TIL KOCHER, SYRIA // Every night before 27-year-old Arin goes to bed, she hangs her Makarov, a Russian semi-automatic pistol, from a steel coat rack by the entrance to her one-bedroom apartment in a small, dusty town on the Syrian border with Iraq.
The pistol was an award for her success on the front line in the battle to protect Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria and is a far cry from her life a year ago when she was working as a nurse in Cologne in Germany.
“This is a bloody war,” said Arin, using only her combat name, from the almost deserted apartment block in Til Kocher in northeastern Syria.
“But we need to fight it, we need to protect our women and children or nobody else will defend us.”
Arin is one of thousands of young Kurdish women who have taken up arms in the past two years with Kurds, Syria’s largest minority group, largely left to their own devices by President Bashar Al Assad’s forces battling ISIL militants who have seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.
About 7,500 women are estimated to have joined the Women’s Protection Unit, or YPJ, which was set up in 2012 as part of the People’s Defence Unit (YPG), the Kurds’ dominant fighting unit in the northern Syria region of Rojava.
Their aim is to fight any group that threatens Kurdish inhabited areas of Rojava and the YPG has taken defacto control over a sizeable chunk of Syria’s predominantly Kurdish north.
While female fighters are common within the ranks of Kurdish forces, a women’s only combat unit is unusual for the Muslim world where some Islamic traditionalists are of the view that women should not engage in combat.
Like the followers of ISIL, many Kurds are Sunni Muslims but this band of young female fighters hope their frontline role will help put women on an equal footing with men.
“We want to set an example for [both] the Middle East and the West. We want gender equality for all,” said one of the six other women in Arin’s unit who all live in the same, small apartment.
When asked for their full names, the women declined, preferring to be addressed by their noms de guerre.
David L Phillips, director of a programme on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, said these women were making a mark.
“[They] are some of the fiercest and most effective fighters. Many of them are widowed, and strongly motivated on the battlefield by their personal loss,” he said.
Arin, who was born and raised in Germany, said she was awarded her pistol after she killed 20 ISIL militants, earning her the reputation among her colleagues as one of the most dangerous snipers in the group.
Born in Cologne of Kurdish parents, Arin graduated from nursing school and was working there when the Syrian conflict started.
Some 200,000 people have died during the four-year conflict, according to the United Nations.
“I had a good life, I liked living there,” Arin said, but she felt she had to do something as the news became worse.
“I remember watching television when I saw women and children slaughtered by Daesh [ISIL], and I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said.
Last year she travelled to Syria to join the YPJ and now heads her unit, which originally had 20 members. Today, there are only seven of them left.
She was reluctant to give too many details about the group’s combat operations.
When they are not fighting, the unit of seven women try to avoid talking about war. They cook and laugh as if they were living an ordinary life but their lives are far from normal.
Arin has not talked to her parents since she left Germany.
“I don’t call them, it’s better this way,” she said, adding that she might call them once the war is over. “My life is here with these brave women. They are my family.”
The schedule of Arin’s unit is always tight, starting with breakfast at 8 am every day and strategy meetings.
Nisan, a 24-year-old combatant, spread a gray plastic table cloth on the floor. She lost her right finger while fighting in Rabia, the Iraqi town adjacent to Til Kocher, in August.
Rangin, another sniper, came in with breakfast: tomatoes, olives, goat cheese and homemade bread.
After breakfast, the unit’s phone rang.
Orders were given and three women grabbed their combat gear, ready to jump in a car waiting for them outside to take them to Jezza, a town close to Kobani and one of the most violent flashpoints in the war.
“We are going to fight the Daesh, take care,” Arin said as she closed the door behind her.