The martyrs of Louth and Meath
Family values: Hudhaifa El Sayed's parents, Abdel Basset and Asmaa, and brother Ali (right). photographs: alan betson and giulio petrocco
Dying for the cause: 22-year-old Hudhaifa ElSayed, from Drogheda, and 16-year-old Shamseddin Gaidan, from Navan. montage: dearbhla kelly/itpm
Mehdi al-Harati, who formed a brigade in Syria. photographs: alan betson and giulio petrocco
Two young volunteers from Ireland have died fighting with Syrian rebels in recent months. There is increasing disquiet, here and in Syria, about the role of young men from abroad in the conflict
The story of how Shamseddin Gaidan’s short life took him from a Navan classroom to an untimely death amid the chaos of Syria’s uprising begins in early 2011. In February that year the Libyan-born schoolboy watched, fascinated, as anti-regime demonstrations inspired by the toppling of dictators in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia erupted in the country that he and his family had left years before.
As the protests tipped into armed rebellion against Muammar Gadafy, Shamseddin, known as Shamsi, told his schoolfriends and teachers how much he wanted to be there to witness the revolution that ended Gadafy’s 42 years in power.
The Gaidan family are from Nofaliya, a small town on Libya’s Mediterranean coast close to where the front line see-sawed for months during the 2011 war. When on holiday with his family in Nofaliya last summer, Shamseddin would have been regaled with stories of battles lost and then won, as well as tales of the sacrifices of the shuhada, or “martyrs”.
The 16-year-old would also have heard of the scores of young Libyans who, having tasted revolution in their own country, later flocked to join rebel forces battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Many of these youths detail their exploits on Facebook. The social-networking site is also where those who die fighting are eulogised in flowery prose and melodramatic photo and video montages.
Among the Libyan fighters in Syria was Shamseddin’s 23-year-old cousin, who, it appears, was killed with him last month. His cousin had left Libya for Syria some time before Shamseddin’s parents arranged for their son to fly back to Ireland in mid August to prepare for the new academic year at St Patrick’s Classical School, in Navan.
The teenager never arrived in Dublin. Instead he took advantage of an overnight stop in Istanbul to head for the Syrian border. It is likely Shamseddin found his way to Syria with the help of his cousin, much to his family’s dismay.
“I will never understand why Shamsi went without my permission,” says his father, Ibrahim, his voice cracking with emotion.
The family subsequently received a phone call from an unknown person in Syria. “He told us Shamseddin [was there and was] helping the Syrian people.”
The last Gaidan heard from his son was a brief phone call some time later, during which he pleaded with him to return home. “He refused, saying how could he leave when the Syrian regime was killing its own people, including children.”
In mid February the Gaidan family’s worst fears were realised. They received another short phone call from a stranger in Syria, this time to tell them Shamseddin had been “martyred” some days before. Given the fog of Syria’s war, the circumstances of the teenager’s death remain unclear.
“We don’t know where or how he was killed, and we don’t know where his body might be,” says Gaidan. “It is very difficult to get any information. This confusion makes our grief much worse.”
Shamseddin Gaidan is not the first person from Ireland to join rebel forces in Syria; nor is he the first to die there. Some 20 men are estimated to have travelled from Ireland to Syria to participate in the uprising, not as medical or humanitarian volunteers, as others from here have done, but as armed rebels.
A man doing humanitarian work in northern Syria last summer told me he had met teenage fighters of Arab origin speaking with strong Irish accents. One source here claimed other young men have joined the Syrian rebellion without informing their parents.
By contrast, the family of 22-year-old Hudhaifa ElSayed, from Donacarney in Drogheda, who was shot dead by regime forces in northern Syria in December, knew exactly what he was doing.
He was born in Egypt, then moved to Ireland with his family, as a young boy, after his surgeon father, Abdel Basset, secured a job here. He attended St Mary’s Diocesan School, in Drogheda, and Dublin City University, before working as a motivational coach and trainer.
ElSayed, a naturalised Irish citizen, was well known within the Muslim community for his involvement in youth projects. A Facebook page titled Hudhaifa’s Legacy, set up in his memory, contains numerous tributes from relatives, friends, colleagues and others, including a Catholic chaplain at DCU.
ElSayed and several other men from Ireland joined the Syrian rebels as part of Liwa al-Umma, a brigade founded by a Libyan-Irish man named Mehdi al-Harati, who also commanded a rebel unit during the Libyan revolution.
ElSayed did not leave Drogheda with the aim of becoming a rebel fighter in Syria. After attending a conference in Turkey last April, he volunteered to work with Syrian refugees in the country. Several weeks later, he decided he wanted to do more.
I met ElSayed in Jarjanaz, a small dusty town in Syria’s restive Idlib province, last July. His wire-rimmed glasses seemed incongruous alongside his military-style fatigues and the Kalashnikov slung across his back.
Softly spoken and earnest, ElSayed had none of the swagger of other rebels. He justified his presence in Syria in philosophical terms. “I see my life as being about three things: searching for the truth; defending the weak against injustice and the oppressors; and helping to build peace in the world,” he said, as we watched hundreds of anti-regime protesters gather after Friday prayers. “The battle here in Syria combines all three.”
ElSayed talked about his parents’ initial worries but said their concerns were eased somewhat when they learned he was joining al-Harati’s brigade.
“He never did anything without our blessing,” recalls his mother, Asmaa. “When he decided to go over the border into Syria, he called us to ask for our permission. We told him it is okay if you really want to do that. We believe in God’s fate and that everyone has a time to leave this life.”
The issue of young men such as ElSayed and Gaidan joining the ranks of the Syrian rebels prompts mixed feelings among Ireland’s 40,000 Muslims. Some oppose it outright, others admit to feeling uneasy, but several compare it to the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
“These youths see what is happening in Syria. They see that the big countries are not doing anything to stop it, and they want to do something themselves,” says ElSayed’s father, Abdel Basset. “People like Hudhaifa are not brainwashed, they are not manipulated, they are not extreme. It is a human response. They feel they have to act, even if it endangers their life.”
Last year Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian religious scholar linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and with strong connections to the Dublin-based Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, used Twitter to call for people to go to fight in Syria or send weapons there, describing such assistance as obligatory.
In October, however, an influential Saudi cleric, Salman al-Ouda, who has visited Ireland a number of times, advised Muslim youths against going to Syria to fight “so as not to give the regime a pretext” that it is battling “terrorists” who have infiltrated the country.
Last weekend Syrian state media reported Shamseddin Gaidan’s death as “new evidence of involvement of foreign parties” in the conflict.
“The movement of young people from Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt to Syria to fight against the regime will complicate the issue, and the Afghanistan crisis will be repeated,” al-Ouda wrote on his personal webpage. “Leave Syria to the people of Syria; they do not lack courage or numbers.”
Senior Irish Muslims have echoed al-Ouda’s message in an attempt to discourage others from going to fight. Those efforts have been given fresh impetus in the wake of Shamseddin Gaidan’s death at such a young age, says Adam Argaig of the Muslim Association of Ireland.
Argaig, a Libyan who knew both Gaidan and ElSayed, is concerned about the number of foreign fighters, many with no experience, streaming into Syria. They include dozens of young men, a large number of them teenagers, from his birthplace of Derna, a town in eastern Libya well known for sending its sons to Afghanistan and Iraq in the past.
“They are young and idealistic, and they talk about doing jihad but don’t realise that they could help the Syrian people in other ways, by raising funds or highlighting their cause,” he says. Like many others, Argaig raises the spectre of what happened after the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s ended. The “Arab Afghans”, men who had joined the so-called mujahideen, returned to their home countries steeped in more radical ideologies. “We are still dealing with that legacy,” he says.
Mohammed Busidra, a sheikh in eastern Libya, shares this concern. He has been contacted by several people about relatives who have gone to Syria. They include one distraught father whose 15-year-old son left to join the rebels. He says the issue has become so pressing that he has raised it with Libya’s interior minister.
Some in Libya and Ireland blame Mehdi al-Harati for encouraging people to go to Syria. Liwa al-Umma’s Facebook page, which has been shut down, featured a video clip of the late Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar who provided the theological underpinning for the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, outlining when jihad becomes fard ayn, meaning an individual duty. A message bylined by Harati contained an invitation to “join the jihad in the land of al-Sham”, a reference to Syria.
Harati became embroiled in controversy in late 2011 when an Irish tabloid alleged, citing anonymous sources, that he had received money from US intelligence, a claim he firmly denied. He formed Liwa al-Umma early last year after several Syrians, aware of his experience as a rebel commander in Libya, approached him about establishing a brigade in Syria. The brigade draws on a network of private donors in Syria and across the Middle East and north Africa for finance.
Harati and a number of other Libyans involved in setting up Liwa al-Umma have not been back to Syria since last autumn when Turkish authorities informed them they were no longer allowed to enter Turkey.
“Liwa al-Umma now has very few foreigners in it, perhaps around 10 maximum,” Harati says. “It is now under the command of a Syrian and consists mostly of Syrians.”
Harati says he was sad to hear of Gaidan’s death, because he was so young, but he describes it as “a great thing” that the teenager was “martyred for a cause, fighting a criminal like Bashar”.
He says Gaidan was not involved with Liwa al-Umma and he knows nothing of how the schoolboy got to Syria.
“Some people are angry with me, but this is not fair,” Harati says. “The people going to Syria are not babies; they are 17 or 20 or 22 or older. They can make their own decisions. I never encouraged people to go to Syria, but I can’t stop them. My view is that people should go in an organised way, not independently.”
Harati’s Irish-born brother-in-law, Housam Najjair, was also involved in Liwa al-Umma. Now back in Ireland, where he has been writing a book about his experience of fighting during the Libyan revolution, Najjair says the news of Gaidan’s killing stirs “bitter-sweet” feelings for him.
“I strongly believe that this would not be an issue if the international community was standing by the people of Syria as they did in Libya. Now it is not just al-Qaeda and other groups we have to worry about filling the vacuum, due to porous borders and lack of security, but also rising numbers of young men and teens. The more people such as Shamseddin learn about the regime’s massacres, the more they feel compelled to do something where others have failed.”
Hudhaifa ElSayed looks down from a huge banner that adorns the hallway of his family’s home in Donacarney. The ElSayeds, like the Gaidans, fear they will never get their son’s remains back, but their grief is laced with pride.
“As a mother, of course I wish Hudhaifa had stayed with us. He had so much potential,” says Asmaa. “But I do not regret what he has done, because he went to Syria for an honourable reason.”
Abdel Basset nods in agreement. “If he died in an accident I would feel more sadness,” he says. “But we know he died for a great thing.”