Every night before 27-year-old Arin goes to bed, she hangs her Makarov, a Russian semiautomatic 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, Germany.
“This is a bloody war,” Arin, using only her combat name, said at the almost deserted apartment block in Tal Kocher.
“‘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.
Kurds, Syria’s largest minority group, are largely left to their own devices by President Bashar Assad’s forces battling ISIS militants who have seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.
An estimated 7,500 women have joined the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ), many as volunteers.
The unit was set up in 2012 as part of the People’s Defense Unit (YPG), the Kurds’ dominant fighting unit in the northern Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava.
Their aim is to fight any group that threatens Kurdish-inhabited areas of Rojava.
The YPG has taken de facto control over a sizable chunk of Syria’s predominantly Kurdish north.
While female fighters are common within the ranks of Kurdish forces, a women-only combat unit is unusual for the Muslim world, where some traditionalists believe women should not engage in combat.
Like ISIS’ followers, many Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but this band of young female fighters hopes their front-line 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 together in the same, small apartment.
When asked for their full names, the women declined, preferring to be known and addressed by their noms de guerre.
David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights in New York, 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.
Human Rights Watch has reported serious human rights abuses by the Syrian government and other opposition fighters in Syria.
They also said Kurds in parts of northern Syria have carried out arbitrary arrests and failed to investigate the killings and disappearance of political opponents.
Arin, who was born and raised in Germany, said she was awarded her pistol after she killed 20 ISIS 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 uprising started.
Some 200,000 people have died during the four-year conflict, according to the U.N.
“I had a good life, I liked living there,”Arin said, dressed in a dark green camouflage uniform.
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 ISIS, and I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she added.
Last year she traveled to Syria to join the YPJ and now heads her unit, which originally had 20 members, mainly from Syria and Turkey. Today, only seven survive.
She was reluctant to give too many details about the group’s combat operations or to comment on any links between the YPJ and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an organization fighting for Kurds in Turkey that is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
Syrian Kurds have an ambiguous relationship with Assad, who has mostly left them alone while focusing firepower on insurgents fighting to unseat him.
The Syrian Kurds have denied cooperating with him.
When they’re 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 hasn’t 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 then one day, once the war is over.
“My life is here with these brave women. They are my family.”
Her loyalty to her fellow soldiers is typical of YPJ members who boast about living by a code of honesty, morals and justice, addressing each other as “Haval,” the Kurdish word for comrade and friend.
The schedule of Arin’s unit is always tight, starting with breakfast at 8 a.m. and strategy meetings.
Nisan, a 24-year-old combatant, spread a plastic tablecloth on the floor.
She lost her right finger in August while fighting in Rabia, the Iraqi town adjacent to Tal Kocher.
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 Ain al-Arab near the Turkish border and one of the most violent flashpoints in the war.
“We are going to fight ISIS, take care,”Arin said as she closed the door behind her.