A Corkman who volunteered to fight ISIS on the front line in Iraq has appealed to the people of Ireland to help support efforts to thwart the spiralling crisis, writes Liz Dunphy of the Evening Echo.
Former military man, Michael Martin, from Cork city, a former pupil of the North Monastery school and played hurling with Glen Rovers, who has seen, and felt, the brutality of war.
Friends have been violently injured and killed and he has exchanged fire with ISIS, or Daesh — the terrorist organisation’s Arabic acronym.
Knowledge of the bloodshed and innocent victims claimed by an illegally waged war inspired him to travel to Iraq to join the Kurdish Peshmerga regional army on the frontline in Iraq.
“I have four children, we’re lucky to live in a safe, stable country. I had skills that I knew would be useful to the Peshmerga forces so I volunteered to help them. If we in Ireland were faced with a threat like ISIS, we would want other people to come and help us and our children,” he said.
On that flight to Iraq he met broadcaster Ross Kemp who was making a documentary on Western volunteers fighting in Syria, which is due to be screened on Sky One this autumn.
“He was a nice guy, it was uplifting to meet him, we have the same goals,” he said. Mr Martin is adamant that the war is not about Islam.
“I stood beside Muslims on the front line. I worked with Muslim men who are fighting other Muslim men. The Muslim religion is not the problem. ISIS is the problem. When the IRA were bombing the English in the 80s every Irish person was tarnished as a terrorist, now we’re doing the same to the Muslims and we can’t do that.” He said that there is a natural affinity and great similarities between the Kurds and the Irish.
“We have the same sense of humour, and a love for our countries,” he said.
The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless nation and they have proved to be the West’s most effective partner in the war against ISIS.
They have been brutalised and subjected to genocidal campaigns in the recent past. In the 1980s, 182,000 civilians were slaughtered by the Iraqi government, and thousands more displaced and deported.
But Mr Martin said that he has never met a more resilient, courageous, resourceful or hospitable people.
“They’re working and fighting for love of the land, and nothing else. Life on the front line is tough, but the soldiers guard each other with their lives.” He said that protective gear could lesson Peshmerga injuries, and more medical training and supplies could drastically reduce mortalities and lesson injuries sustained by both fighters and civilians.
He has appealed for people to contact the Kurdish Irish Society on Facebook to offer help or supplies.
“There is nothing stopping anyone from contacting the Kurdish Irish Society to ask what they can do, whether it’s donating shoes, socks, crayons, or paper. There are ways to fight violence without using violence,” he said.
Mr Martin plans to return to Kurdistan, but he first wants to rally support for the cause and get equipment to bring over.
On one of his first nights back home he met a Kurdish man working in a chipper in Cork, a reminder of how close the conflict really is to many people in Ireland.
Mr Martin spent four months in Iraq and hitchhiked hundreds of miles across the country to visit various Peshmerga units.
“Hitchhiking, with ISIS, the number one terrorist organisation in the world just 20km away, was a surreal experience. But I never got any trouble there and I never saw any street crime.” He chose not to travel armed to respect civilians and children and not to intimidate locals.
“In Iraq itself, the main cities are like Las Vegas with marble floors, people wear Rolex watches and drive Range Rovers. But when you go down south or up north you see the distinction in the refugee situation. When we were down in Makhmur, people were living in rubble shells of houses, with sheets as windows, and children had no shoes. ISIS are only 10 km away, so the threat of them coming is constant.
"We had other refugees escaping villages that were controlled by ISIS coming to our lines and basically leaving their homes, their livestock, their lives to flee ISIS. We were the first aftercare that they had. If they were dehydrated we’d give them fluid, medical care, shoes, food and basically be some reassurance for them.”
In his opinion, the West could do more to aid the Kurdish struggle and defeat ISIS in the Middle East.
“People are saying ISIS is taking over Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria. The Syrian Kurds and the Peshmerga are some of the most resilient, courageous men I’ve ever met. They go into battle with their bare hands, not caring about money. They have limited access to weapons. If we want the problem in Iraq and Syria to disappear we need to get behind the Kurdish people and the Peshmerga because the job they’re doing is fantastic. For people to have the world’s number one terrorist organisation on their doorstep and still fight them and live their everyday lives, it’s so commendable. No words can describe it.”
He said that recent speculation about mercenaries being hired to fight this war are unfounded and he was not paid to fight with the Peshmerga.
“This is totally voluntary. I’m just a volunteer for a humanitarian group and I’m personally funded. I paid for my own weapons, transport, and food. But the Kurdish people looked after us, they shared whatever food they had and offered us somewhere to sleep. They are the most hospitable and courageous people I have ever met,” he said.
This story first appeared as an exclusive in today's Evening Echo.