“I WILL never be able to hug my son again, so his shirt will have to do.”
These are Michele Harding’s heartbreaking words as she holds on to her son’s belongings, which she just retrieved from a war zone.
The Gold Coast mum has just returned from a week-long trip to Rojava in northern Syria where her son Reece died fighting Islamic State earlier this year.
Accompanied by a 60 Minutes crew, Mrs Harding went to pick up her son’s belongings and meet the men who fought alongside him.
Reece, 23, died when he stood on a landmine while fighting with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in June.
In an attempt to soothe her grief, the mother-of-two undertook the journey which took her close to the al-Raqqa province where the Government warns Australians not to go and prosecutes those who do.
“I was absolutely distraught when they gave me his bag (in Syria),” Mrs Harding told the Gold Coast Bulletin from her Benowa home.
“It was so important to me to retrieve everything. Every single thing is a memory. It’s those familiar things that are so precious.
“The day before he left I bought him two T-shirts, so finding these was priceless.
“I also made sure there wasn’t any contraband in the bag like bullets before taking it back to Australia.”
Mrs Harding said she also brought back Ashley Kent Johnston’s bags for his mother Amanda, who lives in Mackay.
Mr Johnston, 28, also fought for the YPG and became the first Australian to die in the battle against ISIS.
“I couldn’t cuddle Reece when we had to identify him … he was cold,” Mrs Harding said in between quiet sobs.
“But now I can hold on tightly to his things.”
During the trip, Mrs Harding was also able to meet the men who fought in the same unit as Reece.
“I wanted to ask them questions,” she said. “I was worried about whether Reece knew he was going to die or not – but he didn’t.
“Those things, you can only ask face-to-face.”
Despite warnings about the dangers of travelling to Syria, Mrs Harding said she felt very safe with the Kurds.
“They are the most gentle, lovely people,” she said.
“We saw a cemetery and someone was there after losing their child – we share the same pain.
“Even though they’re in a horrendous war … they are still smiling.
“It made me realise that we complain about such small things here (on the Gold Coast).”
By Shaya Laughlin
Source: Gold Coast Bulletin