How an Alstonville man came face to face with ISIS

Josh McDonald in Iraq.
Josh McDonald in Iraq. Contributed

WHILE most 21-year-olds are soaking up the rays on the beach or working on their socialisation skills at the pub, Alstonville man Josh McDonald was embedded with the Iraqi army on the front lines in Hajj Ali.

Looking over the edge of the a small cement window in an apartment filled with Shiite militia, Josh was able to see ISIS militants scrambling beneath him as Iraqi forces and militia focused their assault.

BACK HOME: Alstonville local Josh McDonald has returned from Iraq where he photographed the militia at Hajali.
BACK HOME: Alstonville local Josh McDonald has returned from Iraq where he photographed the militia at Hajali. Marc Stapelberg

"That was scary,” he said.

"That hit me much more than receiving sniper fire.

"That's them - this brutal force - it is pretty scary to be so close to them.

"In our class the teacher asked us what most people were afraid of and everyone answered kidnapping.”

Inspired by a strong passion for human rights acquired through two years of intensive global travel, Josh instinctively felt the need to travel to and photograph one of the most dangerous hot spots on the planet for eight days.

Josh had previously photographed a story about chronic kidney disease in Chichicalpa in Nicaragua when he teamed up with a German journalist.

In this case it was his travels to the middle east that inspired a desire to understand the conflicts changing and moulding the region.

"There was a huge gap and to go and do that would mean I understand the whole problem much better,” he said.

"I wanted to understand why people were fleeing.”

RARE INSIGHT: Local police extinguish oil pits in Al - Qayyara.
RARE INSIGHT: Local police extinguish oil pits in Al - Qayyara. Contributed

Landing and travelling to the Kurdish region of Erbil was only the first part of the journey.

While sugar was almost impossible to get hold of, and hotels were exorbitantly expensive, Josh was able to acquire an apartment, bullet-proof vest and satellite phone through a mutual acquaintance and head off for two days of basic combat awareness training.

They also received medical training and how to listen for sounds and noises that indicated the type of weapon fire and where it was headed.

Heading out, Josh encountered different stories in Hamam Al Alil reflecting on the conflict and experiences of people involved.

One of the most striking stories he learnt about was that of 20-year-old Ahmed.

Josh said Ahmed explained to him how his seven older brothers, who were in the police force, had been beheaded by ISIS militants in 2014 and his parents had been killed in an air strike in Mosul.

He added that Ahmed now spent a lot of his time caring for his other brother who had been run over by a tank during the conflict in Hamam and left confined to a wheelchair.

”We got some pretty powerful photos of him dressed in his own militia uniform,” Josh said.

He also spent time Palestinian refugees heard their stories which had special meaning to him after visiting Palestine during his previous travels.

From there Josh and the two other photojournalists travelled to Al Qayyarah oil fields with the aid of an Iraqi local where the apocalyptic quantities of smoke from 19 oil fires lit by ISIS were suffocating and oppressive.

Travelling in a convoy with Iraqi military they could see the dust on the horizon from ISIS vehicles, which may or may not have contained car bombs.

"It was quiet surreal and I didn't think how dangerous it was,” he said.

"It was more exciting.”

At the front lines in Hajj Ali a sniper bullet smashed the wall in front of him.

It was just after a militia member had jumped through to one of the staging areas in a house which was part of seven abandoned houses that overlooked the broader village of Hajj Ali.

Josh was required to make the same jump to get into the room after seeing the bullet hit the wall.

Later while waiting with 30-40 soldiers having lunch back from the houses, they realised there was a pressure plate IED (improvised explosive device) with wires exposed just metres from where they were sitting on a mound of gravel.

"I was very focused and very aware, but didn't really have time to process it all,” Josh said of the trip.

Under advice from the Iraqi 'fixer', they proceeded to leave the area to get more photos at Al Qayyarah.

On the return journey to Al Qayyarah, amongst the confusion of incoming fire, they tried to leave the front line but soon realised they were not on the road but in fact in an open field that could be covered by IED's.

Stopped while deciding whether to proceed forward or reverse, a mortar landed 50m from their vehicle.

Ultimately they had to just keep moving forward.

"That was terrifying,” Josh said.

"It was very chaotic and there was a lot of yelling.

"Every little bump you went over, your heart stopped.”

Josh is working with international organisation Wellcome Trust to shed light on human rights and is currently working on a magazine called 'Breaking the Silence' with the Welsh photojournalist whom he worked with in Iraq.

See more of Josh's photos at his instagram:

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