Headed for the front line near Syria’s Raqa, 23-year-old Kurdish fighter Kaziwar has just one thought on her mind: to make her jihadist foes pay for their treatment of women.
“Our taking part in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) is revenge for the women who were kidnapped in Sinjar (in Iraq) and sold (as sex slaves) in markets,” said the brown-haired woman riding a four-wheel-drive.
The YPJ has been fighting alongside male comrades in an offensive launched last Saturday to recapture the city of Raqa which the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group has made its de facto capital.
Kaziwar, who was clad in trainers and a tracksuit over military fatigues because of the cold, took up arms five years ago and has since fought in several battles against Sunni Muslim extremists.
She lost her “sister-in-arms” in one such confrontation and has since kept Bahareen Jia’s picture attached to the vehicle’s rear-view mirror wherever she goes.
Hundreds of Kurdish women are taking part in a showdown with the jihadists imposing a reign of terror over territories they seized in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, where IS has since 2014 enslaved women of the minority Yazidi community.
According to UN experts, around 3,200 Yazidis are still being held by IS, the majority of them in Syria.
The young woman who goes by the nom-de-guerre of Kaziwar drove into Mazraat Khaled, a village one kilometre (less than a mile) from the front line between IS and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
On the top floor of a building perched on a hill and overlooking a river, she reported to a local commander, Rojda Felat, 38, in the village of Mazraat Khaled, around 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Raqa.
As the two women went over battle plans, shells crashed down nearby and warplanes of the US-led coalition struck jihadist positions from where the firing originated, sending up black plumes of smoke.
– ‘Haram’ to be killed by woman –
IS fighters “feel shame at the idea of being killed by a woman, something which they regard as ‘haram'”, or forbidden under Islam, Kaziwar said with scorn in her voice.
“When they hear our voices, they get very scared, whereas we at the front, we break out into ‘youyous’ (ululate) every time we advance,” she said.
Rojda, wearing a black-and-white keffiyeh Arab headscarf and with the yellow badge of the YPJ on the left shoulder of her uniform, used two walkie-talkies to send out orders to the fighters in the field.
Pickups mounted with Dushkas, Russian-made heavy machineguns, were parked outside, as men and women fighters took a respite from the battle on the ground floor of the building used as a command post.
Rojda gave orders for villagers who had fled to Mazraat Khaled from nearby Al-Heisha to be escorted to a safe area away from the shelling.
It was in IS-held Al-Heisha that 20 civilians were killed and 32 wounded on Tuesday night in an air strike by the international coalition, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rojda said the YPJ’s mission is straightforward.
“We’re fighting to keep our mothers and sisters safe. Our victories are making history,” said the commander clad in a navy-blue parka.
“Often, in military matters, people look down on women with condescension, claiming we’re too delicate, that we wouldn’t dare carry a knife or a gun,” she said.
“But you can see for yourself that in the YPJ we can operate a dushka, we know how to use mortars and we can conduct demining operations,” said Rojda, flashing a smile.
Eating a sandwich, Rojda joined a group of women fighters, their Kalashnikov assault rifles leaning against the wall, hunkered down on the ground for a chat on how the battle is going or just to share a laugh.
Shireen, a 25-year-old from Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey, scanned the battlefront with a pair of binoculars.
“As a Kurdish woman in the YPJ, it gives me great pleasure to take part in this campaign to defeat those mercenaries,” she said, before mocking the fear that her unit inspires.
“Our voice frightens them. They’re scared a woman will kill them. For them, women should be slaves to men,” said Shireen.
“It drives me crazy when I see women wearing the niqab (Islamic face veil), and I get so happy when I see them taking it off,” when they are no longer under IS rule, said Shireen, herself wearing a scarf embroidered with multicoloured flowers.
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