YBT Unit in Tel Tamir 2017
John Harding is a 54 year old ex-military serviceman and prior to joining the YPG he worked as an engineer. John is from the north east of England and has participated in several military operations worldwide and mostly recently with the YPG in Rojava. John became actively involved with the medical unit during his last tour in Rojava where he went on to lead the YBT (Tactical Medical Units) as a commander and train the new recruits within the unit.
By Erem Kansoy and Alan Sahin
How did you get involved in the Kurdish struggle in Rojava? How were you introduced to the Kurds?
Initially I became interested because I felt my government was not doing enough to fight ISIS and I became aware of the opportunity to volunteer through the Lions of Rojava facebook page. In 2015, I made contact with the page administrators and volunteered my services to the cause. Prior to this I had no knowledge of the Kurds or the Kurdish cause. It was the brutal execution of the Jordanian pilots who were captured by ISIS which sparked my interest. As a result of this I began to learn about the Kurdish struggle, and although I was sympathetic to the cause, I did not feel that it was my fight - my primary reason was to go and fight ISIS and stack bodies. It wasn’t until I spent some time in Rojava that I got to know the Kurdish cause and found myself identifying with it increasingly. I have always considered myself as someone with left wing beliefs, but I realised I fell in love with the Kurdish struggle and the Kurds themselves during my time in Rojava.
What is your motivation/are your personal reasons behind joining this war?
Originally my main motivation was purely because of the injustices carried out by ISIS and the threat they presented to the Western lifestyle. However, as a result of being on the ground in Rojava I learnt that the Kurds were not only fighting for themselves but also fighting for humanity. I realised that this was a struggle I could really get behind.
There seemed to be quite a few UK volunteers who took a similar path. Would you say you all shared a common goal to fight isis or would you say the reasons varied significantly?
I believe the reasons varied significantly for each foreign volunteer, also there are many “right” reasons to go and fight in Rojava. Some of the foreign volunteers who had right wing views went on to change their perception of the perceived threat of socialism as reported by media in western countries particularly. The fact that the YPG accepts volunteers from all over the world with differing viewpoints and ideologies is a testament to their open mindedness and transparency.
Please tell us something about the YBT, what is it? How established? How can diaspora Kurds help YBT? Why is YBT very important?
The YBT is a unit comprised of combat medics and it is important because there are so few medics operating on the frontline throughout Rojava. Our aim is to change this by providing training for battle medics and also source and provide equipment for battlefield injuries. The Kurdish diaspora can help by raising awareness of what the YBT has done and continues to do through social media and also through donations.
The number of YBT members vary but on average the unit will consist of 10 or so members, however the aim is to train enough YBT members in order for each battlegroup to have their own medical unit. You do not necessarily need to be from a medical background in order to become a combat medic in Rojava. What we look for is the right attitude and determination in order to make the most of the training. The YBT was mainly based in the Cizire canton but moves regularly to frontline positions. The YBT is gaining momentum and exposure through the good work they do in places like Raqqa.
How do you communicate with the Kurds while in Rojava?
Luckily we had volunteers who could speak Kurdish and Turkish so the language barrier was not too much of an issue.
How are the preparations for the battle for Raqqa?
Currently the YBT unit is behind enemy lines near to Raqqa providing support and relief for active operations. Obviously I cannot divulge too much given the ongoing battle but we can say that we have certainly saved lives and will continue to do so.
How did you perceive the attitudes of the UK government towards the British volunteers?
I believe that the British government is covertly supporting Turkey in it’s attitude towards the British volunteers, by making the lives of returning volunteers very difficult, for example. Endless investigations, some have had their passports retained for prolonged periods, electronic devices such as mobile phones have been confiscated. In some cases the harassment has been extended as far as the families of volunteers. In my case despite the fact that I was investigated and released following my first tour in Rojava, on my return the second time I have been subjected to the same procedures even though the authorities know I am not fighting for ISIS/Daesh.
There are numerous reports of the presence of other military groups fighting alongside the YPG in Rojava. Can you confirm this, and if so, from which countries? Have you met any of the foreign military forces?
Yes there are teams from various coalition countries on the ground in Rojava. However, they are there to advise and co-ordinate air strikes for example. It is the YPG and the SDF that take the lead role in the fight against ISIS, and not as some western media outlets might have the public believe. During my time in Rojava I noticed that the French special forces blended in very well with the locals.
Do you have a most memorable moment/significant memory during your tours in Rojava?
I have many good memories of Rojava but the most significant memories have to be the unfairness and brutality of the enemy. I have served in conflicts but never have I experienced such a heartless enemy, ISIS are completely devoid of compassion. Even in a battlefield you expect to see some sense of morality, I have never seen such disregard for human life even non-combatants and ordinary civilians.
YPG's foreign volunteers, martrys you have met do you have any memories of any of them you would like to share?
I met Jordan McTaggart, one of the American volunteers, back in 2015 during his first tour and served alongside him. I saw him again in 2016 during the battle of Manbij approximately 4 days before he was killed. His zeal and revolutionary fervour did not waiver but unfortunately Jordan would go on to be martyred while crossing a road which came under enemy fire.
I met another volunteer known as Gunter back in 2015 who was from Germany. Gunter fought alongside a heval known as Barzan Dok and was killed in the latter half of 2015. His death inspirared Barzan Dok to become one of the first combat medics in Rojava.
Which parts/areas of Rojava have you seen combat in?
Tel Abyad, Serekaniye, Manbij as well as countless villages throughout Rojava. Often times you are not told the name of the operation you will take part in, and it’s not until you come across a road sign that you realise where you are fighting.
There appears to be a significant number of foreign volunteers in the YPG. Do you happen to know approximate numbers and how many brigades they volunteer in or form?
It’s hard to put an exact number on the number of volunteers, my estimate is that there are 100-150 foreign volunteers fighting in Rojava at any one time.
What are your views on the arms deal Theresa May sold to Turkey at the beginning of 2017, in addition to the approximately £350 million worth of arms deals over the last two years.
Given the British government’s knowledge of Turkey’s consistent and prolific human rights abuses in particular the non-stop and open aggression towards the Kurdish people – which clearly amounts to an attempt at genocide, I find the British government’s willingness to cosy up to what clearly amounts to a dictatorial regime frankly disgusting.
Also please tell us what do you think about the upcoming referendum in Turkey?
I think that the government in Turkey is all but in name already a dictatorship. If the people of Turkey endorse this with a Yes vote it will be a sad day for democracy in the middle-east. However, I think that those who love democracy and freedom will continue to fight for their rights that we in the west take for granted.
What is your next project? Are you going back to rojava? What will you do there when you go?
My intention is to return to Rojava and to rejoin the YBT medical unit where I feel my skills will be best utilised. I would like to continue to expand the YBT capacity in order to meet the needs of the soldiers on the frontline in Rojava.
Do you have a message for the British society reading this?
The British people need to be aware that the narrative given to them by their government is not true and that they should take it upon themselves to look beyond the news that is fed to them. Do not accept the official storylines, and to be proactive and find out for yourself what is really happening in today’s society of instant worldwide communication there is no reason for you not to get the information directly from the people on the ground. When you read a story you can check its validity and you will soon find out which media outlets are the ones telling a true story. For instance the recent reported story of the chemical attack in Idlib are not as clear cut as the western media would like you to believe.
Also, do you have a message for the Kurdish youth?
The Kurdish youth owe it to their forefathers and themselves to support the struggle in Rojava and to understand that supporting the struggle doesn’t necessarily mean picking up a rifle. My advice would be for the youth to identify their own skills and utilise those to best support the struggle. Not being in Rojava does not mean you cannot support the struggle. There are many things you can do such as attending demonstrations and join social media groups to raise awareness of the cause.
I call upon the British government to recognise the Kurdish struggle particularly in light of the current critical situation with the ongoing hunger strike in Turkish prisons. This is a crucial time for the government to do more to intervene in order to stop the plight of the Kurdish people. This is a crucial time for the Kurdish youth in the UK to get in touch with their local MPs to raise awareness of the ongoing hunger strike. [The hunger strikes have since ended].
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