Amanda Johnston isn’t angry at the woman who helped draft her son to the Kurdish cause, even though he died fighting in Syria.
In fact, she counts her as a friend.
It’s been three years since Ashley Johnston, a 28-year-old Canberra postman and former Army reservist, became the first Australian fighter to die for the Kurdish cause, and his mother is still trying to make sense of it all.
Amanda’s journey towards understanding has seen her travel to Europe, to meet the woman who advised him via Facebook on how to travel to Syria, Kader Kadandir.
The women bonded during two days in Germany, sharing stories and recollections of Ashley.
And it may surprise some people, but Amanda feels no anger towards the Kurds, or Kader.
She insists her son volunteered of his own free will.
Under Australian law, what Ashley did was illegal; it’s a criminal offence to enter another country as a foreign fighter, with the intention to engage in a hostile activity.
But when Ashley died, the Kurdish Association of Australia paid for his body to be returned to Australia and then for his mother to travel to Europe, where she met Kader and the parents of others who had died in the fighting.
“When you meet people who lost a child the way you have, you know they understand even more,” Amanda says.
“They are fighting there for the same cause. They are there for the same reasons.
“So I find that they are in the same place as me.”
Amanda’s friendship with the Australian Kurdish community is so strong, she says she feels “part Kurdish”.
“Ashley did this because it was important to him. So because it was important to him, it’s important to me,” she says.
Kurdish man holds an image of Ashley Johnston at a funeral held for him by Kurdish fighters in northern Syria on March 13, 2015. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
Kurdish fighters carry a coffin displaying a photo of Australian recruit Ashley Johnston. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
Kurdish fighters carry the coffin of Ashley Johnston during a funeral held in northern Syria on March 13, 2015. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
Kurdish fighters carry a coffin and an Australian flag during a funeral for Ashley Johnston, an Australian ex-soldier who was killed fighting IS, on March 13, 2015. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
Kurdish fighters carry coffins of Ashley Johnston and fellow YPG fighter Azad Derik during a funeral held in northern Syria on March 13, 2015. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
A little girl waves a flag during a funeral held for Ashley Johnston in northern Syria on March 13, 2015. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
Kurdish fighters carry the coffins of Ashley Johnston and fellow YPG fighter Azad Derik, along with a picture of Mr Johnston and an Australian flag during a funeral held in northern Syria on March 13, 2015. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
A little girl sits on a person’s shoulders and gestures the peace symbol during a funeral held for Ashley Johnston in northern Syria on March 13, 2015. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
A woman gestures the peace sign during a funeral for Ashley Johnston in northern Syria on March 13, 2015. (Bedirkhan Ahmad)
Ashley’s search for a meaning
In late 2014, Ashley set off on what was supposed to be a backpacking tour of Europe.
He was a frustrated ex-Army reservist who had briefly been deployed as a peacekeeper in the Solomon Islands.
He had also worked as a bottle shop manager and a postman.
Ashley’s mother Amanda said he was searching for greater meaning in his life.
“He said, ‘Mum, I want to travel, I’d like to read some of the classic books … I want to do something where I can actually feel and really see that I’m making a difference’,” Amanda recalls.
Sometime during his travels, Ashley was introduced to a Facebook page called the Lions of Rojava.
The page detailed Kurdish victories in Syria and Iraq and celebrated martyrs fallen in battle. It also issued calls for volunteers to join the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.
Hundreds of foreigners have contacted the site, hoping to join up — and Ashley was one of them.
‘Long story short is, I’m in Syria’
In December 2014, Ashley had a lengthy email exchange with Kader, who was based in Germany, and working as one of the Lions of Rojava’s site administrators.
He detailed his military expertise, and she offered him advice on how to reach the Kurdish parts of Syria, known to the Kurds as Rojava.
Ashley and his mother had been in constant contact during his travels. Amanda recalls that alarm bells started ringing when she saw him “like” the Lions of Rojava page on Facebook.
When he sent her a photo of himself in army fatigues with an AK-47 over his shoulder, she confronted him.
“I said, ‘What’s with the gun?'” Amanda says.
Just after Christmas 2014, Ashley sent his mum a message on Facebook.
It read: “Hey, so I really don’t want you to worry, but I also don’t want to keep lying to you. Long story short is, I’m in the Middle East, in Syria. I’ve been here for almost a month now.”
He insisted he was doing humanitarian work.
Less than two months later, Ashley was dead. The vehicle he was travelling in with six others broke down, and he was killed in an ambush by IS fighters.
Gulfer Olan, the then co-chair of the Kurdish Association of Australia, was the first to receive the news of Ashley’s death. It was her job to contact his mother.
“The mother of a Kurdish martyr is the mother of all Kurdistan,” Gulfer says.
“We said we would do whatever we needed to do to help her.”
Amanda was shocked and devastated, and the Kurdish community was also reeling.
Gulfer says the community felt it was their obligation to look after Ashley’s mother.
A martyr’s funeral was held for Ashley in Sydney. But while the Kurds hailed him as a hero, what he did remains illegal.
There was a heavy police presence at the funeral held for Ashley by the Kurdish community.
The authorities feared his actions would inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
“The AFP came around and they wanted to talk to us,” Amanda says.
“They said ‘Well legally … he’s committed an offence’. And I said ‘Well, maybe legally, but morally … I don’t agree’.”
Honouring Ashley’s memory
At her home outside Canberra, Amanda has built a shrine to her son.
His Army boots sit alongside photos of him in his Kurdish military fatigues, and alongside images of other Kurdish martyrs.
This shrine to Ashley Johnston sits in the living room of his mother’s home. (ABC RN: Tegan Osborne)
She now counts Gulfer and other Kurdish Australians among her best friends.
And although nothing will bring her son back, Amanda says knowing he is not forgotten by the Kurds is part of her own healing process.
“I look at the photographs and … you can see his eyes are shining and his face is all lit up. He wanted to be there,” she says.
“He didn’t want to die, but you can see in his face that he’s really happy with himself and happy with what he’s doing. I’m proud of him.”