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Sunday 20 May 2018

'I’d never stood in the street and watched men firing machine guns at each other before' - Irish aid worker describes horrors of Syrian conflict

Isis militants
Isis militants

Meadhbh McGrath

An Irish aid worker in Syria has spoken about how the "relentless" violence of Isis militants compelled him to become a volunteer.

Calvin James was an acquaintance of Joshua Molloy, the young Laois man who was arrested in Iraq earlier this month after fighting ISIS with the YPG, a Kurdish resistance group.

“People were saying that he was here for the money, but any YPG volunteer that was here (knows) there was no money in it at all.

“The media were saying that he came here looking for action and that he was bored, again this is nonsense, he was affected by the plight of the Azidis, the same reason why I came out here,” he said on RTE Radio One’s Liveline.

Mr James is originally from Blanchardstown, Dublin, and first visited the Middle East in 2012.

“My mum had just lost a very heroic battle with cancer over seven years, and I was working with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties so I wasn’t taking care of myself at the time.

“I pretty much asked my boss if I could get out for a couple of weeks, my head was melted, so he gave me a couple of weeks off.

“The endless mountains and vast open spaces of Kurdistan were very appealing at the time,” he said.

Mr James described travelling through Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, where he befriended many Kurdish people.

Read More: Irishman jailed in Iraq after Isis battle 'will probably never go back to the Middle East' - relieved dad

On returning home, he found himself constantly thinking about “the plight of these people and the rise of the Islamic state”, and was driven to become a volunteer.

“I felt that I had to get involved,” he said.

“I was just lying in bed thinking about the people that I was hanging out with (when I visited) and what had happened to them.

“I remember I was in a taxi with the two girls the first time I was over and I was thinking what happened to them? Are they still alive?

“I couldn’t sleep at night so I just made the decision to come out.”

Speaking about the so-called Islamic state, he continued: “They’ve taken oppression to a whole new level. Even Al Qaeda are now known as moderate extremists and we all know what Al-Qaeda have done.

“It was the plight of the Yazidis, girls as young as nine or ten getting kidnapped and sold into slavery (that prompted me to go).”

A friend he made on his first trip to Iraq put him in touch with a member of the YPG on Facebook, and although Mr James didn’t want to fight, he applied to volunteer and was offered a position as a logistician.

Read More: Male (26) single, well-educated but no expert on Quran - Isis documents reveal profile of 'average militant'

Just a couple of weeks after starting, he was forced to head home for a personal reason, but he said he couldn’t stop thinking about the situation in Iraq and was determined to return.

Having spent a number of years fund-raising, he got a job as an aid worker in the north Syrian town of Qamishli with the Red Crescent.

“I’m training to be a paramedic at the moment, and I’m working in the civil defence emergency response unit, which deals with everything from accidents to shootings to car crashes, anything that can be thrown at the city,” he said.

Although he noted he lives in “one of the safer regions”, the city suffered two days of bloodshed last week as fighting erupted between Kurdish and pro-government factions.

“I’d never actually stood in the middle of the street and watched men firing machine guns at each other before,” Mr James said of the “relentless” battle.

As part of his work, he underwent three weeks of training in basic weapons, language and ideology, but he said he has never taken up arms.

“I was put out in a civilian capacity and I was kind of lucky, because they have their own security team so I didn’t have to take up arms at all,” he said.

Mr James added that he is hoping to return to Ireland permanently in September.

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