With the setting sun turning mountain slopes and dry fields into amber, a Yazidi girl struggles to launch a rocket propelled grenade.
Her superior and classmates egg her on, but the exercise is sapping the strength of Tolhenden, a stocky 15-year-old with a gold tooth.
“Steady, steady – fix your target,” her instructor says from a short but safe distance.
It doesn’t go smoothly. The first rocket fails to launch. When she tires and lowers her weapon, the instructor rushes over to adjust her rocket and posture. He switches the missile, imparts a few more words of encouragement, and retreats as his pupil braces to fire.
A deafening bang and swoosh are the sounds of success.
“I can’t hear anything anymore! My head hurts,” shouts Tolhenden, scrambling down a dirt mount, clearing the way for two other Yazidi women nested on rooftops to unleash their own salvos. The adrenaline rush immediately wipes out any trace of fatigue. “I want to do it again,” she tells her fellow trainees. “It’s easy.”
This is what the military training of Yazidi women and girls looks like today in the ghost villages of Sinjar, the northern Iraqi mountain where a year ago the so-called Islamic State’s brutal massacres of this small religious minority galvanized the world’s attention and set in motion the creation of a US-led anti-IS coalition.
The training, under the supervision of veteran PKK-linked Kurdish fighters, holds out to the Yazidis the possibility of revenge for the IS massacres of their men and enslavement of their women and girls. But it also offers the opportunity for revolutionary change in traditional Yazidi society.
A year ago it was fighters from the PKK with the help of its Syrian Kurdish offshoots who opened a humanitarian corridor connecting Syria to Iraq that helped save thousands of Yazidi lives. In December, a new force was established: the Sinjar Resistance Units.
PKK leader's egalitarian views
All these factions follow the ideology of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose egalitarian views have translated into combat roles for Kurdish women. Engaged in a protracted conflict with Turkey, the separatist PKK – shorthand for the People’s Protection Units – is considered a terrorist organization by many governments, including the US.
But in Sinjar, the PKK and its affiliates are seen as nothing short of saviors. They are viewed far more favorably than the Iraqi Kurdish government’s Peshmerga fighters, who abandoned Yazidis to their fate but now constitute the largest and best-equipped force in the area. The Peshmerga, in a bid to boost their image, recently launched their own training program for Yazidi women.
“Many genocides have happened to the Yazidi people because they didn’t have a special force to protect themselves,” says Rokan, a native of Sinjar City, where Kurdish forces are still struggling to rout the IS. “We are seven brothers and sisters, and we have all joined YBS [the Sinjar Resistance Units] with our father’s blessing.”
Rokan is training in the abandoned village of Kerke, a cluster of mud houses where rock piles mark where IS left behind explosives. Not all the trainees and fighters are Yazidis, although YBS was established with that community in mind. Some are Kurds from Iran, Turkey, Syria, and other parts of Iraq.
While the recruitment of Yazidi men raises no eyebrows, the recruitment of women and girls has caused more of a splash. “In the beginning it was so hard for mothers and fathers to be separated from their daughters,” says Yekbun Basret, a Kurd from Turkey, overseeing co-ed weapons training. “Now they understand the girls are fighting for their land and to save Yazidi lives.”
'Revolution' for Yazidi women
Rapperin, a Kurd from the northern Syrian town of Afrin who has fought all over the region, oversees the first phase of the women's ideological and military training. The program is designed to ease the transition into military life and dismantle the patriarchal principles governing their communities.
Yazidis practice a secretive religion with pre-Islamic roots. Members have to be born into the faith, which holds that God entrusted the world to seven angels. Sunni militants like IS view them as infidels and devil worshipers, a reference to the so-called peacock angel that Yazidis pray to.
“A Yazidi woman leaving home is a revolution,” says Rapperin, a graying but fit matron with smiling eyes. “The difficulty is partly due to religion, but it is also an issue of trust because the Yazidis have suffered so many genocides. There are families who volunteer their daughters; with others we have to negotiate. Once the girls taste freedom, they don’t want to go back” home.
In her last graduating class – twelve Yazidi girls aged 18 or under – most had run away from home to join. The main driver of recruitment, she says, is the desire for revenge. Once in a blue moon, she receives a “lightweight” recruit: a girl who is simply looking for a boyfriend, an offence that earns expulsion.
“Anyone that comes here who is under 18 gets training but is not deployed,” emphasizes the trainer. In neighboring Syria, Kurdish factions have come under sharp criticism for using child soldiers.
Delvin, an elfin brunette who says she is 16 but looks younger, avoided early marriage by joining the cause. “My father told me it would be better for me to get a boyfriend and marry than join the army,” she says. “In just one day here, I learned more than I had in all my life – about [Ocalan’s] ideology, how to liberate women and free Yazidis.”
“For more than 5,000 years, women have been culturally under the control of their families,” adds Berivan, a sage 17-year-old with bright blue eyes. “Everyone here is at the same level. No one is higher or lower. When we are at home, we have to follow the rules of the house. All the girls have to get married and start a family.”
Farewell handshakes, glassy-eyed hugs
The conversation is cut short when a pick-up truck comes to collect a group for frontline deployment. One girl quickly gets down on all fours to scribble a goodbye letter. The farewells take place in a flurry of handshakes and glassy-eyed hugs. Pairs break away for a final cigarette and groups come together for that last photo.
The trainers say there have been no casualties in female ranks, but death is never far away. A triad of photos on the wall pays tribute to three fallen male comrades, including a young Iranian Kurd who trained many of the girls before taking his final step on a mine.
That loss still shakes Zilan, who mastered heavier weapons under his supervision. “I will take revenge from this enemy who took away my best friend,” she vows.
Zilan was among the first Yazidis to start training in the Syrian town of Derik last year. The sprightly teenager has served more than five months on front line positions and refused to leave for Germany with her family this summer.
“Let IS be afraid,” she says tilting her chin up. “After you’ve seen everyone massacred before you, there is no fear left. If I catch an IS fighter, I will drink his blood.”