Life after fighting ISIS: The western volunteers who came home

Three former YPG fighters who travelled to Syria to join what became the deadliest war of the decade speak to The National about dealing with the more difficult task of returning home

From ex-soldiers to those who believed they were revolutionaries, thousands of westerners traveled to Syria to fight ISIS alongside the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and the women’s militia, the YPJ. The death toll of foreign volunteers was in the hundreds, and while some of those who survived stayed behind, many returned home and had to face the task of readjusting to normal life.

But what happened next?

The forex trader

Four years after starting a prestigious and well-paid career in foreign currency trading in the UK's financial services, Macer Gifford, 33, quit the City of London to join the frontline battle against ISIS. He became invested in the Kurdish cause after reading newspaper reports about ISIS brutality.

Mr Gifford spent three years in Syria. In 2017, he started making his way home on the same day that ISIS surrendered in Raqqa, the city which had been the seat of their power in the country.

"Leaving felt like a mixture of accomplishment, tinged with intense sadness because this was my third year in a country where I'd seen dozens of my friends killed," he told The National.

Mr Gifford, who was 27 when he left London, found himself back home in his thirties with no job and having spent any savings he had from his days in the City. But unlike many, who came back without a plan, Mr Gifford spent his last few months in Raqqa considering what he would do as a civilian in London.

“I was on a rooftop in Raqqa and I had managed to connect my satellite phone to the internet and I started Googling stuff,” he said. He saw an alumni message from Loughborough University, where he studied 10 years before, and decided to study a master's in security, peace-building and diplomacy.

Since completing his degree he has begun working as a human rights activist, championing the Kurdish cause both in politics and the media across Europe. He was a leading British voice in condemning the Turkish invasion into Kurdish-held territory in October.

“After three years of nasty fighting, I wanted to get involved in the dialogue and be a part of the diplomatic engagement from the West with the Kurds. I have done a lot of media work ... and I’m close to finishing a book," he said.

“I’m lucky, I’m not haunted by my experiences in Syria,” said Gifford. “Some international volunteers came back badly wounded with bullet wounds and some have come back disabled ... When you add up all the things we’ve had to give up – time, friends, money – you have to say to yourself, 'was it worth it?' For me, it was.”

The soldier

Joshua Molloy, 28, was in 2015 the first Irish volunteer to travel to Syria to fight for the YPG. Unlike many western volunteers with no formal military training, Mr Molloy had been an infantry soldier in the British Army for four years.

“The army training gave me self-discipline,” he said. “But in a way, it was almost a curse because you’ve been trained a certain way and then you go over there and it’s completely different: There are no helmets, no body armour and you’re working in small teams.”

As he was leaving Syria in 2016, Mr Molloy was detained by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq for over a week alongside fellow volunteers Joe Ackerman and Jac Holmes. Holmes later returned to Syria in October 2017 and was killed clearing mines in Raqqa, days after the city was liberated from ISIS.

Mr Molloy found it difficult to find work upon his return home, but eventually found a job in a hotel, which he used to support himself while he applied for university. He is now in his final year of an international relations degree at Dublin City University.

“I mainly did the degree to understand the experience I’d had, to try and contextualise it and reflect on it,” he said. “I’m hoping to do a master’s degree after this.”

“I was lucky as I had some things to anchor me,” he said. “Some people came back and they had no support.”

The revolutionary

Leaving Syria was one of the most difficult things Alexander Norton has ever done.

While many volunteers travelled to the region specifically to fight ISIS, Mr Norton went to participate in what he believed to be a revolution.

A left-wing activist since he was a teenager, he travelled to Palestine in 2004 at the age of 18 to volunteer with a nonviolent protest movement in support of the Palestinian cause. Later, while working in railway construction, he became attracted by the YPG’s leftist ideology.

“As I grew up, I went from being an activist to being more of a seriously ideologically driven person,” he said.

Going to Rojava (the Kurdish name for the previously YPG-controlled part of northern Syria) was about more than just fighting on the frontline for Mr Norton, it was about being part of a movement that was creating a new society.

In his first visit to Rojava in 2015, he was part of a workers’ reconstruction brigade, rebuilding the city of Kobani that had been under siege from ISIS. He also used social media to highlight the Kurdish cause.

Mr Norton did not participate in armed combat until 2016, when he returned to take part in the campaign to liberate Raqqa.

“Yes, I carried a weapon and we did engage but I’m much prouder to say I was a revolutionary. I’d have been just as happy if my commander had said to me 'you’re going to take a group of children to paint a mural tomorrow',” he said.

He had agreed with his family that he would leave in early 2017, but the moment he was told that he would be sent home from the region still came as an unpleasant shock.

“When my commander came in and told me I was leaving the next morning, I had to go and wretch in the toilet because I was so upset that I was leaving. I was sick at the thought,” he said.

“I knew I had to [go] but this was everything I’d ever wanted in life, to participate in a revolution and be surrounded by revolutionaries. I just knew that this would be the high point of my life.”

Since returning to the UK, he has, however, found fulfillment with his partner and being involved in political projects. Last year, Mr Norton was appointed as Deputy Features Editor at a London-based socialist newspaper.

“I saw the position came up and I thought I would have no chance because of a lack of journalistic experience,” he said. “But a friend of mine said 'you should write about what you did in Syria, capturing stories and putting them out there on social media'. I think the role really suits me.”

Like a number of returning volunteers, Mr Norton is now being monitored by the British authorities. He was brought in for questioning by police in 2018 about his activities in Syria and six months later his house was searched by counter-terror officers. The situation remains unresolved.

“I’m a revolutionary, [the British authorities] will be waiting out there for the rest of my life,” he said, adding “that is fine.”