The Kurdish militia in Syria, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is battling ISIS jihadists in Iraq and Syria. Our Observer spent several days on the front lines in Syrian Kurdistan with the militia known for relying heavily on female fighters.
The Syrian regime has lost all control over Kurdistan in the north of the country. The region has been the theatre of violent clashes since the end of 2012 between ISIS jihadists and the YPG. Kurdish women participate in large numbers in the fight against Islamic extremists. They make up around 40% of the militia, estimated to number some 40,000 people.
“The Islamists want to take us back to the Middle Age”
I went to the barracks in the zone of Kharab al-Banat, where the YPG have set up camp. Each unit is made up of around 30 fighters. There are units made up entirely of women; others where there are only men and others that are mixed.
One of the commanders, Jiane, told me:
"It’s a war of attrition. We call it the battle of the gate [for the access to Ras Al-Ayn next to the Turkish border]. Hundreds of Islamists came through this gate to fight us. We also had to go on the retreat. But we held out, because they aren’t experienced fighters. I didn’t think we would make it through. But we held on."
I stayed a few days in the barracks of a female unit that was charged with protecting the region from jihadist incursions whose positions are very close.
Despite the tension, the fighters sometimes try to relax and enjoy themselves. They sing to the memory of their dead comrades to raise their morale.
One evening, we saw lights coming from the zone where the jihadists are positioned. I was very worried. I asked them: “Are they going to attack us?”
Beerolat, one of the commanders, replied :
“It’s possible. We’ve learnt that they received reinforcements yesterday. But they know that we’re prepared. We’re confident. We just want to defend ourselves. We’re forced to kill to save the lives of our loved ones and our children."“We don’t wish to start a family, because we could die at any moment”
The lights eventually went out, but the fighters didn’t seem worried. They took me on a tour of the surroundings. We were on the front line where clashes could break out at any moment. Salim, the commander of the region, said: ‘Pay attention, the area isn’t safe. Try to evacuate the journalist.” But the local commander replied, “Don’t worry; we’ve taken all the necessary precautions”.
The days of fighting are wearisome. Russiar, 25 years old, is the commander of a brigade and just finished her studies. She told me:
"We haven’t got much free time. We train ourselves to fight every day. And when we have some leftover time, we train ourselves ideologically. We organise meetings to speak about the culture and history of the Kurdish people. We don’t fight in Homs, nor in Hama, nor in Idlib [outside of Syrian Kurdistan]. But we refuse to allow these groups to penetrate our region. We’ll stop them from getting a foothold here at any price."
I hesitated a lot before posing personal questions to these fighters, particularly about marriage. Could they marry, for example, with the men they were fighting alongside?
Shilane, a head of the brigade, replied:
“We have chosen to die in the name of women’s freedom. We don’t want to start a family, because we could die at any moment. We try to change the mentality of women, so that they refuse machismo and oppression.""A few days after I left, I learnt that several of these young women had been killed"
Biritane has a beautiful voice and loves singing. I wondered how she could sing with the voice of a nightingale yet be able to pull the trigger of a gun. She replied:
“The field is something divine. It reminds me of my comrades who died. They were with me in the same trench. I was obliged to take up arms because the islamists want to take us back to the Middle Ages and reduce women to slavery.”
A few days after I left, I learnt that several of these young women had been killed in an ambush set by ISIS. Among them were Biritane and Beerolat.