Meeting the Kurdish women fighting ISIS
Unlike male fighters, they readily admit to fear, but say they find strength in their belief
The school building on the outskirts of Ain Issa in Syria is the final Kurdish stronghold on the way to Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Beyond it stretches a dusty no mans land, which has swallowed a few abandoned villages but otherwise lies empty and ominously silent.
The school, with pink coloured corridors and an expansive court yard, has long ceased being a place of learning. Instead, it is home to a dozen or so young women wearing combat fatigues and long, curved clips of ammunition around their waist. They belong to the YPJ, a female militia raised by the Kurdish autonomous government in northern Syria.
Most are not much older than the pupils that once passed through the school gates. Diminutive and a little shy, they are nevertheless welcoming and hospitable, serving up a tasty vegetable stew for their unexpected visitors. Sometimes they giggle and whisper amongst each other like a group of teenage girls at the cinema.
They are also holding the front against the ISIS, a group of crazed fanatics, rapists and murderers that enjoys a fearsome reputation, and holds vast stretches of Iraq and Syria. ISIS all but destroyed the Iraqi army last year, capturing vast amounts of weaponry and equipment in the process.
Facing off with these well-armed brutes takes guts. The women display their courage with none of the bravado and macho posturing that is often found in the trenches that stretch from Kobane to Kirkuk. Instead, they simply go about their duty, or sit together drinking tea, laughing and joking within easy mortar range of the enemy.
Unlike male fighters, they readily admit to fear, but say they find strength in their belief. The Kurdish autonomous government is an off shot of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, which adheres to a blend of Kurdish nationalism and socialism devised by the movement's founder, Abdullah Öcalan. The YPJ girls are committed followers of his teachings, which call for gender equality and thus have a strong appeal to women that grew up in a conservative society.
After talking to me for a while, the girls seem convinced that my liberal views on gender rights are compatible with their outlook. They have picked up on my contempt for their opponents, and they draw the obvious conclusion: Why don't I join the YPG, the YPJ's male counterpart, asks the group's commander. My excuses - age, lack of courage and military experience - cut no dice, and the commander continues to earnestly urge me to join the cause.
I am like these brave, genuine and charismatic girls, and I wouldn't mind spending more time with them. But their cause is not mine, and I do need to get going. I tell them that I will consider their offer, and bid a polite goodbye.