International Volunteers in Rojava – Part 1 and 2

  • December 9, 2020

by Mark Campbell

It is important to understand from the beginning that the wider Kurdish Movement has always had a strong tradition of internationalism and has attracted non Kurds to their movement long before the Rojava Revolution but it is also true to say that never before have International Volunteers joined with the Kurdish struggle in such numbers.

The Rojava Revolution, is the only multi-religion, feminist, ecological and horizontally organised movement in the whole middle east.

It is also true to say that the International Volunteers have made a widely reported, significant and evidently meaningful contribution to not just the struggle and defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but also to the development of civil society in North East Syria too, often at huge personal sacrifice.


Following the so called ‘Arab Spring’ – a series of uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia and spread to many countries in the Middle East including Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain – protests began in Syria against the Assad regime. Beginning as social movements against the regime, the conflict quickly became a battlefield for influential powers using proxies to further their regional interests.

The Kurds, taking advantage of Assad’s new situation battling Syrian opposition groups, began a revolution in their own areas that Assad had held them under brutal suppression for decades. They began to build a new society in their newly found freedom and self-control.

However, they soon came under the attack of the emerging ISIS, who as evidence has proved, were supported by the Turkish regime in Ankara. The Kurds were an inspiration to the world, not just for their heroism in the face of ISIS but for the new society they were building under a paradigm of women’s equality, radical democracy and ecological progressive policies. They began to attract International Volunteers who were drawn to such a programme.


International Volunteers’ solidarity with the Rojava Revolution

Since the beginning of the Rojava Revolution on 19 July 2012 until today, it is estimated that 49 International Volunteers have fallen and been killed in action, fighting alongside the Kurds. As many as up to one thousand International Volunteers, perhaps more, have travelled to North East Syria to be in solidarity with the Kurdish people’s struggle, firstly in the fight against ISIS and more recently to contribute to the development of civil society that has earned the reputation of being one of the most progressive social societal systems in the world today.


A society which, whilst fighting and decisively defeating ISIS – one of the most evil threats to face the world since the fall of the Nazis in Germany – has formed and been developing a system of radical democracy. One that is based on feminism, progressive ecological policies and radical participatory democracy and which implements the ideas of the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan on Democratic Confederalism.

International Volunteers have travelled from many different parts of the world. Just a scant look at some of the countries of origin of those who have fallen in Rojava gives you an idea of the wide spectrum of countries and regions that these volunteers have traveled from: the UK, USA, Germany, Argentina, Iran, Australia, Slovakia, Armenia, France, Holland, Galicia, Italy, Spain, Lebanon, Turkey, Sweden, Iceland and Brittany, to name but just a few.

There have been sufficient numbers of International Volunteers in Rojava since 2015 to make their presence tangible, visible and felt in Kurdish cities all over North East Syria. If travelling around Rojava, it would be normal, for example, when visiting a hospital or school to meet one or two International Volunteers working there. During the height of the battles against the Islamic State, at any given time, there would be up to 100 International Volunteers on the front lines and hundreds more providing support to civil society behind the front lines.

Many volunteers work in the humanitarian field, addressing the consequences of war and supporting hospitals, infrastructure and water projects, refugees, as well as communal projects growing vegetables and crops for self sufficiency and projects to support women who have been victims of domestic violence or victims of sexual crimes committed by ISIS. Many more support media outlets with their reporting, editing and proofreading skills.

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Têkoşîna Anarşîst (Anarchist Struggle) was created at the end of 2017 after the liberation of Raqqa.

International Volunteers have evidently made a very significant and meaningful contribution to the military, political and humanitarian aspects of the war in North East Syria. Yet, they have strangely received very little global recognition for their selfless contributions.

Chris Scurfield, the father of Kosta Scurfield, who left the Royal Marines and travelled to Rojava to help the Kurds repel ISIS in the early days of 2014 spoke to Medya News of his deep disappointment that his son’s and others’ sacrifices, and the work of all the International Volunteers, has not been held up and appreciated and recognised more by the international community and the general public at large in light of the heroic personal sacrifices they have made.

“It saddens and frustrates me that despite the amazing sacrifice, progressive and positive developments that the International Volunteers have contributed to in Rojava, their work and sacrifice is not appreciated and worse, shameful attempts have been made to ‘criminalise’ their efforts by some scurrilous government departments. I really just don’t understand this!”, he said.

Macer Gifford, one of the early International Volunteers who travelled to fight with the Kurds, spoke fondly of the early days. In the early days, he explained how some of the first volunteers would travel to Rojava via a Facebook page called ‘Lions of Rojava’ run by ‘K’, a woman in Germany.

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“I was kind of nervous. I didn’t know if it was genuine but I really wanted to volunteer. But ‘K’ made me feel immediately at ease and was very supportive and helpful. Those early days were a little chaotic and dare I say, unprofessional, but those International Volunteers who came to Rojava from all over the world and did remarkable things. Of course, some people came for the wrong ideological reasons at the start but the People’s Protection Units (YPG) soon were able to quickly identify them and convince them that perhaps it was not for them. We were a broad church of people with a commonly held view and a similar vein of compassion and principles”, explained Gifford.

Macer explained that during the early days, people came for a myriad of reasons but when they witnessed what the Kurds were doing and building in Rojava, it inspired them further. “I remember one man”, he said. “He came from the US and offered to help with infrastructure. I think he was helping with the building and placing of telegraph poles but when he saw the amazing things the Kurdish people were doing, he asked to be transferred to the YPG to defend the extraordinary gains made by the Kurds”, Macer recalled with pride and emotion.

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Macer hesitated and choked when he spoke of the ‘Angels’ – as he called them – such as Jack Holmes and Kosta Scurfield who he fought alongside and who would later fall in Rojava: Kosta at the very beginning of the war and Jack at the very end, with the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa. Macer wanted to pay tribute to all of the ‘martyrs’ as he called them, the Kurdish and International Volunteers who fought and died for such a noble cause, as he described it.

Over 12,000 mostly Kurds, but also Arabs, Christians and others have fallen fighting against ISIS since they invaded Sinjar in 2014 and then went on the attack in Kobane and Rojava with Turkish state backed encouragement and support.

As warnings are presently being sounded again about the fear of a repeated attack on Rojava, this time directly from Turkish forces and their affiliated jihadist gangs made up of ex-ISIS, al Qaeda and al-Nusra remnants, we shall be looking in greater depth at the contribution made by the International Volunteers over the next few days, in further articles linked to this series.

We will also be looking at the different motivations of some government representatives in departments in some countries that have sought to ‘criminalise’ the contribution of the International Volunteers with legal prosecutions – attempts that have largely failed.

Image result for marching from Derrick, Rojava to Bașur

Kurdish youth and internationalists formed a ‘human shield’ in Qandil

It is important to appreciate the hardships volunteers have been subjected to as a result of these criminalisation policies: some have faced imprisonment, loss of jobs, suicide and post traumatic stress disorders. We will also hear from some International Volunteers themselves and from Kurdish people who have valued their contribution to the revolution in Rojava.

Dead for the Revolution. nuestros compañeros, Kendal Breizh y Baran Galicia

There is no doubt that the International Volunteers have made a significant and deeply meaningful contribution and sacrifice, mirroring the meaningful struggle and sacrifice of the Kurdish people themselves.


The motivations of International Volunteers in Rojava – Part 2

  • December 10, 2020

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.

Compañero Samuel de Galicia Matado entre otros defendiendo Afrin de los Fascistas

Compañero Samuel de Galicia Matado entre otros defendiendo Afrin de los Fascistas

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.

Lorenzo “Orso” Orsetti..killed by ISIS.. But Lives Always in our Hearts

“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).

Friends of a female British fighter who was killed by Turkish forces 27 hours into an occupation of the roof of an Airbus facility in Filton, Bristol, after camping on the roof overnight. They were protesting at the company’s ongoing sale of military hardware to the Turkish army. Bristolian Anna Campbell was killed in an airstrike on 15th March as she tried to protect civilians fleeing the invasion of Afrin in Northern Syria.

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.

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Janet Biehl, author, copy editor, and graphic artist, Burlington, USA.. see also> Radical Cities and Social Revolution: An Interview with Janet Biehl

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”.

Icelander Reportedly Killed In Action In Afrin

The anarchist from Iceland, Haukur Hilmarsson was 32 years old. He was assassinated by the Turkish forces invading Syria in Efrín .

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”.

‘Bringing the Afrin War to European Streets': Direct Action Catalogue

‘Bringing the Afrin War to European Streets’: Direct Action Catalogue

“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.

International Volunteers in Rojava – Part 1

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Author: thefreeonline

The Free is a book and a blog. Download free E/book ...”the most detailed fictional treatment of the movement from a world recognizably like our own to an anarchist society that I have read...

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