The following article was originally published in Broadly.
Writer’s note: In March last year, Kimberley Taylor became the first (and only) British woman to travel to Syria to take up arms against ISIS. Within days of her arrival, the 28-year-old former maths student from Blackburn joined the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) —the all-female affiliate army of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Syrian Kurdistan—and has been fighting alongside them ever since. For the past three months, Kimberley —known to friends as Kimmie, but to comrades as Zilan Dilmar—has been part of the offensive to liberate Raqqa, ISIS’ de-facto capital. At the end of March, I spoke to Kimberley, over a series of Skype conversations, to find out what life is like for a woman on the frontline against ISIS. Two days later, she deployed to Raqqa to fight in what will likely be ISIS’s bitter last stand. These are her words, but they have been edited and condensed for clarity. Read part one and part two.
Our unit’s rotation on the moving front finished yesterday, so they’ve given us a few days off. So I hitched a lift with the logistics van to Qamishlo [a city in northeastern Syria] to meet some old friends and do some shopping. I need T-shirts and socks. There’s something weird going on with Syrian socks—they always make my feet smell, no matter how much I wash them. Sorxwin won’t stop taking the piss out of my stinky feet.
I got the socks and went for lunch with the three other Western women in the YPJ—two Swedes and a Canadian. I had two hamburgers and a beer. I can’t tell you what a treat that was after a month of chicken spam and Dairylea. And it was only the third beer I’ve drunk in a year. Kurdish girls aren’t allowed to drink for religious reasons, and you can’t drink in front of them. It tasted like heaven. I think I was a little tipsy.
Qamishlo is the capital of Rojava [the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Syria]. The main thing you notice is a picture of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK and leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, on almost every wall. Known here as “Apo” (Kurdish for “uncle”), he’s been in solitary confinement in a Turkish island prison for 18 years, where he devised the social and political philosophy driving the Rojava revolution.
That’s the reason I’m here. We want to destroy ISIS, of course. But something else is happening here, not just war: an anti-capitalist, secular, environmentally-friendly movement that puts women’s liberation at the centre of the struggle.They’ve torn up and redrawn all aspects of society. State education is compulsory for girls as well as boys, from the age of seven to 15, regardless of class or ethnic background. They’ve even built a university that’s open to all. There’s a co-operative system of government where a man and woman share power at every level.
In the YPG and the YPJ, officers are elected by troops, and men and women fight side by side. Of course, they have had to retain some of the traditional values of Islamic culture: men of the YPG and women of the YPJ live and fight together but eat and sleep separately; men can’t bare their upper arms in front of women; and women can’t show leg or cleavage.
After the hamburgers, I went to meet some Kurdish friends from my old unit for tea. We talked about why we joined the YPJ. Xezal*, for example, is from Kobani, where ISIS massacred hundreds of civilians in 2014, before the YPG drove them out a year later. I asked her why she joined. She said, “Oh, the war of Kobani.” That made sense – a lot of YPJ girls are from there. But later I spoke to her again and she told me the real reason: she’d been promised to another family in a forced marriage to a cousin. “I told my family that I didn’t want to do it,” she said, “but they wouldn’t listen. So when they tried to formally arrange the wedding, I ran away to join the YPJ.”
This is a really common theme among the Kurdish volunteers here. Most say they joined because of this battle or that one, but the truth is, many of them are still facing the restrictions and expectations of what a young woman’s life should be in the Middle East. The YPJ provides an escape.
That’s not to say they’re all escaping marriages. Amira*, an Arab girl I know well from my old tabur [unit], comes from a pro-Assad family whose village was sacked by ISIS last year. In protest against their new masters, her eight-year-old sister wrote on a wall, “without our leader, there is no life.” ISIS soldiers took her to a tall building and repeatedly ran her over with a car, before ramming her off the building.
Amira ran away and joined the YPJ for revenge.
Then there are the Yazidi girls, who the Kurdish girls fight to save. ISIS kidnapped thousands of Yazidi women and girls from Sinjar in Iraq back in 2014. Most were taken to Raqqa to be used as sex slaves. The stories you hear are heart-wrenching, like the one of the seven-year-old Yazidi girl passed around ISIS commanders until, finally, she was bought in exchange for a single cigarette. Women are less than dirt to ISIS. We are less than the fire in Hell.
I miss my family terribly, especially at night. I miss waffling on endlessly with dad at home in Liverpool; about life, politics, and general nonsense. And I miss my stepmom’s legendary cottage pie on Sundays.
I miss my grandma, too, and worry about her a lot. When I last spoke to her at Christmas, she told me my granddad had died. The three of us were very close. I feel awful because I couldn’t come home for his funeral, and my grandma hates that I’m here and now she’s alone.
The police have been harassing my family for months under the Terrorism Act. They’ve taken their phones and laptops, and seem to want to question them on a weekly basis. Now my family are not only afraid for my safety, but also for their own from the British establishment. They know I’m no terrorist; and understand why I’m here and support me in what I’m doing.
But I can’t go home, not yet. And not just because I might get arrested if I do. I have a job to do, and won’t leave until it’s done. This is for something bigger than me and my family – it’s for the potential of a better world. But this isn’t just a fight against ISIS. They’re just a thorn in the side and once they’re gone, the YPJ will still be fighting: against fascism, against patriarchy, and for women’s rights across the Middle East.
Do I want to die? Of course not. But honestly, I don’t even think about death anymore. I think only about life. I believe in this revolution with all my heart. And I hope that, one day, it will provide a model to inspire change, not just in the Middle East, but across the world.
*Name has been changed.
This article originally appeared in Broadly.