteers that would tread the same path for the next six years, although today there is a very different kind of International Volunteer in Rojava compared to those who came in the early days.
Macer, Jack, Jim, Ashley, Kostas and so many others have since followed in Jordan’s footsteps: it is impossible to name them all unless you are in possession of an official register in Rojava that could detail them all and provide us with a clearer picture of these heroes, as I personally see them, who left the comfort of their homes to travel to a land far away to volunteer and commit themselves, their bodies and their lives, to fight, live, learn, educate and help people in the revolutionary struggle. It is estimated that up to 1,000 International Volunteers have served in North East Syria alongside the Kurds and the people of the region.
Some people have compared them to the International Brigades who rallied to the call of the Spanish Republic to fight fascism but to some others, the comparison with the horrors of war in Vietnam is more appropriate, as many of them have witnessed and lived horrors beyond our wildest imaginations.
Some courageous people like Ryan Lock fell into the hands of ISIS and rather than being paraded in orange suits, turned their guns upon themselves. There is Jack Holmes, whose stories of hand-to-hand battles with ISIS fighters made my hair stand on end. I spoke to Jack’s mother Angie Blannin and she reminded me that despite the deep void that has been left in all of the parents of the International Volunteers who fell, most want us to remember their sons with pride, as they do.
“Jack grew into the man he was meant to be over the three years he was fighting in Iraq and Syria. As its been quoted before that ISIS isn’t just a problem of the Middle East, it’s a global issue and Jack strongly felt that the western governments, having created the problem, were not doing enough to resolve it. I’ll miss Jack until I take my last dying breath but I am so incredibly proud of what he achieved for a young man in his early 20’s”, Angie told me.
This point was reiterated by Jane Lyndon, the mother of Ollie Hall, who fell in an ISIS booby trap in Raqqa in Syria whilst clearing explosive ordnance for civilians to return to their houses. “We didn’t know Ollie was travelling to Syria in August 2017 but we knew he felt strongly regarding the awful terrorism of ISIS. He took me to work the morning he left and was very angry and passionate about the treatment of women and children by ISIS. Ollie really found his purpose out in Syria and sent me videos of himself giving children water, explaining that the United Nations does nothing for them. Obviously, we were all devastated at what happened but we are also so proud and now I understand why he went. Had he returned to the UK, he would have gone back to continue to help the Kurdish people. We are all very proud of everyone who gives up their home comforts to help the Kurdish people”, she noted. Jane wanted to thank, in particular, all the Kurdish people who had been so supportive to her and her family since Ollie’s tragic death on 25 November 2017.
For Asmin, the Kurdish female coordinator of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) Women’s International Volunteers in Rojava, one can see a symbiotic relationship between the International Volunteers and the Rojava Revolution.
Speaking to Asmin in what is now called the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES), she talks of the contributions and changing motivations of the International Volunteers with a lot of pride in her voice: “The participation of the International Volunteers started with the war against Daesh. They fought alongside us, the Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac and other peoples of Rojava, in the war against ISIS. They fought with us. They died with us. They lived side by side with us and learned a lot of the culture of Rojava with us. They evolved into a bridging channel for Rojava to reach the outside world. To enable the world to learn about the Rojava Revolution. The International Volunteers have played a critical role in making the Rojava Revolution known throughout the world”.
Asmin explains how International Volunteers motivations changed in later years: “After Daesh was defeated and the character of the war changed, Turkey directly attacked Rojava and we saw the more ideologically motivated volunteers emerge – for example, Şehid Helin (the UK International Volunteer Anna Campbell) who was prepared to fight against Turkey, a nation state and member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). We could see the courage and wisdom of these new ideological International Volunteers who wanted to defend the revolution and stay alongside us in Afrin, in Serekaniye, in Girê Spî and in other places where the Turkish state forces attacked us”.
Asmin, who has fought side by side with many International Volunteers and lost many such friends, continued: “There are International Volunteers in every sphere of civilian and military society here: they work in the women’s organisations, in Kongra Star, in Jineology, in education, hospitals, engineering, finance and of course some people engage in media work, which is critical in explaining the system of Democratic Confederalism and the inner workings of the new system we are trying implement in Rojava”.
Asmin continues: “The International Volunteers receive training and education when they arrive and they bring fresh ideas that we can implement in our new society we are building and growing. An important point I would like to emphasize is that these friends come from what we call Capitalist Modernity systems and so they are able to analyse, compare and contrast these systems with our new and emerging Democratic Modernity system. So we have fantastic and lively discussions between ourselves that benefit both them, the International Volunteers, and us, the Kurds. Everyone enjoys this relationship of sharing ideas and we grow from this together”.
Asmin concludes with a very poignant statement about the contribution of the International Volunteers in Rojava. She says: “We, as Kurds, get a lot from this relationship and they, as Internationalists, get a lot too so it’s truly a symbiotic relationship between the revolution and our International Volunteer friends. We can say that the revolution here grows and enriches the International Volunteers and that the International Volunteers grow and enrich the Rojava revolution”.
One of those International Volunteers who has also made a very significant contribution to that revolution and how it is understood outside of Rojava is Thomas McClure, a British International Volunteer and professional journalist who has been in Rojava for three years now. He has helped to set up and run the Rojava Information Centre, which Thomas describes as an independent body which aims to be the number one news source for journalists and human rights organisations wanting to follow and understand the situation in Rojava.
Thomas describes his motivations for wanting to go to Rojava. He thought that there were, as he put it, “exciting ideas being tried out here and that it is terribly important to understand this new dynamic system that has been established and is growing every day. I wanted to use my skills as a professional journalist to help be a bridge between Rojava and the outside world”. As a journalist, Thomas was frustrated by the way in which the Turkish media was distorting the reality and how the Turkish distortions were dominating the narrative with regard to Rojava, especially after the Afrin invasion and occupation by Turkish forces. He wanted to contribute to a better understanding of events in North East Syria: he feels they have been misunderstood and subjected to exaggerations from all sides.
For International Volunteer Bawer from the United States, who has been in Rojava since 2016, it is not so much about ‘motivations’ but who you are, as a person, deep down. As he explained to me from a city in NE Syria: “Everyone has their own motivation for coming to Rojava. Some came simply because they were motivated to fight a vile enemy, whilst some came to defend a new political experiment. Others came seeking something new. But it became obvious pretty early on that what was much more important than your motivation was the kind of person that you are, when are here”.
“You can read a thousand pages of theory or you can fire a thousand rounds perfectly but who are you, deep down, as a person? That is what mattered more to us. The heval (friend) who would bring you tea at 2am on a cold frosty morning on guard duty, or help you to sight your rifle when you just weren’t getting it right: those are the ones you remember, regardless of where they came from or why. These are the ones who truly embody the spirit of the revolution which Serok Apo (Abdullah Öcalan) has gifted to the world. These are the ones you still feel next to you when you are struggling”, Bawer noted, remembering those many friends who have fallen next to him, both Kurdish and International Volunteers.
The vast majority of the International Volunteers will share the sentiments of the Italian volunteer Lorenzo ‘Orso’ Orsetti who was killed in an ISIS ambush in Baghouz 18 March 2019. Orsetti summed up his motivations for fighting in Rojava this way: “Rojava is the most beautiful revolution in the world, the closest thing I’ve ever found to my ideals and it is a pleasure and an honour to have taken part!”
Part 3 of this series will look at how some governments have attempted – and largely failed – to criminalise the International Volunteers.