Kiwi on Syrian frontline

By Portia Mao

Sculptor-turned freedom fighter wants to help oppressed people.

Chinese New Zealander Weiming Chen. Photo / Boxun.com
Chinese New Zealander Weiming Chen. Photo / Boxun.com

A New Zealand man has joined rebels on the frontline of the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and says he is ready to die for the cause.

Weiming Chen, a sculptor who created several well-known works including a statue of Sir Edmund Hillary in Orewa, north of Auckland, now uses the name Mohamed Chen.

His letters from his time with the Free Syrian Army have been published on Chinese websites, with a stirring picture of him brandishing a rifle with fellow soldiers.

"I know full well that I could be killed in Syria, but I do not fear death if it helps an oppressed people," Chen's letters say.

His mother, and wife, Eryou Chen, live in New Zealand. His mother did not want to be interviewed yesterday and his wife, who splits her time between New Zealand and the United States, said she had not known Chen was heading to Syria. She had constantly emailed him, but had only had three emails back in several weeks.

He had written five letters that Chinese media were quoting. The last one, which she believed would be printed today, was not as upbeat as the first ones, and she was worried.

One of his US-based sons, Duoduo, was quoted as saying: "He is an adult and he has the right to make his choice. I don't like to be told to do this or that, either."

The Chinese-born artist spent about 15 years in New Zealand before leaving for the US around 2005. He is travelling on a Kiwi passport.

His family published a Chinese language paper for a time here, the New Times Weekly.

He left New York for Turkey on October 14 to join the rebels. Chen has written that he had never touched a gun before and had to learn military skills from scratch.

However, he was heartened that others around him had followed the same path and now appeared to be skilled, "brave" soldiers. Chen said he had refused to wear a bullet-proof vest when he first engaged the regime's soldiers, but had to obey orders after being told off.

His commanders had told him his joining with the rebels had been widely reported in Syria and more than 800 Syrians had written to thank him.

Meanwhile, another New Zealander has been in war-torn Syria in the past 24 hours, freelance journalist Glen Johnson.

The Waikato man, who spent time in a Yemeni jail last year when investigating a story, has been writing for the Los Angeles Times and other papers around the world.

He said yesterday that the northern city of Aleppo was in bad shape.

He went in from Turkey with rebel forces and saw apartment buildings with walls "shorn off from aerial bombardments; rubbish everywhere; destroyed vehicles and children scavenging through rubbish".

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