The blasts as three Islamic State car bombs hit a town in northern Syria were so catastrophic, he heard them from 10 miles away.
Former British soldier Jim Matthews raced to Tal Tamir to help in the rescue effort and saw a woman’s legs poking out of the rubble of a smashed building.
They were moving slightly as she clung on to her last moments of life but he was unable to reach her. Now back in England, it is an image that still haunts Jim.
He chose to go to the war-ravaged country to fight IS but on his return a year later, he became the first person prosecuted for fighting with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The UK does not class the YPG as a terror group and we and the US are backing its forces to drive IS from Syria. He had plotted his route back by ferry from France, anticipating his arrest and thinking it less conspicuous than flying into Heathrow. But he was arrested and charged with “attending a place used for terrorist training”.
After more than two years, the case was dropped when the CPS offered no evidence against him. Now, six months on, the 44-year-old is only just starting to comprehend the things he saw and has written a memoir, Fighting Monsters, to share his remarkable story.
“That night in Tal Tamir does haunt me,” Jim says over a coffee in Central London.
“She was still alive and there was nothing I could do to help her, everything around her was just too big and heavy to be moved by human hands.
“I had to make the decision to help who I could and get people out who I could, it was about prioritising in the moment – but I still had to walk back and forward, passing her moving legs, knowing she was still alive.
“The worst thing I have taken away from the experience is this constant hyper-vigilance. If I can hear something and I don’t know what it is, I get very alert and on edge.
“I hoped it would have gone away by now… I don’t know whether it will ever go away.”
In 2015, Jim left his job teaching English at a military camp in Saudi Arabia to go to Iraq and meet the YPG.
Rojava is a self-declared autonomous region of northern Syria controlled by the YPG. The YPG will not say how many foreigners have joined but it is thought to be thousands.
The YPG was formed in 2004 as the armed wing of the Kurdish leftist Democratic Union Party. Turkey has criticised it for alleged support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, designated a terrorist group by Turkey and Western regimes.
Jim still struggles to explain what motivated him to get on that flight, knowing the group would smuggle him into Syria, where IS was kidnapping and beheading Brits for propaganda videos.
In fact, he admits to thinking just months before: “I’d heard about Western volunteers getting directly involved in the fighting.
“There was no way I’d do it, though. I’d been a soldier once but that was a decade and a half earlier.”
He says the four years he spent in the Royal Pioneer Corps were “wasted years”, spurring him on to campaign against conflict as a “left-leaning anti-war protester”.
So why on earth would he ever want to go to war and put himself directly in the line of fire?
Jim, originally of Stoke-on-Trent, hesitates. But in his book, he writes: “Perhaps it was because this was a chance to actually fight, for once. Not to protest, campaign or negotiate. Maybe some not-grown-up part of me still regretted never using all that training for real.”
He was motivated to contact the YPG in 2014, when he saw a photo of a jihadi holding a woman’s severed head on Facebook . But he admits that there is a huge leap from being repulsed by IS and helping to
He also agrees it is a huge leap of faith to trust a group he had only spoken to on Facebook – he did not know if the car he got into in Iraq to travel over the border was from the YPG or IS fighters in disguise. “You could ask some people why and it would be simple, ‘I went to fight IS’,” he explains.
“For most, that would be enough. The choice is binary: you either go or you don’t. And even if you don’t go, you’ll still have misgivings about that choice. But at the end of the day, there may not need to be crystal-clear reasons. A lot of people might understand you want to get rid of IS and support that – but then why would you go? I am not sure it’s completely resolvable.”
Jim, who now lives in East London, says his time fighting against Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza from 2002 to 2004 may have hardened him to the idea of joining another Middle Eastern conflict.Funding trips with labour-ing jobs, he blocked tanks in the streets and monitored checkpoints for the Palestinians.
“Going to Syria wasn’t a million miles from what I had done,” he says. “Syria was like reconciling the two disparate sides of my life – being in the Army and being anti-war.”
And Jim interpreted his support for the YPG as totally different from his role in the British Army, which included a tour of Bosnia in the 1990s. He left after serving jail time for common assault following a run-in with a sergeant.
Jim describes his arrival in the UK as a “fresh battle” after seeing the horrors of IS and the death of his colleagues. He lost his teaching job after the charges became public, his bank account was frozen and he nearly lost his home.
“Fighting IS was one thing; fighting the British state was another,” he says.
But he says his experiences are solely about “comradeship and loss”. He saw plenty of both in his year in Syria where, incredibly, he did not suffer any injuries.
But he did work closely with several fellow Brits who were killed, including Jac Holmes, who was 24 when he was killed clearing mines from Raqqa. Jac, from Bournemouth, is among eight Brits killed after joining the YPG. Jim remembers finding out about his death: “I went numb and dumb all over. The first friend I ever made out there and the most painful to lose.”
Other Brits killed fighting IS include former Royal Marine Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, 25, from Barnsley, South Yorks, who died in Tel Khuzela in March 2015. Former chef Ryan Lock, 20, from Chichester, West Sussex, shot himself to avoid capture by IS in 2016. And Luke Rutter, 22, from Wirral, Merseyside, joined the YPG and died in Raqqa in 2017.
Australian Ashley Johnston, 28, was the first Westerner killed fighting against IS and, like Jac, his death hit Jim hard.
The pair were great friends and Jim describes finding out he had been killed in an overnight battle as “shattering”.
And while he thinks his own fate could have been very different if he had stayed longer, he is still determined to go back. In fact, he says he would already be there if not for his arrest.
Jim says he decided to return after becoming jaded and “burnt out” by the relentless battles, hoping to hit a reset button at home before going back.
Now, with a teaching job in London, Jim says he suffers survivor’s guilt. “I will always feel it. It’s not going anywhere. I never feel any gratitude that I made it out alive.”
- Fighting Monsters by Jim Matthews, published by Mirror Books, is out now.
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