A year ago Reece Harding’s death sparked widespread shock and cast an Australian spotlight on the fight against the Islamic State group. Now, the “ordinary Aussie kid” has become a symbol of Kurdistan.
Today at a funeral parlour chapel on the Gold Coast, people will gather to commemorate the life of a 23-year-old Australian, taken from his friends and family too early.
He did not die in a car crash, he was not stricken by cancer, he did not take his own life.
He died on a battlefield on the other side of the world, fighting for a people he had no link to, but who now consider him a hero and martyr.
First and foremost, though, Reece Harding was a son and brother. And he leaves behind a legacy of pride, and a terrible grief.
Paying thanks to Reece
It was a day of conflicting emotions.
Michele Harding, the mother of Reece, stood near the north-eastern Syrian city of Derik in front of hundreds of Kurdish men and women who had been embroiled in a brutal fight against Islamic State (IS) terrorists.
Despite their own struggle for survival, the Kurds wanted to pay their respects to Reece, a young Australian who had spent only seven weeks with the Kurdish armed forces — the YPG.
“When I shook their hands, I made a point of looking everyone in the eye,” Ms Harding recalled.
“I just wanted to tell them that they’re important. And I said thank you to everyone in Kurdish.
“It was very daunting, because I’m thinking you’ve lost so many, yet you’re putting all this praise on a foreign fighter that was only there for seven weeks.
“[But] a lot of them said that Reece left paradise to come and help. That resonates a lot. They do feel invisible, they do feel ignored.”
Before Reece travelled to Syria, Ms Harding had little understanding of the conflict. But now she and her husband Keith are dedicating almost every day to the Kurdish cause.
“People say ‘Kurdish militia’, and it means nothing to you. You don’t think of them being people,” she said.
“But then you meet their families, you understand that there is no difference, they’re just people like us.”
Reece’s time in Rojava
Reece left Australia on May 2 last year without telling his closest friends or family about where he was going.
He had expressed alarm about the atrocities committed by IS in the weeks leading up to his departure.
But no-one suspected he would join a war on the other side of the world.
“He said to us he needed to get away for a few days,” Reece’s father Keith said.
“It didn’t give us any alarm signals because he’d been [going overseas] for the last two years.”
Reece had been in Rojava, a name for the Kurdish region of Syria, for only a few weeks when he met Joe Akerman — an English fighter embedded with the Kurdish forces.
“Me and Reece became quite close because he’s a really nice lad to talk to,” Mr Akerman said.
“Reece was a really nice guy, a full-stop genuinely nice guy. There wasn’t a bad bone in his body.”
The two got to know each other well, spending a few days together in a quiet Kurdish village.
It was then that Joe asked Reece if he wanted to join the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team — a specialist squad that removed and disarmed explosives planted by IS terrorists in Kurdish villages.
“I knew he had no military experience, but some of the other guys are idiots. Reece wasn’t an idiot,” he said.
“Reece wasn’t out there to get a name for himself, or for any press, or for any money.
“He was just out there to help.”
The unit was on the outskirts of a village around 35 kilometres north of the city of Raqqa — IS’s de facto capital — on June 27.
Reece and Mr Akerman watched as their Kurdish comrades fought IS militants in nearby fields.
The village had already been cleared of mines, so the EOD unit was confident they could move freely. But that was not the case.
The young Australian stepped on an anti-tank mine and was killed instantly.
“There was no way he would have survived,” Mr Akerman said, who himself was injured in the blast.
“Everything just happened so fast.”
Celebrating his commitment
A year after Reece’s death and the young Australian continues to be hailed a hero by Kurdish fighters and sympathisers.
Photos of him appear regularly on social media accounts dedicated to the cause.
“We will never forget his sacrifice,” a recent post on the International Brigade of Rojava page says.
But his memory does not just live on in the ephemeral world of social media.
His image is spread widely throughout Syrian-Kurdish towns and cities.
A photo of him sits alongside other martyred Western fighters, including fellow Australian Ashley Johnston, at a training camp in the city of Derik.
A few months ago Reece’s image was put on a monument in the city of Qamishlo. A photo of him still sits inside a vehicle still used by his former unit.
“I can’t explain it,” Mr Akerman said.
“Everyone in the YPG knows who Reece is.”
“The Kurdish still can’t understand why a man would give up everything he’s got … to come and fight and help them.
“And then when Michele came over it was another major event for them, to know that his mum had come to Syria to meet the people and to not have any bitterness, to embrace them.”
Australian man Ashley Dyball also became good friends with Reece during their time in Syria.
“I don’t see it as he’s dead,” Mr Dyball said.
“If we stop remembering him and people stop sharing stories and memories with him, then he is dead. But if we keep his memories alive then he is always alive.”
I spoke with Reece for a few days before he died. He wanted to get a story out but was not sure if he wanted his name published. He was worried about his brother who was finishing secondary school.
Reece was also fearful of Australian laws that could prosecute him if he returned to Australia.
When asked what message he wanted to get across, Reece replied: “Pretty much about these laws for Australians helping YPG”.
“Think it’s absolutely unfair. We are just helping people,” he said.
But these laws, designed to prevent Australians from fighting against foreign governments, remain in place, and have been used, albeit unsuccessfully, against Kurdish sympathisers.
Melbourne man Jamie Williams, who freely admitted to federal authorities when he was stopped at Melbourne Airport that he was on his way to join the YPG, was charged, but the charges were then dropped.
Mr Dyball and Matthew Gardiner remain in a kind limbo after returning from Syria, with authorities insisting they are still under investigation.
It remains a point of frustration for the Hardings.
“In reality the Government won,” Ms Harding said.
“The Government actually beat us. Because by creating this limbo, Ashley and Matthew can’t speak, they can’t tell you what they’ve seen.”
The Hardings have now made it their life’s work to fight the Australian laws they see as unjust, and to raise awareness about the Kurdish cause.
“As parents this is the last thing we can do for Reece,” Ms Harding said.
“It’s really difficult for us to find the reason why our son died but when I look at it now his life had meaning because he’s still helping now.”
“Every person that becomes aware of what’s happening it makes a difference.”