This is the English version of our article published in Italy’s The Post Internazionale:
Uncomfortably switching the selector switch on her AK-47 back and forth, 21-year-old Asmaa Dahar is detailing the sudden arrival of ISIS in her life. The small Iraqi village she is from, Seba Shekh Kheder, like many other Yazidi communities, received no warning of the approaching storm. Thus, the ISIS fighters in their Toyota trucks that swarmed into her village from multiple directions, caught the residents out in the streets and completely unprepared for the horror descending upon them. As members of the jihadist group rampaged through the village, Asmaa witnessed her friends and neighbors being shot or beheaded all around her in what was an orgy of looting, burning, raping and killing. She describes being rounded up and seeing her uncle killed, while her nieces were dragged away screaming by ISIS fighters. In the chaos and confusion, she lost track of the remainder of her family and to this day still does not know what happened to them – a question that continues to haunt her.
Quite visibly upset in describing her experiences with the Islamic State after being captured, we did not press for details, but Asmaa stated that something “bad” happened to her. Readers of this publication likely do not require a great deal of imagination to dissect what she meant.
An opportunity for her to escape came when a firefight erupted between the ISIS forces now occupying the remains of her village and a small band of Kurdish fighters that was passing by. This battle provided enough of a distraction that Asmaa was able to sprint through the gunfire and explosions out into the countryside.
However, this was not the end of her ordeal. Surrounded by territory under the control of the Islamic State, Asmaa was short on options. As such, she was compelled to flee with the group that had just been in battle with the ISIS fighters in her village. Hungry for recruits to assist them against ISIS and the other jihadist groups fighting for control in the civil war spanning Syria and Iraq, they soon forced her into front line combat with hardly any training. Resistance to being a prisoner again was punished by firing an entire magazine from an AK-47 around Asmaa’s feet and by locking her up for days at a time with no food or water.
Eventually slipping away late one night from this second group of captors, Asmaa was able to make her way across Iraq until she finally arrived at a refugee camp for Yazidis inside Iraqi Kurdistan.
Given the understandable focus on the terrible suffering of the Yazidi people at the hands of the Islamic State – the hundreds of thousands of refugees, the torture and killing of so many men, women and children and the thousands of young girls brutally forced into sexual slavery – one could be forgiven for having the impression that the Yazidis are a conquered people, helpless and scattered.
However, this is not another story about the victimization of the Yazidi people. Instead, it is a story of revenge and, in the eyes of the women described here, renewal. Many Yazidis yearn for revenge against the Islamic State, but perhaps none more so than those very girls and women held as slaves of the group and that have endured the very worst ISIS could deliver. Some of these women, like Asmaa, have been able to escape from their captors and make their way to the safety of areas controlled by Kurdish forces.
And it is here that some of these traumatized women have found renewal in the form of Peshmerga units made up of Yazidi women. These units take the women in as volunteers, train them and restore a sense of purpose to their shattered lives by putting them back on the battlefield to seek retribution against their ISIS tormentors. War therapy, if you will.
Unable to cope with what she viewed as a meaningless existence within the refugee camp, the action-oriented Asmaa is one of these women. Driven by her own desire for revenge against ISIS and desperate to learn the fate of her family, Asmaa immediately left the refugee camp and joined a female Peshmerga unit when she learned of their existence.
It is on the front lines, a short distance outside of Mosul, that we meet the unit that Asmaa joined – a part of the larger Hiza Agre Fire Force Unit 80. Comprised entirely of volunteers, this unit of female fighters is commanded by Hasiba Nawzad who tells us that Asmaa’s story is unfortunately not an unusual one.
“Many girls come to us from Syria, Sinjar, Mosul – wherever they can escape from,” she explains through an interpreter. “ISIS has taken everything from them – their homes, their loved ones, their dignity… Some of these girls are the only survivors from entire families and have had everything they ever cared about taken from them.”
Leaving a husband and a comfortable life in Germany, Hasiba has herself given up much to lead this unit. However, she explains this decision by declaring that, in what has become an existential battle for the Yazidis and other minorities in the region, women have earned their place alongside men on the battlefield and have an important role to play. “Men and women can both pull a trigger and you will not find anyone more motivated and committed to this war than these girls,” she says.
And she describes her own deep commitment to fighting ISIS, “Daesh [a pejorative name for the Islamic State] are not a force one can reason or negotiate with. Their very ideology is a crime and the only thing to do is to fight it. After what they have done, they cannot ever go back into a normal life in society.”
Normal lives are exactly what the women we interviewed claim to have had before the Islamic State invaded their lives. As students, office clerks and the like, none of them ever imagined themselves as volunteer Peshmerga fighters.
In order to join the Hiza Agre unit of volunteers, the women do not need prior military experience. However, we are told, they must be in good health and be no younger than 18-years-old. They are put through a training program that emphasizes small unit tactics, urban combat, how to handle the weapons they will fight with and more recently, as a result of heavy losses from evolving Islamic State strategies, how to deal with IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] and suicide attacks.
An American, who wished to remain anonymous, that served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne and is helping to train the members of the unit, was adamant about the quality of the women’s marksmanship and combat skills. He asserted that the women are fierce fighters and, with pride in his voice, tells us, “I would certainly not want to be on the other side of them in a battle.”
As it turns out, the Islamic State doesn’t either. Able to listen in on the radio communications of the ISIS fighters with simple handheld radios, the Peshmerga have confirmed rumors of the belief among many of the Islamic State militants that if they are killed by a woman, they will not go to paradise in the afterlife. As a result, the presence of these women on the battlefield has a chilling effect on the morale of the militants that go up against them. “They know who we are and that we are strong. They are afraid of us,” declares Hasiba.
Given the fear they generate among the ISIS fighters, the women claim that they often spearhead offensives against the Islamic State. Another of the women in the unit, Fariba Ali Omar, chuckles as she shares a further reason the women are frequently at the front, “Even if things get difficult, the men of the Peshmerga would never have the face to retreat or run away when the women are in front fighting and holding their ground.”
Driven by a burning desire to account for the wrongs they believe have been delivered upon them, the women are indeed very determined fighters. Asmaa echoes this determination, “I will stay with my Peshmerga brothers and sisters to fight for our lands and our rights and I will fight them [ISIS] until my last drop of blood has spilled out.” She is proud of the Islamic State fighters she has already killed and looks forward to the coming invasion of Mosul, in which her unit will be one of the first to go in, and further offensives beyond.
Nevertheless, it is actually not vengeance that she seeks above all else. What Asmaa tells us she most wants is to liberate the village that used to be home for her, to discover the fate of her family and, she dares to dream, to reunite with any of them that may have survived.