The BBC has found a man believed to be the first Chinese national to volunteer to fight alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) against the Islamic State. Ba Si Pan says he is not afraid.
“I have to acknowledge that IS’s equipment is much better than that of YPG’s… But no matter how difficult it is, I believe justice will eventually triumph,” Pan wrote early in his adventure on his Sina Weibo page. He explained to the BBC in Mandarin – he speaks neither Kurdish nor Arabic and communicates with fellow fighters with an electronic translator – that he felt responsible for stopping the Islamic State, or at least doing his part in the fight, because they have “taken so many innocent lives.”
Pan also claims to feel responsible for fighting ISIS now that he knows from Kurdish sources that the terrorist group has “trained many Chinese people and then sent them back to China.” He did not elaborate on how he knew this information. The Chinese government has previously estimated that up to 300 Chinese nationals have left China to join ISIS is Iraq and Syria, though they have not detailed whether any have returned. Chinese officials claim all are ethnic Uyghurs from western Xinjiang province, a Turkic Muslim people..
Pan, who fights under a pseudonym and claims “Ba Si” is the Kurdish translation of his Han Chinese name, says he had fallen into a rut at home, leaving his girlfriend and not quite having a stable career. He then saw the story of Huang Lei, a British national of Han Chinese origin who left the UK to fight ISIS, and felt compelled to do the same. “I had actually thought he is still here in Kobane, but when I arrived in Kobane I was told he’s already back in the UK,” Pan said.
Lei – at 23, two years younger than Pan – also used the Chinese social media outlet Weibo to post photos of himself with Kurdish YPG soldiers and chronicle his travels. In a profile in Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily, Huang notes that he had been a student at the University of Manchester before decided to leave to Syria, where “I saw a Kurdish woman strapped with explosives run towards ISIS militants to save her homeland.”
“I am not a hero and I don’t want to be a one,” Huang said in a subsequent interview, “but I’m very proud to be fighting IS with a group of heroes from around the world.”
Pan has displayed a similar attitude, being quoted by the BBC only as stating that the fight is important and he felt compelled to be part of it. He is not alone in this impulse; the BBC notes that there are an estimated 400 foreign fighters within the YPG’s ranks.
The YPG is one of a number of Kurdish militias fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It – along with its female counterpart, the YPJ – operate in Syria near the Turkish border. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist U.S.-designated terrorist group, sometimes cooperates with the YPG in Syria and also has a strong presence in northern Iraq. The Peshmerga are the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, who do not cooperate with the PKK.
So many foreign fighters have tried to join the Peshmerga that the group began to turn them away this year. “Just last week an American man arrived wanting to volunteer. I couldn’t help him. Yes, they are volunteers, but we have to guarantee their lives and we can’t do that,” Kurdish Minister of Peshmerga Helgurd Hekmat said, adding that “the Peshmerga is a professional fighting force” and cannot afford to train foreigners with no military experience.
The YPG has been significantly more welcoming of foreigners, even using Facebook pages like the “Volunteers for the Lions of Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan]” to help foreigners fundraise to get themselves to Syria.
Many are motivated to join by what they perceive as inaction by the international community. “I decided that if my government wasn’t going to do anything to help this country, especially Kurdish people who stood by us for 10 years and helped us out while we were in this country, then I was going to do something,” Jordan Matson, an American volunteer, told the Associate Press in February. Speaking with a number of American, Canadian, and British volunteers in June, Breitbart News found that many former military servicemen had used such Facebook pages to get in contact with the group, and that the trip requires volunteers to pay for their own kits, not just their flights. Social media also helps foreigners find each other when they reach Syria, as well as helping keep language barriers at bay.
Westerners face the same risks as Kurdish YPG soldiers, and a number have died in the front lines, most notably American Keith Broomfield in June and 19-year-old German Ivana Hoffman, the first foreign woman to die in the fight.