What is the reality of war like for the women of Rojava as they advance on Raqqa? Kimmie Taylor from Britain is on the frontline and puts us in the picture.
It is 4am, just before dawn, in a god-forsaken spot ten kilometres away from Raqqa, when a band of Daesh fighters start shooting from a small building outside the Kurdish defence base at the building where the YPJ, the Women’s Defence Force, are based. Kimmie Taylor, a 27-year-old woman from Blackburn, who I met in Rojava, now known as the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, in March 2016 is attached to this unit as their ‘media officer’. She is sleeping in this building full of women soldiers when the attack takes place. Although she received military training (for a mere 10 days), her job is to shoot a camera, not a gun. She is not sent to where the fighting is fiercest, much to her chagrin. But this morning before she can reach for her camera, Kimmie reaches for her gun.
After an hour and a half of exchanging fire, one Daesh creeps out, manages to break across the 3mx3m deep trench surrounding the base and blow himself up metres away from Kimmie, his blood and guts splattering her and leaving her feeling sick for days and unable to eat. Another Daesh emerges and is shot before he can blow himself up. The coalition planes arrive and bomb the building. But the fighting continues until one lone sniper who was not in the building at the time is shot. Kimmie says, "We put up an incredible fight for three hours. Just two friends slightly injured. One woman was shot in the right arm at first but continued fighting with the same arm. Only when the Daesh blew himself up and a piece of shrapnel lodged in her head did she stop fighting. I'm so proud to call these people my comrades. We fight with unconditional resistance."
Kimmie’s day usually begins at 5 or 6 am with breakfast of a tin of spam, naan and tea. As this is a temporary base, the food is brought to them. On the days when the food truck is late or doesn’t come, they may well go hungry. "There's enough cigarettes though. The food on this front is horrible … the other front I was on was okay because it had been established for a year." Then she goes out to the front to find a group that will move that day to take a new village.
The YPG (People’s Defence Units) and the YPJ (Women’s Defence Units), are advancing on Raqqa, the last remaining ISIS stronghold in Syria, as I write this. A Western coalition, including the Americans and the British, provide air cover to the rapidly advancing forces collectively known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, (SDF) which include Arabs and other ethnic groups from newly liberated areas as well as the secular, progressive factions of the Free Syrian Army who have crossed over to join the Kurds. It is reported that Trump is considering sending 5000 ground troops to support SDF in their fight against ISIS. While this would certainly shorten the battle against Daesh, it is likely to cause tensions between the Americans and the Kurds, given the hugely different set of values that inform the two societies.
For the Kurds, the battle against Daesh is one of sheer survival. This survival is not just of the people, but of the participatory democracy they have established since 2012, which seeks to be secular, ethnically inclusive and environment-friendly, with class and gender equality enshrined in its every fibre. In the drive to be inclusive, the name Rojava has been dropped in favour of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria because Rojava is the Kurdish word for Western Kurdistan. For the women, this war is part of a continuum of self-defence which includes standing up to violence against the men in their communities. For Kongreya Star, the women’s umbrella organisation, 'self-defence is a broad concept, it includes the preservation of culture against an aggressive politics of assimilation, the organising of the economy out of a women's perspective, education, politics and social affairs.’
To those feminists who see war and militarisation as masculine and patriarchal, Kimmie would say that we "are fighting for our beliefs. Women need to know that men can't protect us. If the women of Sinjar had established their own forces, ISIS wouldn't have taken them as sex slaves." As for the Americans, Kimmie worries "that they don’t fight carefully like we do and may cause unnecessary civilian deaths." Even with air cover, Kimmie reports that there is a kind of psychological warfare being played by the Coalition "to show who’s boss". The standard procedure at the front is that a camera drone is sent ahead to get information and the co-ordinates are sent to the Coalition. Sometimes they fail to act on the information; Kimmie feels it is deliberate although on the day of the Daesh suicide attack, they respond promptly.
As a result of this unexpected attack on their base, the YPJ are on lockdown i.e. they are not allowed to go anywhere. This gives Kimmie time to have an unhurried online conversation with me. I ask whose job it is to clear up the bodies. People volunteer – in this case, it was some YPG men based in a building nearby who had come to the assistance of the women when the fighting started. But she assures me that there are no gendered divisions of work. The women had been at the forefront of the fighting that day. How do they all cope with death in their midst, especially when they have forged close bonds? "Many of them I don’t know very well," she replies. "I’m new here and we’ve been dispersed around the front to mix in with all the forces. But my bond is more like awe. I know them on a shallow level, like how they laugh and smile and talk to me and then I see them run fast towards the fight. There's no second thought. They run forward. They aren't afraid at all."
Kimmie herself feels safe even though she knows that "that doesn’t make sense". Although most of the women are in their 20s, the age range being 18-30s, they have lost enough of their friends to have become "used to death… It doesn’t mean they aren't sad about it. They cry sometimes. When it's just us women together. And a song comes on or we talk about a friend who died. But they aren't torn apart by it. Like we would be in the West." The sense of relief and joy the women feel on joining the YPJ is indescribable, says Kimmie. At home, they would be expected to get married and faced such restrictions on their freedoms before the revolution that they were not even allowed to greet a male neighbour. It is their newfound freedom that motivates them "and they want to give that to other women".
The women at the front are single; those who are married and have children work in ‘diplomacy’ i.e. public relations, administration and recruitment. It is a volunteer army; there is no compulsory recruitment in YPJ. However, some families who are so poor that they cannot afford to lose a family member are financially compensated. Women who want to visit their families are allowed five days off a month. Not everyone wants to go home, especially those women whose families are likely to stop them returning to the front. When I ask if the same rules apply to men, Kimmie says, "No, married men can go to the front but they go home every ten days for a few days. It's a difficult question to answer because you have to remember that we are autonomous. YPJ make their own decision on how to deal with married women and mothers, based on their own ideas not just comparing to what men have. That's the difference between here and western feminism. Feminists are always comparing themselves with men instead of just thinking about what they want and what's best. Here the women know what oppression is. For the average white Westerner it's mostly more subtle. That's why so many women in the West say we aren't oppressed and patriarchy doesn't exist."
Sexual relations are proscribed in the YPG/YPJ for the very good reason that there can be no grey area in which sexual violence can hide. Kimmie is still struggling with that concept but she feels that they have really implemented it, "I'm understanding it more as time goes on". She has not noticed relationships either between the men and the women or between the women. She feels that would be, "like falling in love with your sister. They have a deeper connection than sexual attraction allows".
I ask Kimmie about the allegations that have been doing the rounds in the West about the YPG burning down Arab villages and brutalising the Arabs they have liberated from Daesh, in particular, an article in The Nation. She is categorical that this is anti-Rojava propaganda, "I can say that a million percent. Do you know the SDF is 70% Arab now?"
Since Kimmie’s profile appeared in The Guardian, there has been a feeding frenzy in the media desperate to get their hands on the sensational story of a young Englishwoman fighting ISIS. Yet her decision cannot be understood without its context. The ideals, history and politics of the people behind the war have been covered extensively on 5050. To read more, see our series Rojava: Witnessing the Revolution.