Mike was one of the hundreds of Westerners who left Europe and North America to fight alongside Kurds against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. But among this group of military veterans, medical workers, and some without any fighting experience whatsoever, Mike — better known by his Instagram handle @Peshmerganor — stood out.
He was born in Kurdistan but fled as an infant during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign when the late Iraqi dictator’s forces killed up to 100,000 Kurds.
Mike’s family went to Norway and he calls the Scandinavian country home. He served in the Norwegian military when he was of age, which is technically mandatory, and fought in Afghanistan. In 2015, however, he left the army to join a Peshmerga unit, feeling Norway wasn’t really interested in fighting the terror group.
Through social media, Mike linked up with the late “IS hunter” Major General Wahid Kovli’s unit north of Duhok, beginning an approximately two-year journey in which he fought IS across the Kurdistan Region and northern Iraq.
Before Kovli died of a stroke, the general told Mike to tell people outside Kurdistan the story of their unit, which struggled with a lack of adequate supplies and manpower throughout the war.
“They didn’t get much credit, especially not the general,” Mike told Kurdistan 24 via phone. “The unit didn’t receive much support from the (Kurdish) government. I wanted to get the full story out there.”
In his book “Blood Makes the Grass Grow: A Norwegian Volunteer’s War Against the Islamic State,” Mike succeeds in painting an accurate and sometimes unflattering picture of the Peshmerga’s fight against IS, as well as the controversies surrounding the foreign fighter phenomenon.
The most interesting thing about “Blood Makes the Grass Grow” is the blunt depiction of the less glamorous aspects of the Peshmerga’s battle with IS. Mike describes a unit at times riddled with a lack of soldiers, decent equipment, and morale. This didn’t keep them from engaging IS, however, as he tells us from the start.
“I move halfway up the berm and turn my scope towards the shooting, unable to say anything through the acrid smoke,” Mike wrote on the May 2016 Telskuf battle. “Hirani, a Kurdish comrade from Sweden, throws himself down in the closest machine gun position. After two weeks in the unit, he still hasn’t been issued a firearm and must rely on the squad weapons.”
Members of the unit had to buy their own ammunition and uniforms at times. The group particularly struggled in the lead up to the Mosul battle in October 2016, when some soldiers resigned due to unpaid wages, according to Mike.
A lack of adequate supplies was an ongoing issue for the Peshmerga from 2014 until IS’ defeat. Before the battle of Telskuf, local commanders said they needed more heavy weapons to properly fight IS. And throughout the war, some Peshmerga soldiers who did not want to use the standard AK-47 brought their own, privately-purchased weapons to battle.
Much of the book focuses on the foreign fighters, referring to Westerners, some with military backgrounds, who came to Kurdistan to join the Peshmerga in its war with IS. Many joined the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria as well.
They originally received heavy media coverage, but later stories broke of trouble in their ranks. A lot of them spent their days arguing on social media, partly due to frustration with a lack of time in combat. Others fought, physically, and one turned out to be a convicted rapist.
Mike sets himself apart from these controversies by not embellishing his time on the frontlines.
The area north of Mosul including Baqofah and Telskuf were often dormant fronts, with intermittent back and forth between the Peshmerga and IS. A lot of the foreign fighters were sent to relatively inactive fronts in the Kirkuk region. Mike doesn’t shy away from this reality in the book, and says he waited a year to finally engage IS fighters directly.
“A year had passed. I asked myself how much longer I could keep taking indirect fire without being able to retaliate,” he wrote.
On Mike’s front in Baqofah, local soldiers repeatedly said they were unable to move on then IS-occupied Batnaya because of the battle timeline set by the international coalition.
Contrastingly, Mike offers vivid descriptions of the experiences he had in the intense Telskuf and Mosul battles. In a somewhat humorous part of the book, he describes dodging IS bullets to obtain cans of Wild Tiger – an energy drink popular with Kurdish youth – from a local store.
“With rifles raised, we ran back into town. Bullets flew as we closed in on the shop and we barely managed to kick in the door and find cover,” he wrote.
The book is notable in its frankness in dealing with inter-Kurdish politics and Kurdish-Christian relations. Mike criticizes the Assyrian Christian militia in Baqofah known as Dwekh Nawsha repeatedly in the text, saying they were not interested in fighting.
“Here we were, defending their villages and towns, and they were nowhere to be seen on the front line,” Mike wrote.
There are stereotypes in Iraq that Christians do not like to fight. Relatedly, one Dwekh Nawsha leader said the group started in part to prove the community was not afraid to defend itself against IS. However, in contrast to Mike’s view of Dwekh Nawsha, some Christian groups partook in combat operations against IS near Mosul.
Mike also addresses tensions between Muslim Kurds and the Yazidi (Ezidi) community, noting how some Peshmerga fighters did not want to fight beside the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which some Ezidis support, in the battle of Sinjar (Shingal).
The PKK, a leftist Kurdish group from Turkey, has a longstanding rivalry with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Mike also writes about hearing prejudicial views on Ezidi religious beliefs, which are fairly common in the region. The book is an important record of these relationships.
Mike now works a normal job – normal in that it’s in an office and doesn’t entail shooting at IS. He’s happy to be back in Norway, but as he works, goes to the gym, and spends time with his girlfriend and family in the prosperous Scandinavian country, he sometimes wants to return to Kurdistan.
“I wanna go back. At the same time, I can’t. I have a regular job, my girlfriend, and family to think of,” said Mike.
“Even though it’s been almost two years since I came home, part of me is still over there.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by John J. Catherine