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.