'We want revenge': Meet the Yazidi women freeing their sisters from Isis in the battle for Raqqa
Female fighters almost killed by Isis on Sinjar mountain vow to liberate their fellow Yazidis - and all other women who suffer at the hands of oppressors
A big red Sinjar Women’s Protection Units (YJS) flag, with its spiky yellow sun on a green background, in the middle. Next to it, a bronze picture frame with photos of martyred friends, and below that, a poster of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. To the left, a picture of a male soldier killed fighting.
The eight members of the YJS heavy weapons unit – the oldest, Darsim, 26, the youngest, Ariyah, just 20 – sit on the floor smoking and deftly personalising their famous scarves by braiding the edges, the ceiling fan providing welcome relief during the hottest part of the day.
Then it clicks: there is already a picture of these women known to the whole world. In it, four of them stand with straight backs, proud faces and hands flashing the V for victory sign in front of the decorated wall. They hold posters condemning the recent racially-charged violence in Charlottesville, along with their condolences for the death of left wing activist, Heather Heyer. “Unite Against Fascism”, one of the signs reads in English.
“As women who have suffered at the hands of Daesh we know well the dangers that fascist, racist, patriarchal and nationalist groups and organisations pose. Once again men of this mindset, this time in America, have martyred a woman, Heather Heyer, who was resisting against the division and destruction of communities,” says the post accompanying the photograph.
“We believe that Heather Heyer’s struggle is our struggle and that the fight against fascism is a global battle. For this reason, we are calling on women around the world to unite against fascism and put an end to terrorist groups like Daesh and those made from the same cloth that kill women like Heather.”
Uploaded by a Facebook account affiliated with the YPJ, or Kurdish Women’s Protection Units – after which it was shared thousands of times – the call to arms from Raqqa’s frontline reinvigorated anti-fascist movements around the world. Punch Nazis, defeat Isis: two sides of the same coin, many on the left figured.
And here they are, in the flesh, these women from the famous picture, enjoying a little downtime as air strikes thud in the distance. Do they know about the impact the photo had?
No, it turns out. Raqqa hasn’t had functioning communications towers or cellular data service since al-Nusra, and then Isis, seized control of the city from Free Syrian Army rebels four years ago. And when you’re posted to the front line as the jihadists struggle to retain control of their de facto capital, there isn’t a lot of time to focus on news from the outside world.
All eight members of the unit have sisters, cousins and friends still suffering at Isis’s hands. With no contact for years at this point, they have no idea where their missing female relatives are, or whether they’re even still alive.
“Daesh are monsters,” says Darsim. “There have been 73 separate massacres of Yazidis. We are trying to protect our people, and we want revenge.
“In our training we learn how men control women and how that is how almost every society functions. We have an enemy like Daesh that is obvious. But these ideas, how men oppress us, that is a part of everything.”
Syria’s complex civil war, now in its seventh year, is unlike any other modern conflict. Almost 500,000 people have been killed, half of the pre-war population of 22 million have been driven from their homes and its full repercussions are yet to be understood.
Yazidi women are perhaps the most persecuted of all of those who have suffered in the war.
As Isis evolved out of Syria’s violence, the group began to impose its poisonous beliefs on the communities under its control.
The violence committed against the Yazidi people – a minority population whose beliefs combine elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism – amounts to genocide.
Isis decimated Yazidi villages in Sinjar, just over the Syrian-Iraqi border, after it managed to blitz across Iraq in 2014. Men were lined up and shot and thousands of women kidnapped to serve as slaves who are both sexually and physically abused.
The stories of those who managed to escape are chilling. All but one of the YJS unit were trapped on Sinjar mountain by militants without food or water as they waited desperately for Kurdish Peshmerga and YPG forces to assist the evacuation. They were lucky to escape alive.
“Before Isis came I was just in school,” says Nagasin, one of the unit’s two snipers. “I never thought I would learn how to use weapons and be independent. Now we can trust ourselves. We know we can fight.”
Learning how to defend themselves thanks to training from the Kurdish Women’s Protection units (YPJ) and joining the fight for Raqqa has changed the trajectories of these women’s lives.
Tiny Ayidza, the only foreigner of the group, from the Yazidi community in Germany’s Black Forest, demonstrates how to use the dozens of rocket launchers and guns, which sit in a room that looks like it was once a teenager’s bedroom.
It’s easy to forget that the room could have recently belonged to any of the fighters (“Of course they’re young,” says Darsim – at 26, clearly the mother of the group. “The older ones have already been killed.”)
While they prepare lunch all of the women pad around in brightly coloured animal-pattern socks that make a striking contrast with their US-issued polyester fatigues.
Ayidza goes on to point out the new graffiti on the side of a mosque next door that is mostly intact despite intense US-led coalition bombing which has destroyed entire neighbourhoods and coated what’s left in dust.
“Resistance is life,” it says, in Kurdish, English and Greek – most likely the work of a foreign fighter from an international unit stationed nearby.
The house, too, is covered in slogans and “YJS” tags, one accompanied by a smiley face. It’s a sign of quite how complicated things are in Raqqa: the last few jihadis left in the city are being hunted down thanks to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Yazidi fighters, which the Pentagon says numbers 40,000.
But even when civilians are able to return to the heavily mined city, Raqqa is a majority Arab town. With Isis on the back foot, at some point the Syrian government will turn its attention back to it.
The SDF cannot stay here indefinitely - which means it is also unclear what lies ahead for its soldiers, such as the women of the YJS.
Most of the Yazidi and Arab recruits, liberated from the jihadists, were keen to join the Kurds in the fight against Isis. Syria’s war is far from over, and especially for fighters originally from Iraq, any renewed conflict with Bashar al-Assad’s government is not necessarily something they have signed up for.
Either way, life is very different for the YJS now.
“If we as women had been armed and knew how to defend ourselves in the beginning, maybe the massacres against us would not have happened,” Ayidza said.
“We have proved to the whole world we can protect ourselves now.”