Meet the Kurdish Women Fighting ISIS in Syria
In the dry and desolate land along Syria’s northeastern border, thousands of young Kurdish women have taken up arms to protect their people against attacks from Bashar Assad’s government, ISIS militants and the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
Some 7,000 volunteer soldiers have joined the Women’s Protection Unit, or YPJ, which grew out of the wider Kurdish resistance movement. The group is strongly associated with the PKK, an organization fighting for the rights of Kurds in neighboring Turkey that has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. Alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the YPJ has been battling against Islamic militants who have seized large areas of Iraq and Syria and declared a cross-border caliphate.
ABOVE: YPJ Captain Ronahi Anduk, 34, left, Gian Dirik, center, and Dirsim Judi, 18, right, work on a Dushka weapon in the town of Til Kocer, Syria.
Young YPJ recruits participate in drills at dawn near Derek City in Rojava, the Kurdish area of Syria. The schedule is demanding and requires discipline: new soldiers in training get about 6 hours of sleep a night and wake up at 4 a.m; their day consists of a full schedule of drills and classroom lessons. Before joining the YPJ, many of the girls had never participated in physical activity or sports.
YPJ soldier Narlene, 20, puts a scarf around her face at an abandoned Iraqi Army post on the outskirts of Raabia, Syria.
Most of the YPJ soldiers are unmarried and have chosen to dedicate themselves to the struggle, adopting practices of discipline, training, austerity, charity and, most importantly, "Haval," their motto, which means "friendship" in the Kurdish language. Those who fight range in age from 18 to 24, but there are recruits as young as 12 who cook, do chores and train alongside their elders.
YPJ soldier Shavin Bachouk sleeps early in the morning at an abandoned Iraqi Army post on the outskirts of Raabia, Syria.
It is said among the Kurds that their female fighters inspire great fear in the ISIS militants, who believe that if they are killed by a woman they will not go to heaven.
YPJ soldiers eat a breakfast of peppers, tomatoes, cheese, flatbread and tea at their post in Til Kocer, Syria. Their meals are often modest since most of their supplies, including food, are donated by the local community.
Young recruits participate in dawn exercises and drills near Derek City, Syria.
Nuhad Kocer, 29, sits at a YPJ military base in Til Kocer, Syria. Beside her is "Azadi the doll," named after YPJ soldier Azadi Ristem, pictured in the photo frame at left, who was killed by a sniper from the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
YPJ soldiers carry the casket of Evrim, a female soldier who died while fighting ISIS militants, during her funeral in Derek City, Syria.
About 24 soldiers from the YPJ and the YPG, a men's unit, were buried during the month of August in this cemetery. Family members consider it an enormous honor when their children are killed in combat, calling the soldiers "Sehid" which means "marytr" in Kurdish. A popular saying in the community is "Sehid na merin," which means "The martyr will never die."
Dressed in pink, a young YPJ recruit arrives for her first day at a training base near Derek City, Syria.
Young recruits fix their hair at 4:30 a.m. before participating in training exercises near Derek City, Syria.
YPJ soldier Asadi Kamishloo, 22, gets her eyebrows plucked by a fellow soldier at a base in the Syrian town of Til Kocer. The female soldiers experience a unique and close bond by living in close quarters, training and fighting together.
YPJ recruits cry and embrace a fellow soldier who they thought had been sent to the front line.
A soldier named Amara wears a patch with the official flag of the YPJ on her uniform. The group's red, yellow and green colors can be seen on scarves, flags and posters across the region.
Yazidi refugee Sohare Salam, 13, eats a piece of bread, the first food she has had in several days, in the back of a truck after reaching safety in Til Kocer, Syria.
Sohare and her family were stranded in the Sinjar mountains after ISIS militants attacked her village, killing thousands and enslaving hundreds of women and children. The YPG and YPJ played a major role in helping liberate the Yazidis trapped on the mountain top.
YPJ soldiers cheer and display the peace sign at the sight of trucks carrying refugees from Mount Sinjar reaching safety in Til Kocer, Syria.
Jin, left, a YPJ soldier, shares an intimate moment with her mother, Amina, at their home in Girke Lege, Syria. Although she lives at a base nearby, Jin had not seen her mother in over a month because of the highly demanding YPJ military schedule.
Young recruits take a break by dancing and singing traditional YPJ songs at dawn, near Derek City, Syria.
-- Photos taken in August 2014.