Khamis Gewargis Khamis moved from his native Iraq to Australia in 1993 after being persecuted as an Assyrian Christian. He carved out a life for himself in his adopted country, raising two children and working at a call center. Then the Islamic State came to power and Khamis knew he had to return.
In early February, Khamis traveled to Iraq to join an outpost of the Assyrian militia called Dwekh Nawsha, and to fight IS with his countrymen. Despite Australia's travel restrictions on northern Iraq, Khamis somehow got back into his adopted country last month. We were curious about his experience, so we tracked him down to talk about fighting IS at the frontline, and how he felt leaving his comfortable family life to do so.
All images courtesy of Khamis Gewargis Khamis
VICE: Let's start with how you got this idea. How did you hear about Dwekh Nawsha?
I first heard about Dwekh Nawsha through Facebook in mid August. From that day, as soon as I saw them move in, I knew that I wanted to support them. I thought, This is the moment we have to act. I contacted their commander, Albert Keeso, and told him I'm coming to help you, I'm coming to support you.
How did your family react to this?
I didn't tell them exactly. I told them I wanted to go there, but I didn't tell them I was actually going.
You didn't tell your family you were going?
No. Not until the last few hours. I told my kids just a couple of hours before I was going to the airport, and my wife the night before.
What did they say to that?
Well, they didn't think I was going to the front line. Even on the second day, when I was there in a shop buying a military uniform, I couldn't tell them that.
Did you wonder if you were making the right decision?
No, except for the fact that I was putting pressure on my family—and I know it would have been very difficult for them—but I always believed, and I still believe, that it was the right thing to do.
Khamis and the leader of Dwekh Nawsha, Albert Keeso
What was it like when you first arrived?
I landed in Erbil, Iraq. Albert Keeso himself came to the airport. On the first night I stayed at his house because, apart from being activists and friends, we're from the same tribe. The town we were in, Baqofa, used to be a farming village of about 100 houses but now it's like a ghost town. Apart from us there are only creatures there like dogs, cats, and birds. It's empty. Sometimes after disasters, towns and villages might be empty for a couple of hours, days or weeks but there is nothing like this. For ten months now entire towns in northern Iraq have been empty, even the ones that have been liberated.
What was your accommodation like?
I was sharing a room with six other fighters. Some of them were sleeping on the floor. I was lucky I was given a bed. It was very crowded, basic accommodation and the food was simple. It was mostly rice and beans, with lentil soup for breakfast. We were well fed but with only carbohydrates. Proteins, like eggs and cheese, are very expensive.
What did you spend your days doing?
Training. I had no military background so I had to be trained on how to use a Kalashnikov and how to be a guard.
What does guarding involve?
During the day all the cars need to be stopped unless they are military. IS fighters can sneak through so your finger is always on the trigger and your gun is always loaded. It's the front line and there's no communication, there's no way to talk to them before they get to the checkpoint. You just have to wait to see if it's a friendly car or an enemy car.
Were you involved in fighting?
Dwekh Nawsha is a defensive force. Even though we're very close to the enemy we don't attack, we just defend. IS occupied territory was under two miles away. Through our telescope we could see their flag flying over the water tank in Batnaya.
Khamis with his comrades
Did they attack you?
Yes, pretty much every day and every night with mortars. And we could hear them on the walkie-talkies discussing our village. Sometimes we would know they were going to bomb us. They would shout, "Allahu akbar is coming!" and you would know they were hitting us.
What most surprised you about the situation there?
That Dwekh Nawsha is only using very old, light weapons like Kalashnikovs. I was expecting them to have at least mortars, RPGs, snipers, or grenades. In training, my own Kalashnikov failed two times. This was a surprise to me as we were so close to the enemy.
By joining this militia you risked violating Australia's foreign fighters law. Did the authorities give you any trouble on your return?
I was questioned when I arrived but there was no trouble. They asked questions for a couple of hours at the airport but they let me go and so far it's been OK.
Would you consider going back again?
I want to be there, supporting them but as you know I have a family here. It wasn't easy to leave my family, my kids. And for them to be without a father and husband was very difficult. None of us knew whether I would be returning safe. They were worried all the time. Even now, it's very difficult.
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