Valdet Gashi was a 28-year-old man with a great future ahead of him. He had a loving wife, two adorable kids and a successful career as a professional Muay Thai fighter. But in June 2015 all of that changed when a mutual friend posted a public warning on Facebook.
“For those of you who don't know yet, Valdet Gashi has joined ISIS. I suggest that everyone delete his Facebook to show that our sport does not support such bullshit. I'm disappointed in him as he has been a good friend to me. But that friendship is over. Any man who voluntarily leaves his wife and 2 young children to fend for themselves to go fight someone else's war deserves zero respect from anyone.”
It was a crazy development for many in the Muay Thai community, particularly for those who had followed the champ’s career and those of us who knew him personally. Valdet even posted about his commitment to fighting in Syria on Facebook asking friends "not to judge him" without knowing the full story. It didn’t matter. Reported. Removed. Blocked. The sporting hero had become a fallen idol and social pariah. Old pals and stable mates turned their backs and wished him an early death.
“I hope a drone lights his ass up,” said one.
“Enjoy your baby murdering comrades, you sick fuck,” said another.
Valdet Gashi had gone from Muay Thai champ to ISIS chump.
From mid-June 2015 onwards there was a period of silence. Many prominent jihadi fighters in Syria, Valdet included, were told by the higher ups in ISIS to get off social media because intelligence agencies were able to pinpoint their locations for drone strikes. Valdet was reputedly transferred from the rear echelons to front line duties and, on July 4th, 2015, he was reported as killed in action in Northern Syria.
But talk about Six Degrees of ISIS. The global war on terrorism is hitting a bit too close to home these days. First, it was six pupils from my old school, Holland Park in London, who died fighting for ISIS in Syria.
Now a bloke whom I knew from the pro-fight game in Bangkok has gone out much the same way. What makes people up sticks to go full-on zealot? It’s not as if there is any shortage of recruits to the cause. The United Nations estimated that 20,000 -22,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS ranks in Syria and Iraq so far.
What was Valdet’s motivation for becoming an ISIS terrorist/enemy combatant/freedom fighter? In a telephone interview with Swiss media shortly before his death, Valdet said that he had signed up “to help and seek answers.” Here’s my take from the barstool. Valdet was an angry young man. But, unlike so many other angry men, he wasn’t an anonymous loser; he was a four time world champ, in one of the hardest sports in the world; yet, at heart, he was an idealist, who wanted to be a stakeholder in something bigger than a boxer’s rep—the latter day creation of a supposedly true Islamic Caliphate.
For Valdet, and a great many others just like him, the ISIS call to arms was, and is, a noble-seeming cause with the fringe benefits of an honorable death. He was a romantic. And the Syrian theatre of conflict was his own warped version of the Spanish Civil War. More fool him. He should have stayed at home in Bangkok with the wife and kids.
I prefer to remember the man as he was. Quiet. Humble. Nice. Respectful. Valdet was the unbeatable combination of sportsman and gentleman. And he was no joke thing in the ring. He was a four-time world champion and had even fought Shuki Rosenzweig, an old stable mate from Rompo Gym in Bangkok.
Because Bangkok is a small city, I was forever seeing him out and about. Banging five rounds on the pads at Fighting Spirit gym; doing roadwork in Lumpini Park; sitting on the back of a motorcycle taxi, zigzagging the gridlocked city streets; watching clinch practice from the long wooden benches of 96 Penang; eating a kebab with his mates in the Arab quarter of town. With his scraggly Victorian beard, friendly eyes and warm smile, Valdet was always hard man to miss.
Now, one year and a bit since Valdet’s inglorious death, I am scratching my head about some of the contradictory, uncertain and vague reports that have come from international monitors and reputable news media outlets about his death. In the fog of war, you see, “facts” have a tendency to get mangled.
Previously, Valdet said in a phone interview with Swiss media that he was patrolling the Euphrates near the Turkish border with ISIS forces looking for smugglers and contraband. But according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Valdet was arrested for desertion and banged up in a jail in Manbej, a city northeast of Aleppo. “Reliable sources” told SOHR (headquartered in England) that ISIS executed the former world champ for attempting to desert. Valdet was allegedly shocked by ISIS atrocities and looking for the first means of escape back home to Germany. Between 2014 and July 2015, SOHR documented 143 executions of ISIS members for desertion. Was Valdet one of them?
Personal thoughts and theories aside, I discussed the matter with our mutual friend from the beginning of this story.
“Valdet loved it over there, bro. He was having the time of his life.”
This spin on Valdet’s death was not lost on his next of kin. His brother, Valon, was moved to comment on Facebook.
“Listen to the propaganda they make. Valdet is dead. And you can’t prove this crazy stuff in reports about him being on the run.”
He’s got a point.
Now memory closes the door on the man I once thought I knew. Believe it or not, he used to have a great future ahead of him.
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