AIN ISSA // In the Syrian village of Skero, two groups of Kurdish fighters face off with ISIL, which occupies the villages and compounds beyond the deep trench that demarcates the Kurdish frontline.
One is a People’s Protection Units (YPG) platoon, men of the armed wing of the PYD. The other is a platoon of fighters from the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the YPG’s female counterpart.
The female fighters of Rojava – a Kurdish-controlled autonomous region in north Syria – have shot to international fame.
Inspired by the ideology of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), they have broken with the region’s conservative social norms to fight on equal terms alongside the men.
Behind an earthern berm that surrounds the position at Skero, men and women in combat fatigues sit together chatting and sharing jokes.
The men smoke, the women do not, one of the few gender distinctions to survive at the front. Kalashnikovs are propped against an oil barrel alongside a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher.
In a machine-gun nest on top of the berm, a female fighter surveys the no man’s land. The camaraderie is real, as is the strong esprit de corps amongst the fighters – male and female.
“I am not afraid of dying, my only worry is that something will happen to my comrades,” says one of the women.
The YPJ fighters know what to expect if they are captured by ISIL. They would rather die than fall into the hands of the extremists, who brutally raped and enslaved thousands of Yazidi girls after attacking the Sinjar region in August last year.
But the unforgiving conflict and the barbarity of their enemies has done little to dampen the morale of the uniformed women at Skero.
In joining the YPJ, they have pledged their lives to a cause.
The Kurdish women fighters have vowed to remain celibate and never marry in a bid to escape the strictures of traditional society, where women are often treated as inferior to men, and have little say over their lives.
“When I think about Apo, I think of freedom,” says Hezel, a young YPJ fighter at Skero, referring to Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader now jailed in Turkey.
“At the front I am free, in society I wasn’t.”