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The Girls Who Fought to Defend Their Properties In opposition to ISIS


After I first requested the American particular operations troopers who among the many fighters they labored with I ought to meet in Syria, one of many first names that all the time arose was Azeema. She got here from Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria, and was recognized for her relentless willingness to guide from the entrance, her swashbuckling method, her chain-smoking methods and her wry humorousness. She was a part of the Women’s Protection Units, the all-women’s power that confronted off in opposition to ISIS on the bottom every day, combating the lads of the Islamic State room-by-room and house-by-house, and he or she had began combating ISIS in 2013 earlier than the group was formally born. In Kobani, a city few exterior Syria had heard of earlier than the Islamic State’s gorgeous string of wins in 2014, Azeema got here to guide men and women within the battle in opposition to the extremists of ISIS who needed to impose their distinctive model of terror on Kobani’s streets. She felt from the beginning that Kobani would by no means fall to ISIS, however for a couple of months within the fall of 2014, her prediction regarded almost unimaginable to consider. Even the People, who from the air supported this band of Syrian Kurds, nervous brazenly that their air energy wouldn’t be sufficient to cease the lads of the Islamic State from including Kobani to its checklist of victories. However Azeema by no means felt in a different way, even whereas she and her fellow fighters battled the lads of ISIS every day.

 

The primary time she fought home to accommodate, Azeema took just one lesson from the expertise: If they uncover weak spot in us, they’ll win.

That had develop into the reality of the battle for her. She might solely take into consideration her position within the battle in a method: The enemy in entrance of me, this man standing 9 ft away, he has come to kill me. He massacred my folks. It’s my job to kill him first. And that’s all there’s.

“Haval Azeema,” the invisible voice spoke from her pocket once more. “What is going on there? What’s the state of affairs?”

Azeema stopped her work boring a gap via the wall in the home that they had simply taken and squatted low to reply her commander.

“They’ve been rocketing us all day and their snipers killed considered one of our fighters after we crossed the road,” Azeema informed Nowruz. “We hung the black curtain throughout the buildings to guard our place, however they know this tactic they usually shot the place they guessed we have been and received fortunate.”

What Azeema omitted, Nowruz already knew. After the ISIS sniper killed Azeema’s fighter, a younger lady who additionally was a buddy, two different ISIS males ran out, grabbed her physique, and dragged her towards their place. Then they took out their as soon as‑glimmering knives, now turned brown by Kobani’s mud and rubble, and beheaded her corpse proper there on the road for all their males to see. Azeema watched as her buddy’s head with its brown hair rolled away from her physique and her blood turned the bottom beneath her from boring gray to deep purple. In case Azeema or her teammates had any doubt about what destiny awaited them if captured, ISIS erased it. Typically the Islamic State shared pictures of beheaded YPJ fighters on social media.

Azeema needed revenge. The extra associates and battlefield buddies ISIS shot useless or rocketed or beheaded, the extra motivated she and her forces grew to shove these males out of their city and handy them their first navy defeat.

Typically in the course of their offensives, whereas they shot their weapons at Azeema and her unit, ISIS fighters would shout “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is nice.” Their cries would echo throughout the town’s streets and interrupt the rat‑tat‑rat‑tat sound of small‑arms fireplace. Azeema’s troopers would shout again in Arabic, “Kobani is the best!”

In quieter moments, throughout pauses within the combating, her forces would get away the tambor, an instrument akin to a banjo. A younger fighter named Baran, who had a deep singing voice all of them beloved, would choose up his instrument and play songs about Kobani and the buddies that they had misplaced:

In the present day, I’ll make Kobani’s resistance right into a poem and distribute it amongst all of the folks of the world.

Ah, woe to me, I’m gazing on the streets of Kobani and seeing the moms’ tears.

Kids and the aged are crying out; tears of youngsters are streaming via the streets of Kobani just like the Euphrates River.

Even when it have been your final second, Azeema determined, you might nonetheless sing and dance. You couldn’t shed your humanity simply because your enemy had misplaced theirs.

Azeema grew accustomed to the bodily depth of warfare and the noise and the smells. However she would by no means get used to the loss of life of her associates. She would replay each loss in her thoughts. However as a lot as she needed to dwell on every loss of life, and be taught from it, she knew she couldn’t: she would lose many extra of her forces if she didn’t carry one hundred pc of her focus to the sound of bullets coming for them. At night time, if she might relaxation, she would take into consideration these ISIS had killed whereas she waited for sleep.

Nowruz’s voice got here again in.

“Azeema, keep the place you’re,” she mentioned. “We face an enormous battle each on the west aspect and the east aspect of the town, and we have to defend the traces that we’ve. Don’t transfer ahead. Maintain your place.”

Azeema had anticipated that Nowruz would say this, however she additionally knew that her crew needed to make progress quickly or ISIS would have the ability to join their positions and encircle them absolutely. Azeema had earned a status for taking dangers others wouldn’t and perhaps even shouldn’t. When Nowruz had come to go to her the week earlier than, she informed Azeema one thing she would by no means share on the radio for others to overhear: that they already had misplaced sufficient commanders to ISIS bullets and mortars. They wanted her to remain alive; they wanted her management.

“Haval Azeema, you’re doing simply what we’d like you to proper there. Maintain the place and preserve them again,” Nowruz mentioned once more on the radio. Her voice got here in firmer than typical.

“I perceive,” Azeema mentioned. “Haval Nowruz, one different factor: we actually want bullets right here. We’re operating low on ammunition. When ought to we anticipate provides?”

There was a pause on the opposite finish of the radio. Then: “We’re doing our greatest, Haval. We are going to get one thing to you by tomorrow.” Azeema trusted Nowruz, however she had a sense that they have been critically low on each troop reinforcements and bullets. On this case, Azeema informed herself, perhaps it was greatest to know much less as an alternative of extra. If ammunition wouldn’t arrive for days, no level in listening to that now. She shoved her radio again into her vest and returned her focus to the battle.

Simply then her silver cellular phone rang.

“Azeema.” It was Dilawer, one of many males who fought along with her, together with Harun, his teammate. Dilawer’s tone was calm. “We have now an enormous downside. Daesh has a complete group of us pinned down over right here; they’ve us beneath siege,” he mentioned, utilizing one other identify for ISIS. “We’re trapped.”

Courtesy Mustafa AlaliAzeema standing with a flag within the Kobani countryside in Syria, in January 2015.

The plan had been for 3 or 4 small teams of fighters to clear ISIS from a couple of homes they thought they might take over; the YPG forces got down to meet in a single location, with reinforcements to comply with shortly. ISIS, nonetheless, discovered the hole between the groups and exploited it; as an alternative of 1 bigger YPG group battling a smattering of ISIS males, Dilawer and his teammates had develop into sitting geese within the two‑story home the place that they had managed to gap up.

“Are you able to give me your grid coordinates?” Azeema requested.

“We are able to’t.” Dilawer reminded her of what she already knew: ISIS can be listening. He urged her to come back to the varsity close to Mishtanour Hill so they might attempt to present her an indication that will clarify their location.

“Okay. Don’t fear,” Azeema mentioned. “We are going to get you out of there. And keep off the radios—I don’t need anybody else from our aspect making an attempt to be a hero and coming to rescue you whereas we determine how we’re going to get you out of there. Don’t look out the home windows, as a result of the enemy goes to attempt to shoot you. And unfold out, a couple of of you, on the primary ground to ensure nobody can enter.”

She took a breath whereas she collected her ideas.

“Simply keep calm and I’ll get you out; it doesn’t matter what we’ll get you out of there,” she mentioned, listening to the sound of gunfire directed at her fellow forces whereas she spoke.

She hung up the telephone and stood immobile for only a second. For the primary time in Kobani, Azeema felt doubt and concern tug at her.

She hadn’t eaten greater than bread in near forty hours and had barely slept in days—simply thirty minutes right here and there. When her fighters urged her to relaxation, she would all the time reply them in the identical manner: “If you really feel like at any second a bullet would possibly journey proper to your entrance line, it’s unimaginable to sleep. We’ll sleep when the battle is over.” Now she wanted to assume and to focus her creativeness on how she would get them out.

She referred to as Nowruz and defined what had occurred, cautious to not use the radio. ISIS monitored their channels, simply because the YPJ monitored ISIS exchanges by taking the radios of the ISIS males they killed. Higher to make use of the cellular phone community from the Turkish firm Turkcell, even when it meant Turkey might hear each transfer they made.

She let Nowruz know that she was going to attempt to get nearer to their place. If her forces might get close to sufficient, they might shoot mortars that will create sufficient smoke and confusion for Dilawer’s group to flee.

Azeema knew Nowruz wanted her to remain put—she had already informed her that. However now twenty‑considered one of her associates and teammates would die if she did nothing, and he or she would by no means abandon her accountability to carry them again safely.

Azeema nudged two of her fighters to come back along with her, a younger lady she had fought with for months and a younger man who got here from Kobani and knew its neighborhoods effectively. Weapons pressed in opposition to their shoulders, the three of them ducked out of their coated place and got down to rescue their associates.

Arriving on the hillside college, Azeema referred to as Dilawer and Harun again.

“I’m right here on the college and I can’t determine which home is yours,” Azeema mentioned.

“It’s the one that appears like it’s nonetheless being constructed; you may see the beams,” Harun mentioned.

“That’s about half the road.” Certainly, all the homes she might see regarded hole‑toothed and injured. And Harun had misplaced depend of what number of homes stood to the left and proper of the place the place they now have been pinned down. There was no option to know the place they have been.

“Okay, let’s do that. Are you able to wave one thing white from the window?” Azeema requested. One other of their fighters, Israel, crawled towards the window of the constructing separating him and his crew from their deaths and waved a white scarf for a couple of seconds, letting solely his arm dangle out.

“Bought you!” Azeema shouted. “Nice. Now are you able to present a purple scarf from the identical window, so I can know it’s you?”

Israel did as she requested.

She referred to as Judi—a younger man liable for the few heavy weapons, reminiscent of mortars and machine weapons, the YPG had in its possession—and informed him to come back to her location as quickly as he might. They wanted to maneuver quick. Then she received again on the telephone with Harun and informed him to attend for her name and to not take directions from anybody else. She knew that different fighters, nervous about Harun and Dilawer and their teammates, have been making an attempt to supply recommendation over the radio about what they need to do. Quite a lot of what they have been being informed would get all of them killed, Azeema felt sure. They needed to comply with solely her directions if she was going to have the ability to extricate them from this catastrophe.

Two fighters defending Kobani during the battle for Kobani, September 2014
Courtesy Mustafa Alali Two fighters defending Kobani in the course of the battle for Kobani, Syria, in Sept. 2014.

Judi finally arrived on the college. Azeema pointed to the place their teammates sat awaiting rescue, and Judi examined the gap from there to the place they stood.

“Ensure you don’t hit that home,” Azeema mentioned, pointing once more to the place the scarves had simply flown from the window. “However you may hit the rest in that space. It’s all ISIS. They’ve it surrounded.”

“I don’t know, Haval,” Judi mentioned. “We’ll do our greatest, however I believe we’re more likely to be too far-off for mortars to make any distinction.” By now it was shut to three:00 p.m., greater than an hour after Azeema first acquired Dilawer’s name. Time mattered they usually have been dropping it.

Judi shook his head and started getting ready. Azeema might inform he didn’t really feel sure that firing mortar rounds would make any distinction, and the reality was that she shared his concern. She needed to transfer up, nearer to the constructing, and see for herself how far-off the mortar rounds fell.

“Come on, let’s go see Judi’s work,” Azeema mentioned. She shared a smile with the 2 fighters accompanying her, however none of them underestimated the hazard they have been charging into.

The whistling ping of bullets sliced the air round Azeema and her teammates as they ran, low to the bottom in a excessive‑pace, crouched blur, throughout the primary paved road dividing their territory from that of ISIS. They shoved their our bodies behind a gutted construct‑ ing and gathered their breath, discovering security in opposition to the wall. They made no sound and gestured towards the subsequent road. They crossed three extra streets the identical manner, absolutely uncovered to ISIS fireplace. Then Azeema felt sure that they might transfer no nearer with out getting themselves killed. The noise of males capturing at them hung in her ears, however judging by the sounds the bullets made, none had landed shut sufficient to essentially carry bother. She craved a cigarette.

Ducking right into a hollowed‑out constructing shut sufficient for her to see the Islamic State’s forces and to make out their black uniforms with ease, Azeema referred to as the group again. They wanted to be able to run, she defined—the smoke from the mortars quickly to be fired would create solely a short second of chaos and canopy by which they might escape.

Azeema regarded down at her black digital watch. Solely about twelve or 13 minutes had handed since she left Judi, although adrenaline made it really feel like hours. By her evaluation, the mortar rounds ought to have been falling by now. She puzzled what the holdup might be. Two or three minutes later, the crackling increase of incoming mortars broke up her ideas. She craned her neck within the route of her forces and watched as Judi went to work.

His fears have been realized: not considered one of his mortars landed close to sufficient to create a gap for Harun, Dilawer, Israel, and the eighteen others ISIS held trapped. Even the closest one landed effectively quick. No smoke in any respect by which they might make their escape.

Azeema paused and put her head in her palms whereas she regarded on the floor and spoke to herself silently for a second. She needed to preserve her crew’s spirits up, even when she felt certain they have been run‑ ning out of time and choices.

She referred to as her teammates once more. “Dilawer, don’t fear—we’ve one other plan,” she mentioned. She made certain to sound extra con‑ fident than she felt in that second. “Simply don’t hearken to anybody else—and keep off the radio.”

She had just one choice left.

On the twenty-seventh of September, the U.S. had launched its first strikes within the space of Kobani, with Air Drive F‑15Es concentrating on an ISIS command and management heart. 4 days later, Adm. John Kirby of the Navy, the Pentagon press secretary, introduced that America had performed seventy‑six airstrikes.

But when U.S. airpower sounded recreation‑altering from a podium, it certain didn’t seem like it on the bottom. By October, ISIS had managed to again Azeema and Nowruz and their teammates into only a handful of sq. kilometers of the town. So far as weaponry went, the YPG and the YPJ had solely AK‑47s, a random smattering of heavy weapons, and a few PKMs, a machine gun designed de‑ cades earlier. ISIS had tanks, artillery programs, and even 155‑ millimeter Howitzers that they had taken from Iraqi forces, who had acquired the gear from America. That they had armor. They confirmed as much as the battle with weaponry created to not choose off a fighter right here and there, however to kill their opponents in massive numbers.

Just some days after the U.S. airstrikes started, ISIS dominated the media narrative by elevating two of its black flags on the east aspect of the town. On October 7, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who loudly opposed American help to the YPG, put it succinctly: U.S. airstrikes had but to make a dent within the ISIS steamroll.

“Kobani is about to fall,” Erdogan informed reporters. “I’m telling the West: dropping bombs from the air won’t present an answer.”

On the restrictions of serving to the Kurds solely from the air, American political leaders agreed with Erdogan. They labored to decrease the general public’s expectations even whereas TV pictures of a besieged Kobani elevated strain on the White Home to do extra to assist.

“As horrific as it’s to look at in actual time what is going on in Kobani, additionally it is vital to recollect it’s a must to step again and perceive the strategic goal,” Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned in a press convention. The International Coalition to Defeat ISIS, fashioned in September 2014, had political and navy goals whose scope went past anybody battle. The battle in opposition to ISIS was about greater than defending Kobani; it was about attacking the group’s infrastructure and its capability to command and management its forces in each Syria and Iraq.

White Home advisers made clear they believed that the autumn of Kobani is likely to be inevitable. Few might think about how airpower alone, with out a U.S. floor presence, would cease ISIS from conquering Kobani. Certainly, in acknowledging this actuality, deputy nationwide safety adviser Tony Blinken urged reporters to comprehend the size of the problem and simply what number of cities throughout two international locations confronted the identical risk from ISIS.

“There are different Kobanis in Iraq; there are different Kobanis in Syria each day,” Blinken famous.

In fact, for these People working with the Syrian Kurds to maintain the city from falling to ISIS—from particular operations leaders within the U.S. to their forces on the bottom in Iraq—there was just one Kobani, and it was taking a beating. Again within the U.S., particular operations leaders and crew members now performed a key position in occasions taking place half a world away. They catalogued a psychological checklist of the ISIS benefits: entry to nighttime‑imaginative and prescient gear, thermal weapons sights, and heavy weapons. An actual information of warfare, born of expertise and fluency in siege warfare, with the power to enter one house and go via a whole metropolis block undetected by crawling home to accommodate via holes blown out between the partitions. ISIS was no rebel operation. Knowledgeable by greater than a decade of combating the People in Iraq, these males had mustered up a close to‑typical navy, a power expert in ways and aligned on technique to take and preserve territory.

By the tip of the primary week of October, proper across the time of Secretary Kerry’s assertion, the state of affairs in Kobani was so dire that members of the particular operations crew started to sleep in a convention room at their headquarters on two‑inch‑thick, rollout Tempur‑Pedic mattresses. If the U.S. had the sources accessible to launch airstrikes—which at the moment was an enormous “if,” given the give attention to Iraq, the restricted airpower within the area solely months prior, and the truth that nobody had deliberate even six months earlier to offer aerial help to a floor power in Syria—and the Syrian Kurds and the People each had a confirmed location the place they might strike ISIS with no civilians current, they needed to do their half to assist. The one manner to make sure the crew might be reached shortly as soon as a location was confirmed? By no means go away the workplace.

Nonetheless, by the second week of October, the U.S. was authorizing airstrikes to help the bottom forces solely in a trickle and barely in time to make a distinction. Leo James, who helped construct the inspiration for U.S.‑YPG cooperation with Polat Can over the summer time, referred to as his leaders from Sulaymaniyah to argue his case within the clearest language doable.

“We’re going to lose right here—in an enormous, large manner. And we’re going to lose within the subsequent twenty‑4 hours if we don’t change issues,” Leo mentioned. He himself was combating ISIS on the bottom within the Iraqi city of Kirkuk—a forty‑minute drive from Sulaymaniyah— at any time when he wasn’t on the operations heart monitoring occasions in Syria. This was what Kerry and Blinken had meant once they mentioned the U.S.‑led coalition’s effort to cease ISIS coated two international locations and was greater than only one city in northern Syria. “This accomplice goes to be defeated and with it we’ll lose our greatest—most likely our solely—likelihood to cease these guys. They can’t fall again any additional. They’re going to battle till the final particular person dies, after which this complete factor is throughout. Folks right here can’t consider that we are able to’t do extra. You need to discuss in regards to the story ISIS goes to promote out of this? Are we ready to look at the victory lap they’re about to take?”

As October wore on, the U.S. stepped deeper into the battle. Kobani had develop into an emblem of resistance, fueled by the satellite tv for pc feeds that traveled from cameras on a Turkish hilltop to televisions all world wide.

The strikes started to make a distinction as they got here in higher quantity and with higher frequency; on October 14, U.S. Central Command introduced that it had carried out greater than twenty airstrikes close to Kobani, critically damaging essential ISIS staging areas.

Nonetheless, the Folks’s Safety Items couldn’t all the time get U.S. airpower once they wanted it; certainly, more often than not it took a minimal of an hour for the U.S. to substantiate areas, make sure no civilians might be discovered there, and get the sources mandatory for a strike. That lag had led to misplaced lives. Azeema knew this when she referred to as Bavar, a Syrian Kurd from Kobani who labored because the go‑between for the YPG and the U.S. Bavar had a pill with the city’s coordinates and Google Earth entry. He labored along with his fellow fighters to seek out the precise coordinates of the areas the place ISIS gathered. He handed these coordinates to Polat Can or others again in Sulaymaniyah, who then shared them with the People, who started their verification course of.

Azeema referred to as Bavar along with her walkie‑talkie whereas maintaining Dilawer on the road, her cellular phone pinned to her proper ear. She stored her voice calm, urging Dilawer to stick with her and never quit and never hearken to anybody making an attempt to place ahead one other plan; assist would arrive. She simply needed to get everybody to hold in there a bit longer.

“Maintain on, Dilawer,” Azeema mentioned, handing the telephone to a teammate as Bavar answered her name on the radio. Azeema started describing in brief sentences precisely the place her forces sat trapped. Static interfered each fifth or sixth phrase. She repeated their location to ensure he heard.

“Look, I do know the People can’t reply each request for strikes, however we’ve near twenty‑5 folks in there,” she mentioned. “We have now no different choice if ISIS isn’t going to kill them.”

Bavar acknowledged the grid coordinates and went on to transmit his message: Kobani to Sulaymaniyah, Sulaymaniyah to the U.S., and the U.S. again to the Center East, the place American airplanes awaited approvals.

Azeema paced within the shell of a construction the place she now holed up, ready to see what would occur, whereas her request for a strike traveled throughout the globe.

She received again on the telephone with Dilawer’s group and yelled at them to crouch in corners, away from home windows, with their palms over their ears.

Minutes handed. She began to consider what would occur if she needed to get better our bodies as an alternative of her teammates alive.

Out of the blue the clatter of a B‑1 bomber overhead shook the earth on which Azeema was pacing.

A whizzing roar overwhelmed her ears because the bomber unleashed its munitions. Seconds handed as she noticed the explosives fall towards the earth.

She stopped respiratory.

Lastly, solely moments later, Azeema watched buildings buckle towards the bottom and, with them, all these inside. Smoke billowed and rolled down the road in waves because the charred constructions leveled by the strike exhaled black.

Azeema referred to as Harun, however he didn’t reply. She ran ahead, straight towards the constructing too harmful to method only some minutes earlier. She needed to be the primary to greet her teammates if they really made it out.

After which she noticed it: the large smile of Dilawer as he ran towards her, stuffed with pleasure. Azeema caught him in her arms and the 2 hugged.

“The others?” she requested. “Everyone seems to be alive.”

Azeema doubled over, her chest touching her knee for a second because the information that nobody was useless sank in. Certainly one of their teammates, a younger lady, had been shot within the leg. Shrapnel had hit Harun within the brow and left a gash. However that they had all survived.

Certainly one of Azeema’s fighters referred to as on the radio for a automotive to whisk their injured teammates to the hospital. They wanted care immediately—that they had misplaced a whole lot of blood. However each have been aware and regarded remarkably comfortable for individuals who had been wounded.

By the point Azeema and her forces—together with the unhurt nineteen who had made it via the day’s occasions—returned to their positions on the southern entrance line, night time and its crisp coolness had arrived.

“Relaxation tonight,” Azeema informed her troops. She gave the fighters who had been by her aspect all day a wink. “Get sleep. Tomorrow is assured to carry extra journey.”

She finally took her rifle off her shoulder and punctiliously positioned it subsequent to her.

“First World Warfare I, then World Warfare II, now Kobani,” Azeema mentioned, lighting the cigarette she had considered for hours, a twinkle of mischief in her darkish brown eyes. “The world is rarely going to neglect this battle.”

Excerpted from THE DAUGHTERS OF KOBANI: a Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, revealed by Penguin Press

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