The following article was originally published in The Guardian.
She had heard the stories about how Islamic State fighters could glide like ghosts into Kurdish militia bases during the dead of night, but nothing prepared her for the bedlam when it happened. It was 3.40am on 12 February when Isis attackers scrambled over the perimeter defences of the base north of Raqqa. Kimberley Taylor was convinced it would be overrun. Grabbing her Kalashnikov, she began firing at the shapes. Beyond the corner of the nearest building cowered an enemy fighter. Suddenly he rushed towards her. As their eyes met, he yanked the cord on his suicide belt.
Night-time along the shifting frontline of northern Syria is a fraught affair. Absolute silence, punctured by periods of pandemonium. Isis can strike from anywhere, shadows that melt in and out of the darkness. Taylor’s base was six miles behind the front, among the lush floodplains of the Euphrates. Everyone there knew that the Isis fighters’ latest tactic was tiptoeing into the huts of sleeping Kurdish fighters and blowing themselves up. Taylor, who survived the suicide attack, counted herself lucky.
“Well, kind of. I was completely covered in human remains, which was pretty horrific,” said the 28-year-old in her gentle Lancashire accent. Later, when the sun rose, Taylor admitted to being both disgusted and fascinated by a human exploding, particularly how hair was blown clean from the scalp.
Taylor, born in Blackburn 28 years ago, is a footsoldier for the YPJ – a Northern Kurdish or Kurmanji acronym for the Women’s Protection Units – an all-female force that is part of the offensive to liberate Raqqa. Fighting alongside a coalition of Arab and Assyrian Christian militias, the YPJ is steadily encircling the capital of Isis’s proto-state, supported by US airpower.
Standing among the ruins of a bombed command post 25 miles north of Raqqa, Taylor looks more like a guerrilla fighter from the Spanish civil war than a combatant at the sharp end of the international coalition to eradicate the world’s arguably most feared terrorist organisation. She has no army boots and instead marches to battle in a pair of size five secondhand Chinese-made trainers, bought for £6 in the Kurdish town of Qamishli. She has no body armour or helmet, so wraps an emerald and orange embroidered keffiyeh around her forehead to, she says, help express her femininity. She watches the war through a pair of Specsavers glasses.
Taylor, though, does have military fatigues and a flak jacket that carries four magazines (30 rounds each) and two grenades. She also carries a small bag that contains bandages, a sealable dressing for chest wounds and a tourniquet. Few have a tourniquet and Taylor knows she is fortunate – without one, a wounded soldier could bleed to death in the remote villages where they are fighting. Most crucial is her rifle – made in 1978 in Soviet-era Poland, and which looks like it has been involved in every war since.
Taylor said she was prepared for death. She does not carry any lucky charms, but has the motto “One life” inked in Thai script on her left forearm. Although she had it done in a beach shack on Koh Samui in Thailand 10 years ago, it serves as a reminder that life is fragile, that every day matters.
The pre-op briefings for the Raqqa offensive did not dilute the dangers that lay ahead. Casualties were predicted to be “significant”. Already Taylor had noticed how Isis fighters were retreating from the villages that dot the river valley around Raqqa, withdrawing back to the city for the group’s final showdown. “They’ve been preparing for this for so long. Hundreds and hundreds of us will die in Raqqa, I’m going to lose so many friends.” She paused and exhaled slowly: “What we’ll find inside the city will be unlike anything we’ve seen.”
At first the north-eastern corner of Syria when approached from Iraq seems a peaceful, plentiful land. Fields of wheat stretch to the horizon, towns bustle with hawkers, trading beneath huge portraits of the Turkish-Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the militant PKK, and whose philosophy of direct democracy and feminism has been adopted wholesale by the neighbouring Syrian Kurds.
Soon other faces appear on billboards –the faces of young martyrs, features blanched by the sun, a reminder that this nascent Kurdish region is fighting for its very existence. The Kurds have proved adroit at forging a homeland – albeit fragile – from the chaos of Syria’s war, a conflict in its seventh year that has left the country fractured, destabilised the entire region, left 470,000 dead and forced five million to flee.
Further west along the M4 highway, the grasslands surrender to the advancing desert. Signs of conflict appear. Soon you enter territory formerly ruled by Isis and only recently liberated. Destroyed, deserted villages line the road. Checkpoints become more frequent, the faces of the militia operating them increasingly taut. Enormous earth berms and ditches 10ft deep begin to border the desolate desert highway that cuts across this remote swath of northern Syria. These embankments are to halt Isis’s souped-up “bomber cars”.
Resembling something from Mad Max, these vehicles terrify everyone. Laden with explosives and encased within welded metal sheets, rockets bounce off them harmlessly, a Kalashnikov is as useful as a child’s catapult. They can reach 50mph and deliver the same fury as a 500lb bomb from a coalition jet.
The checkpoint searches become more forensic, travel documents triple-checked. We learn that a fresh batch of bomber cars has been dispatched north from Raqqa.
We are headed to the frontline of Isis’s de facto capital. It is dug in there, primed for a climactic encounter as its self-proclaimed caliphate implodes after little more than three years. Latest assessments suggest that more than 100,000 civilians remain inside Raqqa, along with 5,000 Isis fighters. Advancing towards them from the north and east are about 3,000 largely Kurdish and Arab fightersfrom the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Another front of up to 2,500 are pushing from the south-west, picking their way through the town of Tabqa towards the city.
Intelligence assessments and spies inside Raqqa confirm prodigious defences. Speaking at an SDF command post 20 miles north of the city, Arab commander Jihan Shix Ahmad said: “Documents show Daesh [Isis] have planted many, many explosives; barrels containing bombs are all over the city.”
Booby-traps are expected in the unlikeliest places: piles of rubbish, parked motorbikes and rigged Pepsi cans. Tripwires are strung behind the doors of innocuous-looking apartments. That Raqqa has been so generously mined does not surprise Taylor. Creeping through the villages alongside the Euphrates, where the land is so lush it reminds her of Lancashire, she has stumbled across numerous bomb factories. Inside, gigantic vats of chemicals, mixing agents and bundles of wires are piled high, the smell so noxious it made her gag. “You can’t breathe; if you stay inside too long you get a massive headache.”
Complicating the offensive are new reports that Isis has herded huge groups of civilians into pens outside the city gates. Susan Kobani, 38, one of the most senior officers overseeing the Raqqa operation, whose command hierarchy is dominated by women, said: “Daesh put civilians in two camps around the city. They are strategically placed so the SDF cannot attack from certain areas.” If the civilians attempt to escape, they are shot.
In Raqqa’s centre, Ahmad reveals that people have been shepherded on to the top three floors of the apartment blocks where Isis has located its headquarters to act as human shields against coalition airstrikes. Informants say that beneath Raqqa is alabyrinthine tunnel network from which fighters can move and instigate counterattacks from behind the frontline. Some tunnels, dug by civilians as punishments, are crammed with explosives.
Officially, no one is allowed to leave Raqqa. From the accounts of those who have reached the nearest refugee camp 25 miles away in the desert, it is quickly evident that the city is in lockdown.
Wearing the regulation black burqa of Isis, and obviously elated, Safiya Rashid told how she ignored a recent Isis directive threatening to behead anyone who attempted to cross the Euphrates. Others, too, had dismissed the warning. Two nights earlier Abdul Omar, 29, pulled himself along a rope someone had surreptitiously tied across the river. “The current was strong, but I was dying staying in the city,” he said.
Isis sentries patrol the riverbanks and shoot anyone in the water. Some people attempt to swim across and are never heard of again. Engineer assistant Abdul Kardalazi, 31, was another who got lucky. “My family hired a small boat from a smuggler, but it was very dark and all their shots missed.”
Ahmed Alogla, 60, from Aleppo, bribed an Isis guard with $200 to turn a blind eye to the dinghy holding his family. “I have nothing, no possessions, but I have my freedom,” he beamed.
Those not prepared to risk the river must take their chances traversing the treacherous land to the north. There, Isis has sown a colossal minefield, and only a handful of smugglers know the narrow corridor that leads to safety.
Ama Noor, 28, a builder from Raqqa, paid $300 for his family to be guided. They left Raqqa at 11pm and arrived at their destination after 10am, waiting until dawn to trek the final stage so they wouldn’t be shot by friendly forces. Mohammed Neheter, 31, arrived at the refugee camp at midday, his smock still filthy after scrambling along the banks of irrigation ditches to avoid Isis snipers. Sitting down with his family, Neheter couldn’t stop hugging his children. “Daesh said, ‘We will kill you if you leave’, but we had no food, no work, sometimes no water.”
The reality of the new economics of survival is that only the poorest are left stranded in Raqqa, unable to afford the smugglers’ demands.
Some risk their lives regardless. Three days previously, a boy was found stumbling north, close to the hamlet of Ghazili. According to Kardalazi, he had left Raqqa with two adults who tried to navigate the minefield at night without a guide. One was killed, while the other lost both legs. The boy tried to drag him but eventually the man persuaded him to go on alone. Since his arrival, the child had become mute and had taken to silently following a refugee family who shared their food. No one knows his name.
Others portray a city barely functioning, the only viable livelihoods being trading food or exchanging US dollars on the black market. One woman, Aanisah, suggested Isis was loosening its grip, becoming less pious ahead of the impending battle. “Before, they were very strict about wearing the niqab, but less now because the fighting is nearer.”
At night, power failures plunge the city into darkness, its streets deserted except for Isis fighters and those contemplating a bid for liberty.
Already it is evident that Raqqa holds terrible secrets. Ahmad revealed that they had obtained documents detailing that large numbers of women were imprisoned as slaves. “They show that hundreds of women are being held inside Raqqa.” So far the YPJ has liberated 137 of them.
For the female warriors like Taylor, the prospect of emancipating such victims is electrifying. Killing Isis was part of the day job, she said, but what really drove her forward was the thought of liberating abused women. Ahmad, almost shouting, added: “We are not fighting to kill, we are fighting for freedom.”
For the YPJ fighters, their ambitions for female emancipation are far greater than eliminating Isis. Ultimately they want to annihilate the patriarchal structure that they say oppresses women, and rebuild an equal society. “It’s an ideological fight against the patriarchal system, it starts with fighting the mentality of Daesh, then the mentality of the male, the patriarchal mindset,” said Kobani.
Taylor had no military experience before joining the YPJ. She had always loathed violence and shudders when recalling fights in British pubs. Born in Darwen, near Blackburn, a market town struggling for identity in the post-industrial economy, Taylor always wanted to make a difference. She wanted to become a professional humanitarian, possibly set up an NGO to help the disenfranchised. In the summer of 2015, she decided to travel to Iraq and witness first-hand the reality of refugee life. The plight of Yazidi women, raped and kept as sex slaves by Isis who had seized their homeland, changed her future. “Mothers were literally trying to give me their babies to take back to Europe. They were totally serious, begging me. I had to do something.”
She entered Syria in March last year, joining the Kurdish militia’s international brigade of about 100 volunteers, largely a motley bunch of leftists, socialists and anarchists from the US and Europe, of whom a dozen or so are British. Some were lured by the dogma of Öcalan, a former communist who now preaches a similar brand of feminist, anarcho-libertarianism to Noam Chomsky. Some just wanted to kill Isis.
Now Taylor finds herself squaring up against an opposing, larger cohort of foreign fighters, schooled in a strain of nihilistic jihadism. Asayish (security) police officials in northern Syria believe 1,500 foreign fighters have retreated inside Raqqa, dozens of whom are British, some of the 850 UK nationals who have travelled to fight in Syria.
As Taylor’s unit advances towards the city, they have met village residents who describe large groups of foreign fighters who cannot speak Arabic and who were heading for Raqqa. “They saw many fighters, they were everywhere. Some had Chinese-looking faces, some spoke English.”
Taylor admits it will be “weird” if she comes face to face with a Briton on the opposing side. Even weirder if she meets someone she grew up with. “I bet someone from my school is in there,” she said, nodding south along the Euphrates. “What happens if I capture someone from Lancashire? Quite a few people from there have come over. We have to understand why these people are fighting for Daesh.”
Taylor is anxious about the civilians stranded inside Raqqa, and what Isis might do to them when it realises the game is up. She remains haunted by another night attack, this time when Isis stormed a YPJ command post last month, three miles from the front. Caught up in the chaotic crossfire was a 12-year-old girl, shot through the pelvis. Her mother carried the child over to Taylor, who began trying to patch her up. “But everything had come out of her body, all of her guts, her innards. The doctor and I were trying to fill the massive gap, stuff it with gauze and bandages, but it was impossible.”
She remembers that every time she looked up, the mother was staring back expectantly, nodding encouragement. But Taylor couldn’t help. The girl turned cold and pale and began throwing up. An ambulance arrived but it was four hours to the nearest hospital. As they left, Taylor recalls the mother still nodding, hoping everything would go back to the way it was.
It was 11am on the hottest day of the year so far and Taylor was in high spirits. Moments earlier she had received notice she was being posted to a new tarbur – platoon – that would spearhead the assault on Raqqa. Later that day she would be driven by minivan to the western front, 12 miles from the city centre. Her chance of becoming one of the first fighters into Raqqa had improved greatly. “Daesh had better be ready,” Taylor grinned, cigarette dangling from her mouth.
Overhead came the rumble of coalition jets, pounding Isis positions further down the valley. Morning briefings suggested it had been a busy night: Isis had sent a fleet of bomber cars to positions just south. “They killed six friends,” Taylor said, looking over the SDF’s battle-scarred 93rd Brigade headquarters.
The base occupied the summit of a knoll above the desert crossroads town of Ain Issa and served as a neat microcosm of modern Syria. Once a Syrian regime garrison, jihadis from al-Qaida’s al-Nusra Front overran it in 2013, and a year later came Isis, who themselves were driven out by Kurdish forces 12 months later. Most of its structures had been obliterated by airstrikes. Amid the rubble lay the belongings of dead fighters, odd sandals, a pair of smashed sunglasses, a single Berghaus walking boot. A stretcher lay abandoned between piles of bricks.
Life on the frontline begins at 5am with a breakfast of tinned chicken, a curiously colourless substance with the texture of tripe. Occasionally tins of sardines show up, but there is always an inexplicably generous supply of Dairylea cheese triangles. Cigarettes are another constant. Everyone smokes. Arden, carrying a “Made in London” label, is the frontline brand of choice.
Showers are a luxury. Weeks without washing is normal. Dysentery is common, stomach gripes routine. Toilets are a hole in the desert, loo paper a thing of memory. Taylor remembers exploring a palatial Arab home south of the town of Tal Saman that had been commandeered by Isis fighters but now stood abandoned. Upstairs she found a sit-on toilet – her first in a year – and told her unit she would catch them up.
Much of the war against Isis is spent waiting for Land Cruisers to take them to the next battle. They spend the time singing and dancing. Taylor’s favourite Kurdish song is Freedom Fighter – Servanê Azadiyê – a paean to fallen friends. Her unit once made her sing an English song – she chose Bob Marley’s One Love but could only remember the chorus. Taylor loves life on the frontline, making a difference, being equal. She relishes the thought of killing men who have abused women, and loves that there is no sexism or objectification. “For the first time in my life I feel men respect me for who I am. Back home, men feel they have the right to beep their horn purely because I have a vagina.” She loves the fact that it is women who tell the United States where and when to carry out coalition airstrikes and that overnight commander Kobani had directed 16 airborne bombing raids, vapourising at least one prominent Isis position.
Her achievements made Taylor wish that western feminism was more potent. “There’s an obsession with minor issues like terminology, rather than realising the whole system is patriarchal. Sure, women have personal freedoms, but western society is not free.” She said she felt safer in northern Syria than in Britain.
Shortly before dusk, Jac Holmes, a bearded IT specialist from Bournemouth, appeared at the base. Taylor and Holmes embraced: they hadn’t seen each other for months. The 24-year-old had arrived from Tabqa, the scene of ferocious battles a dozen miles south-west of Raqqa. During his time in Syria, Holmes had been fired at more than 40 times, hospitalised once when a bullet burst through his right arm.
Holmes spoke softly. As a sniper, he said, it was important to stay calm. But even for him, a non-smoker upon his arrival in Syria, a stressful day can now entail consumption of 45 Ardens. “It can get pretty real out there,” he laughed. A union jack patch was fixed on the right shoulder of his militia uniform, his blood type (A-) scrawled on a spare magazine pouch. A toothbrush dangled out of his back pocket. Holmes had been away from England’s south coast for nearly eight months and figured the Raqqa op might keep him busy for many more. During that period he had become increasingly impressed with his adversaries. “They’re very good, extremely motivated, well trained and very experienced,” he said, fiddling with his lucky charm, a set of white prayer beads he found in a home near Qaltah, Raqqa province.
As with Taylor, talk of Raqqa brought thoughts of mortality. He had lost more friends than he could count, Kurdish and foreign. “At one point I had a list but … ”One was 20-year-old Ryan Lock, from Chichester, who shot himself before Christmas when cornered by Isis at the onset of the Raqqa offensive. Holmes said he would do the same if surrounded, but “preferred to die fighting”. Taylor didn’t miss a beat: “Of course.”
A group of young YPJ fighters turned up. Among them was Mahabad Kobani, 18, who had requested to be forwarded to the Raqqa front and was waiting to hear back. That she had a chance was itself a minor miracle. One night before Christmas 2014 she was ambushed in an olive grove outside the town of Kobani by Isis fighters and shot seven times. She was pronounced dead, a martyr. “When they found I was alive everybody was totally shocked.” After a year recovering in hospital, she felt desperate to fight again.
“I am not worried about dying, I’ll jump in the way of bullets if my friends are in danger,” she said. Her best friend, Amara Rojhilat, 21, fought in Aleppo defending the Kurdish district of Ashrafiya from jihadis in 2013. Burdened with inferior weaponry, they forced back al-Nusra rebels in savage street-to-street fighting. “Eventually we made them accept peace,” she smiled, and reached for Kobani’s hand. Together they sang Servanê Azadiyê.
Even before the black flag of Isis is removed from Raqqa’s central square, thoughts are turning to what happens next. Politicians for Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Syria, hope a deal with the White House can be struck as a reward for eliminating Isis from its headquarters. One persistent rumour suggests Donald Trump will visit Raqqa to congratulate SDF fighters once liberation is complete. But his military backing has yet to evolve into political collateral and the expanding Kurdish-led enclave, currently about the size of Wales, is generating tension on all borders.
Directly south lies more Isis territory. To the west is the Free Syrian Army, a rabble of Islamist factions, including the al-Nusra Front. North is Turkey, the nemesis of Syrian Kurds, whose president’s increasingly autocratic rule is likely to spell further military action against them. On Tuesday, Turkish airstrikes destroyed Kurdish command centres, killing about two dozen fighters in Syria and Iraq. Finally, to the east lies the Kurdistan regional government of Iraq (KRG), which accuses its Syrian neighbours of presiding over an oppressive regime that has forcefully displaced Arab settlers, razed villages and recruited child soldiers. A year ago the KRG shut the one bridge over the Tigris to Rojava. Entry to the region for the world’s media has been near impossible since. During the eight months preceding the border closure, 260 journalists gained entry. During the last 12 months only the Observer has secured official permission.
The anxiety that US commitment to the campaign against Isis may ultimately prove illusory extends to those on its frontline. Footage showing convoys of US armoured vehicles entering Rojava to help liberate Raqqa mystify Taylor. “But it’s all for them, they don’t give it to us. They are announcing support, but come on! Give us some proper weapons!” Speaking in the town of Tal Tamr, Kurdish commander Azad Garyae, 29, in charge of logistics for a brigade of 2,500 men that has lost 500 fighting the Syrian regime, al-Nusra and Isis, also pleaded for more equipment. “If we are to match Daesh, we need heavy weaponry, anti-tank missiles, otherwise many more will die.”
More immediately, security concerns dominate daily life in Rojava. Tightening the noose on Raqqa has caused its own security conundrum. Isis suicide bombers are starting to move north masquerading as refugees, says the YPJ. Men clad in burqas have been intercepted, confirms Ahmad.
At a rapidly growing refugee camp outside the former Isis stronghold of Mabrouka, local police chief Haj Hassan Abed Khalil, 55, confirmed Isis was on the march. “We have intelligence from Raqqa that many people related to Daesh are moving towards here.”
Spies inside the city, he said, were forwarding tip-offs that trucks laden with explosives had left and were heading north. Details of the manufacturer and colour of one truck had been radioed ahead. Checkpoint soldiers were ordered to shoot the driver if it failed to stop 15 yards from them.
Large crowds of refugees were particularly suspicious, added Abed Khalil. Isis members, beards shaved and black garb discarded, forced groups to migrate, allowing them to blend in more effectively.
On 17 April the mood inside the refugee camp at Mabrouka was brittle: a group of men became agitated and we were advised to leave. An hour later a senior intelligence officer from the Asayish police in the nearby town of Sari Kani flagged down our car and said: “There are many, many Daesh inside Mabrouka and we are carrying out investigations to stop them leaving. But we must also help with the humanitarian issue. What can we do?” The previous day a suicide bomber had targeted refugees outside Aleppo, killing at least 100.
The fear of infiltration frazzled nerves. At the start of our journey, my driver had drawn attention to a loaded pistol in the passenger door panel in case of an Isis ambush. During the days that followed, Kurdish intelligence repeatedly warned that Isis was attempting to disseminate suicide bombers throughout the region. Checkpoint security became increasingly meticulous. Commander Rosel Amanus, 25, who has lost 40 friends in the war, explained why. “I was at a checkpoint near Shadadi and a man approached in a car. I was worried, so I shouted, ‘Go back. Now!’ The driver didn’t move. He didn’t look up. Then I knew.” Amanus began running, seconds later the car exploded. Taylor has seen a car bomb flatten buildings two-thirds of a mile away.
She knows such destructiveness means she might not make it home. It was her 28th birthday on Friday, another day on the frontline eating tinned chicken and thinking of the things she misses: family, Tetley tea in a proper mug, Maltesers, the pub, cheddar cheese and Game of Thrones.
“If I return to Europe I’ll be bored sick straight away,” she said. “Here I am fighting for a revolution, for freedom, equality. I can die and know that I’ve lived.”
Forces in the battle for Raqqa
Syrian Democratic Forces A coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian Christian militia together spearheading the offensive to liberate Raqqa.
The Kurdish militia that forms the lead component in the SDF. Thousands of its soldiers are currently involved in the Raqqa operation.
The extremist militants of Isis have held Raqqa since 2014 and have proclaimed it as the de facto capital of their besieged caliphate.
Led by the United States, whose warplanes have repeatedly bombed the city. A cohort of 400 US marines is also deployed roughly 15 miles north of the city.
US special forces
Have been involved in Raqqa province for several months, carrying out separate operations to conventional forces.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.