By Robert Spangle
Twisted telephone lines mark ISIS’s retreat to Mosul, cell towers remain unscathed, an unspoken 3G network truce so the Twitter war could wage on during breaks in fighting. A U.S. Army Special Forces Sergeant accepts a friend request while talking about the first drone swarm. He explains the bandaged bulldozer driver down the street with a LiveLeak video posted yesterday. War looks the same. War smells the same.
But war is social now. Its new belligerents face the age old burden of soldiers returning home: an identity based in conflict lost in peace, now multiplied by the burden of hundreds of thousands of followers.
Most famous of these belligerents are “Mike” and “Hirani”. who had arrived to Iraq in 2014 anonymous, returned in a sense after leaving the region to immigrate to Scandinavia as children. They quickly rocketed to fame fighting ISIS as @peshmerganor and @peshmergaswe, while 400,000+ followers watched on Instagram, Facebook and LiveLeak. When fighting in Iraq concluded, they returned to Scandinavia as anonymous as they had arrived.
Their anonymity protected them from ISIS retribution, but also masked personal identities that were impossible to reconcile or define. Outsiders who had fought for adopted countries and personal ideals on the same battlegrounds they had once escaped as refugees. Immigrants, champions in the Greek sense, veterans, world-famous, idolized, hated, darlings of fashion even, all of this at odds between real day-to-day lives and dominating digital personas.
With their faces hidden in every Instagram post and their use of Scandinavian nom-de-guerres, it is no surprise that most people believed Mike and Hirani to be blond haired, blue eyed, towering men. Nothing could be farther from reality. Both Mike and Hirani are immigrants from Iraq and the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the regions they would later return to fight in.
“Mike”, known as @peshmerganor, is a model of positive immigration in Norway. At one year old, his family was placed in a small town by the Norwegian government. The only immigrants residing there, his family assimilating quickly. Norwegian was his mother tongue, he did well in school, excelled in sports and later in his military career and deployments to Afghanistan.
When meeting Mike, he drops off into the urban background of Oslo. His old uniform, irregular except for its wear, blends in with the streetwear-dominant cityscape of Oslo’s central station, and conceals a compact body strung with tension and intent. Any attention he draws from the crowd is aimed directly at his snowy white dog.
Hirani, who goes by @peshmergaswe, I met simmering at a hip Stockholm coffee shop, out of place, disaffected. Over a raised teacup, gold teeth catch the cold light and stares of tidy Swedes. An immigrant and veteran, he seem twice removed from his adopted home. His permanent petulant grin says he knows, and he has always known.
He immigrated to Sweden at age 12 with his older brother, leaving his mother behind in The Kurdish Region of Iraq at the height of insurgent violence, to live instead with his estranged father. His older brother quickly became distant through varying degrees of success. He struggled to learn Swedish, but picked up English quickly online in first person shooter video games, a world where he took shelter and excelled
Hirani’s new home was the antiseptic and violent housing project making up Stockholm’s suburb of Flemingsberg. It was desperate enough to drive him to Iraq, yet it’s where he returns. On the way to his barber, he stops to point where he saw his first shooting, aged 14.
Hirani’s father was a stranger to him, his father’s new family even more so. As one of many immigrants in his school, he struggled both academically and socially, and could only find friendship within a group of youth he calls “good guys who made bad choices”. A life of violence and drugs escalated to the point at which by the age of 17, brushes with the law had painted him into a corner with only death and prison for company.
“Hirani” may have been unable to escape the circumstances of his immigration, but he was determined to find his own end to a violent life of crime. The sacrifices his family had made to give him a better life in Sweden weighed heavy with his own conscience. Feeling his life was destined to be short and bitter in Sweden, he was open to anything that would absolve his conscience. He set his set his sights on fighting ISIS, joining a German based Kurdish Motorcycle club with a fighting chapter in Iraq.
When Mike returned home for good after spending a week decompressing in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, he did not attempt to rejoin the military. They had blacklisted him and banned his former comrades from communication, though he wasn’t without his supporters: The Commandant of the Norwegian Military follows him across social media.
Instead, He kept a low profile the first month, sticking to home, seeing family and close friends. Norwegian Security Services debriefed him on his time fighting alongside the Peshmerga, but otherwise was left alone.
Finding a job was a challenge for Mike. He started off looking at resuming work with a private security company he had worked with previously. The first interviews went well, but when leadership discovered his past experiences in Iraq, they balked at the potential political backlash. The same scenario played out for almost a year with several security positions.
Overqualified, educated, and with unparalleled experience, Mike found himself politically unemployable. At a distinct low point, he had to borrow money from his girlfriend. Thoughts of returning to Iraq became prominent in his mind.
Mike and Hirani found that celebrity was not without its cost. ISIS supporters barrage them with online threats and well-coordinated attempts to out their true identities. In a more serious attack, a Turkish man created a Facebook page listing Mike’s full name and address, with pictures of both Mike and his family. It was eventually taken down but Mike regards it as damage done.
Mike felt compelled to sleep with a pistol by his bed, as he had for years in Iraq, and for two months it rested there. Finally his girlfriend issued him an ultimatum. He shared the bed with only her then.
His months spent searching for a job were not idle, as he quickly set to work writing down his experiences in Iraq. The work was at first awkward for him, with no experience as a writer, but laying down and bearing the weight of his experiences proved to be therapeutic, and soon he had both a book and a publisher.
Hirani went back to life in the suburban slums of Stockholm. Taking me there, we take the subway, a series of buses later he breathes easier, grinning out the window “the gangs here are Turkish, we’re safe now.” A strange thing for a Kurd to say, but he explains, the city is mostly controlled by Somali gangs.
He has found no regular work since returning. A past criminal record bars him from most employment, and his time spent fighting in Iraq compounds that, especially when cases of Swedish immigrants joining ISIS are so widely known and told. He daydreams about fashion design, something encouraged by two progressive designers, Heron Preston and Erosion Hugh, who followed Hirani as well as Mike during their time fighting.
What he has found is irregular security work in clubs and bars, he says. I ask him about consulting with the government, or about joining the military. Hands upward facing, spread apart, eyes briefly on the heavens “I promised myself i would start working…I promised myself I would do good. but no matter how hard I try, I still get dragged back to the same place I came from.”
Anonymity had been a precaution while fighting ISIS. Now both men returned home fundamentally changed by their experiences yet unable to explain them to anyone. Doing otherwise could not only alienate them, but put them at risk. There is risk enough it seems in just being an immigrant. On one memorable occasion, a drunken Swede confronted Hirani at a nightclub screaming “All of you Muslims are ISIS!”
Hirani said nothing.
“I realized I could not explain to this guy who I was, or what I had done. he could not understand.”
It’s been more than a year since Mike and Hirani left Iraq. Both have kept up a social media presence. Both cite a loyalty to the followers who supported them emotionally and financially during the conflict. Both admit their social media presence has made them consider returning to the region many, many times.
“Hirani” was born Kurdish, has never felt Swedish, but did not feel like a Kurd upon returning to Iraq. Mike considers himself Norwegian, despite his heritage and years fighting alongside the Kurds.
Mike’s book “Blood Makes the Grass Grow” is a Norwegian best seller, and he has recently started his own line of combat uniforms by the name of NorArm Tactical. Hirani’s book seems written, and he is currently fighting in Syria against the remnants of ISIS as well as the recent Turkish invasion.