A former Bradford Grammar School teacher has swapped the classroom for the frontline as he continues to document the fight against Daesh from the dangerous region of Kurdistan.
Having previously paid for his own ransom to escape AK-47 wielding militants, and received death threats from Saudi Arabia for his criticism of the House of Saud, Dr Simon Valentine is certainly no newcomer to danger, in fact he admits that he ‘thrives on it’.
“To know that I am somewhere that history is being made, to see it and document is something which gives me much greater pleasure than any nine-to-five job could ever do,” he said.
“I enjoy the excitement of researching and writing about such topics. In Kurdistan, the frontline against Daesh spans some 600 miles and I have travelled along most of that.”
Dr Valentine is currently working with the Peshmerga army in Kurdistan – the military of the autonomous region, roughly translated to ‘those who face death’.
He gained entry to the country via a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification, and has lectured at Soran University and taught Kurdish children. It is on the front line, however, that the freelancer enjoys spending most of his time.
After being asked by military leaders to document their ongoing battles with the Daesh, Dr Valentine says he was eager to share some of the stories he has witnessed over the past two years.
He is now compiling a book about the things he has witnessed over the past two years in hope of shedding some light on the struggles of the Kurdish people.
“The reason why I’m writing this book is to be a voice for Peshmerga,” Dr Valentine said. “I live with the Peshmerga soldiers and they are good people. They are happy and resilient people.
“In Kurdish cultures there’s a saying – ‘Only the mountains are our friends’. Down through the years, fighting Saddam Hussain and other groups, they were on their own.
“Today, they are fighting Daesh like so many groups but still they receive no funding.
“Baghdad believes that if you give weapons, if you give money to the Kurds, they will eventually use it to gain independence and fight them.
“The billions of dollars that America, Britain and the Western World are giving to Baghdad is all for the Iraqi army. Very little is getting through to the Kurds. This is one of the reasons why I’m writing the book.
“Baghdad is supposed to give Kurdistan 17 per cent of the national budget. Two years ago, the Kurds were selling oil to Turkey and Baghdad didn’t like it. Since then, they haven’t given them a penny. One general told me ‘we are bleeding, we need help’.”
Since Daesh invaded Iraq two years ago, a reported 1,700 Peshmerga soldiers, including women, have been killed by the extremist group.
Although the Peshmerga have been forced to fight using weapons and tanks dated from as far back as World War Two – and don’t get paid for their efforts – Dr Valentine says they never back down from the fight and are ‘one of the world’s finest armies’.
“They are an inspirational group of people,” he added. “Over the past year, I’ve developed a network and I know most of the commanders and generals in Peshmerga.
“All that they ask for is a voice; someone to tell the world that they are struggling.”
Despite remaining optimistic about the destruction of Daesh, Dr Valentine says he is worried about the fate of the Kurds.
“Currently it is a case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’,” he said. “It is well known that the Kurds and the Iraqis don’t get along – Saddam Hussein wanted to eradicate the Kurds because he saw them as inferior.
“Right now, they have a common enemy and both want to see the destruction of Daesh. After that, only time will tell as to how Iraq and Kurdistan get along.”
He added: “Even after the war is finished, and the entity of Daesh is destroyed, there will sadly still be a lot of fighting in Iraq.
“There will not be peace for some time because of so many competing groups – the Shias the Sunnis, the Kurds, the Iraqis and the Arabs etc. They are all involved in disputes over territory.”
With more battles touted for the coming years, Dr Valentine remains committed to documenting the plight of the Kurdish people.
He wants to find out why Daesh came to such power and how their ‘misinterpretation of Islam has created an enemy for the world’.
“I am a Christian but I believe Islam to be a great religion, one which has contributed to our civilisation so much,” he said.
“Therefore, one of the questions I want to answer for myself is to what extent is Daesh a misrepresentation of Islam. I’ve interviewed Daesh prisoners and what they say is a total misrepresentation, a distortion of true Islamic teaching.
“We need to destroy the ideology as it is a threat, not only to Kurdistan, Iraq and the surrounding nations, but to the whole world.”
Dr Valentine is currently back in Bradford and is hoping to hear from Kurdish people about their experiences of Peshmerga. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org