Seventeen Yazidi girls stream out of the wedding hall that serves as their military training camp and line up for inspection. Their blemished faces highlight their youth: many appear no older than 13, though their instructor claims they are all between 15 and 22.
The young trainees are learning to fight with the aim of breaking ISIL’s siege of Mount Sinjar, the mountain in north-west Iraq where they live after fleeing the Islamist’s onslaught.
With most Iraqi towns at the foot of the mountain taken over by ISIL and the road to Syria also cut off by the militants, Kurdish and Yazidi fighters have struggled with a lack of troops to launch a counter offensive.
To fill the gap, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has offered military training to young Yazidis between the ages of 15 and 30 under the banner of the Sinjar Resistance Units. Back at their barracks in Kursi Valley, located on the north side of Mount Sinjar, Qul Baher Said Hassan, one of the trainees, smiles shyly. “I like the weapons,” she says.
Her classmates giggle. Qul Baher claims to be 15, though she looks much younger. “Yes, we are the youngest fighters, but our hearts are big enough to fight,” she says. Hader, a seven-year-veteran of the PKK who instructs the girls, says they are learning to be the “women of the future.”
“All these girls are like men,” she says, surveying her recruits. Based in northern Iraq, the PKK has for 30-years battled neighbouring Turkey for Kurdish rights. Yet, since ISIL took over large areas of Iraq last summer, the PKK have trained their guns on the Islamist extremists.
In August, two months after ISIL launched its blitzkrieg across Iraq, they stormed into areas populated by followers of the Yazidi religion — one of Iraq’s oldest minorities. The militants embarked on a campaign of persecution against the group kidnapping, killing, and enslaving hundreds of girls and women and sending thousands fleeing to the top of Mount Sinjar.
Most have now scattered to safehavens across Iraqi Kurdistan. Some, however, have stayed to fight. The PKK has three training camps for the Sinjar Resistance Units. There is a male training camp at one of the highest points on the mountain and separate training camps for male and female fighters in the mountain village of Kursi.
Each class of trainees consists of about 20 recruits and covers nine courses over a 15 day period. The training includes learning to shoot an AK-47 and throwing hand grenades. Recruits are also taught the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s leader who has been jailed on an island off Istanbul since 1999.
Hader says that it’s not uncommon for recruits under 18 to take part in the training. For those as young as Qul Baher and many of her classmates, Hader says their families had given permission for them to be trained to fight.
When the girls are sent to the front they will be on the “second line,” according to Hader, learning from older, more experienced PKK fighters. Already, part of the training involves visiting the battle field. “Sometimes we take the girls to the front lines to stand behind the guys on the front,” Hader says.
Qul Baher’s father, Said, a Yazidi politician, beams proudly as he watches his daughter, in full military fatigues, recite the well rehearsed rationale for why she and the others have become fighters at such a young age.
“All of the Yazidis are our family,” she explains, “Many of our girls were taken by ISIL. That is why we fight.” There are about 200 PKK-trained fighters in the Sinjar Resistance Units. In combat, the group is commanded by the PKK, though the Kurds claim the end goal is for the units to eventually function without their help.
Still, the Sinjar Resistance Units’ status as a franchise of the PKK has led to criticism of the group for not being a purely Yazidi organisation. “[The group] is not beneficial for us, because their leaders are not Yazidi” says Sheikh Qassem Derbo of the Jelko, a Yazidi tribe on Sinjar.
“Their orders come from the PKK.” Following the visit by The National last month, the girls went on to complete their training, and are now stationed around Kursi. They are among the last to be trained due to a lack of new volunteers. Hader is now the commander for all female Yazidi fighters.
by Jonathan Krohn