AT 5 AM ON AN APRIL MORNING THIS YEAR, 30 young women emerged in khaki flak jackets from a dormitory in Syria’s north-eastern plains. Under the still-dark sky, they gathered on the gravelly ground at the front of a temporary facility where they were camped, filing into neat rows, one behind the other, an arm’s length apart. Once they were in position, they sharply saluted their commander, a lean, stern woman about twice the recruits’ age.
Then, as the sun peeped over the horizon, the armed unit went through their morning drills. They exercised for an hour or so, jogging from end to end on a roughly 100-metre-long concrete street that led out of the compound, breaking into occasional sprints, and doing push-ups, stretches and lunges. One of the camp members, 21-year-old Rokan Abrahim, took on the role of instructor for the day and performed the exercises alongside them, barking orders to coordinate the routine. When they had finished, they broke off into twos and threes and walked back towards the residential quarters, chatting and laughing with each other.
It was the start of another day at this all-women Kurdish rebel training camp in north-east Syria.Women from different parts of Syria’s Kurdish regions had enrolled in a 15-day-long physical education and combat program designed to prepare them for the frontlines. The 30 soldiers of the camp were women between the ages of 19 and 25, and were part of the only all-women armed unit in Syria, known as the Women’s Protection Unit, or the YPJ. Once the fortnight of lectures, assault courses, rifle practice and combat training concluded, the women were to disperse to various battlefronts and checkpoints across the north-east of the country.
The YPJ is part of the larger People’s Protection Unit (YPG)—the official armed wing of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, a governing organisation of Syrian Kurdistan—which comprises male and female fighters. In a country that is being ripped apart by war, the YPG aims to represent the rights of minority ethnic Kurds, who are not the main players in the clashes between Syrian government and Arab rebels. The YPJ has the same aim, but emphasises women’s rights. Since the beginning of the war, in March 2011, the YPG and YPJ, along with other Kurdish militia, have been taking over security of regions in north-eastern Syria heavily populated by Kurds, including the important cities of Al Malikiyah (Derik in Kurdish), Al Qamishli (Qamishlo) and Ras al Ain (Sere Kaniye). The exact strength of the combined YPG is hard to estimate—figures range from 1,500 to 15,000 depending on whom you ask.
For nearly a century, the history of Kurds in Syria has been marked by discrimination. Over the years, according to Human Rights Watch reports, the Syrian government has systematically repressed Kurds, through measures such as the revocation of citizenship, bans on language and cultural expression, and the harassment and arrest of activists. Since the 1960s, this mistreatment has increased under the regimes of Hafez al-Assad, and then his son, Bashar al-Assad. “In every country, people can speak their mother tongue, but [Bashar] Assad prohibited us from speaking our language,” Abrahim said. “We weren’t given the rights of civilians in this country. He always made us feel that we are not people of this country.”
In late 2010 and early 2011, violent anti-government protests in Tunisia were followed by similar movements in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other West Asian and North African countries. April 2011 saw the outbreak of clashes in Syria, between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and rebels aiming to oust him. Syrian Kurds were uncertain of which path to follow: a strong anti-regime sentiment was prevalent among them, but people feared that they would face harsh reprisals if they chose to protest. Since then, Kurdish participation in the Syrian uprising has been varied and complex across regions. Youth committees in some cities such as Amouda took the lead and fearlessly organised anti-regime demonstrations. In other places, like Al Qamishli, where older politicians were in charge, and had a hold over the population, Kurds remained quiet. Among the issues that Kurds have agitated for since 2011 is the establishment of an autonomous West Kurdistan comprising the Kurdish-speaking north-eastern regions of the country.
During the early days of the uprising, the Syrian government offered citizenship to thousands of Kurds in Al Hasaka province. Many sceptics saw this move as a way to appease the Kurds, and prevent them from turning against the regime. Soon after, Kurdish rebels ousted Syrian forces from their territories, although some observers claimed that Assad had ordered his troops to retreat as part of a tactical move to maintain stability in the region. The Kurds have adopted an official stance of being a “third front” in the Syrian civil war, neither siding with the opposition rebels, nor supporting the Assad regime. The women fighters of the YPJ have stuck to this line and have been involved in fighting Arab and Islamist rebels as well as government troops.
“We are living in difficult times in Syria right now,” said Abrahim, who joined the militia when her school shut down because of the war. “We should protect ourselves. When I join the academy here in Syria, I am fulfilling my responsibility of protecting our region and our rights.” She emphasised that the YPJ’s main aim was not an offensive one. “We are carrying weapons, not to kill anybody, but to protect ourselves,” she said. “We are against violence in any area, in any region. But we are carrying the weapons to protect our nation and our people.”
At the camp, after the morning drill, the women fighters gathered for a standing breakfast of bread, eggs and tea. At the table, they giggled and gossiped. There was only a fleeting sense of being in a warzone. Soon after the meal, however, they gathered to sing in praise of their colleagues who died in recent battles. Suzdar Kholchar, a 24-year-old, sat sombre in a corner. “Two of my friends were killed in the battle in Sere Kaniye,” she said, referring to clashes between Kurdish rebels and Islamic forces in the town, which borders Turkey, in late 2012. Soon, her mood became defiant. “My friends who died in the war, they paid with their blood as a price for our freedom,” she said. “I am also ready to pay this high price, my blood, for a free West Kurdistan.”
Suzdar then rushed to attend a class along with the rest of the women. Over the next hour, the lecturer, a woman around the same age as the soldiers, spoke to them about gender equality and women’s empowerment. She invoked the ideology and teachings of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey—considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union—the ranks of which have always prominently included women. (Öcalan is currently in a Turkish prison on charges of terrorism.) The talk included an analysis of the imposition of the hijab on women in Islam, a condemnation of the growing number of honour killings in Kurdish Syria and the unequal treatment meted out to women in society.
After the class, the women proceeded outdoors for their next training session, in weapon use. “When a woman takes a weapon to protect herself and her region, it’s a revolution in itself,” Abrahim said. “Not all women can carry weapons. Only a strong woman can carry weapons. Only she can protect herself and her people.” She fetched her AK-47 and joined the group in the fields surrounding the camp building. The scene was surreal—some two dozen young women running across seemingly serene fields of yellow rapeseed flowers, with guns raised over their heads.
They were then ordered to move to another field, where they practised running over hurdles. Some of the women were showing signs of exhaustion, but their commander pressed them on. Then, one by one they loaded their guns and practised firing into gunny bags that were placed as targets in the fields.
At the end of the long day, they stood in a semi-circle, holding each other by the waist. They sang and danced to the beats of the YPJ anthem. Almost like a war cry, the loudspeaker blared, “Long live the YPJ!” The fighters performed a traditional Kurdish group folk dance, hooting and screaming at regular intervals, almost as if in a trance.
“I’d like to stay and fight with the YPJ, but not forever,” Abrahim said just before we departed. “After the war is over, I’d like to become a lawyer.”
In July of this year, the UN reported that more than 100,000 people had died in the Syrian civil war, while the estimate for the total number of refugees, within the country and abroad, stood at a staggering seven million, or nearly one-third of the entire population. In July and August, fierce clashes broke out between the Kurdish armed forces and Al Qaeda-linked rebels in the north-east, even as reports of chemical weapon use in Damascus shocked the international community. In the first week of September, we received some news from our contact person in the region, a young woman who works closely with the YPJ, though not in a military capacity. “All the girls from the camp are being deployed along the front lines all over the region,” she said. “They are all fighting. The military situation has improved. The YPG and YPJ are gaining control over more and more areas that used to be under Islamist control. Last month during the fighting, many people were afraid, but now there is more stability.”
Gayatri Parameswaran is a freelance journalist specialising in conflict, social justice and sexual health. She has reported from Asia, Middle East, the Caucasus and Europe.
Felix Gaedtke is a freelance multimedia journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, political and social issues. His work has taken him to different parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa.