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"I'm Not Afraid of Death": On the Front Lines With the Young Women Fighting ISIS

Sophie Cousins

In the Tel Hamis region in northeastern Syria, about a half-mile from a village occupied by the Islamic State, three young Kurdish women armed with Kalashnikovs and binoculars camped out next to a camouflage truck. Wearing a hijab and a military uniform, Ruba Jazera put her gun down and took a break under the shade of a tree to explain why she picked up arms to defend her country.

“I see the Syrian revolution as not only a popular revolution of the people but also as a revolution of the woman, therefore I see myself as part of the revolution,” said Jazera, 21. “The woman has been suppressed for more than 50,000 years and now we have the possibility of having our own will, our own power and our own personality.” 

Jazera, like thousands of other women in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, is a member of the women’s wing of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG)—an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish-Kurdish guerrilla group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union because of its three-decade insurgency against NATO ally Turkey. 

Of the 40,000–50,000 Kurdish troops in Syria, 35 percent are women, according to YPG spokesman Redur Khalil. Most women are not married, he added, but said there had been exceptional circumstances in which even mothers had joined the women's wing, known as YPJ.

The YPG, including the YPJ, have been battling IS militants across a broad swath of northern Syria for two years. 

“What’s the claim of all those Daesh [the Arabic term for IS] people that are coming from different countries to fight us? We have a history here. We have a rightful claim here; therefore we have a right to defend ourselves," Jazera said. “If we lose our land, we lose our honor, if we lose our honor, we lose our women, and the right to talk about our history and our language." 

Patriotic songs pledging allegiance to the YPG blasts from cars on the street in cities across Rojava, while state television boasts of YPG successes on the battlefield. At YPG/YPJ checkpoints and bases across the region, walls are always adorned with posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, whose nickname, “Apo,” is scrawled in graffiti on houses, trees, and lamp posts. 

At another base in al-Yaruibiyah, a small town on the Syrian side of the Rabia border-crossing between Iraq and Syria, a group of girls smoked cigarettes and passed around a cellphone displaying images of dead ISIS members.

“Daesh is our goal,” one girl said as the others erupted laughter.

I asked the group who the youngest girl was at the base. 

“I am,” said Ghulan, a girl with short wavy hair who was sitting on the floor. “I’m almost 18 and have been serving for nearly a year. 

Another girl standing at the entrance to the room joined in the conversation. I asked her how long she’d been part of the YPJ.

“Three years,” the 21-year-old girl said. “It’s my life. What’s wrong with it?”

Aside from being influenced by Ocalan, many girls said it was the lack of tertiary education and employment opportunities that drew them to the front line. 

“We were working in and around the house. We worked until we got tired and went to sleep. There was nothing to do, so when the situation changed I joined the YPJ,” said Gulbahar, 21, her hair pulled back in a plait. “Our life here is much better than sitting around in the house.” 

The girls here underwent six weeks of military training including basic training on how to use AK-47s, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They've received political training, too, but no medical training—or body armor. They’re also severely lacking in heavy weaponry.

"We don’t need body armor or medical training," said Gulbahad, a 23-year-old YPJ fighter, as she lay on a bed in the military wing of the rundown hospital in Derike, a small and largely deserted city in Syria's Hasakah province. Her upper right leg had been crushed a month ago, when she was shot multiple times by IS. 

“We’re not like a regular military. We’re a revolutionary movement," she said. "I’m not afraid of death."