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The Women Who Fought to Defend Their Homes Against ISIS

25 minute read
Lemmon is the author of three New York Times best sellers, including The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. She is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

When I first asked the American special operations soldiers who among the fighters they worked with I should meet in Syria, one of the first names that always arose was Azeema. She came from Qamishli, a town in northeastern Syria, and was known for her relentless willingness to lead from the front, her swashbuckling manner, her chain-smoking ways and her wry sense of humor. She was part of the Women’s Protection Units, the all-women’s force that faced off against ISIS on the ground each day, fighting the men of the Islamic State room-by-room and house-by-house, and she had started fighting ISIS in 2013 before the group was officially born. In Kobani, a town few outside Syria had heard of before the Islamic State’s stunning string of wins in 2014, Azeema came to lead women and men in the fight against the extremists of ISIS who wanted to impose their unique brand of terror on Kobani’s streets. She felt from the start that Kobani would never fall to ISIS, but for a few months in the fall of 2014, her prediction looked nearly impossible to believe. Even the Americans, who from the air supported this band of Syrian Kurds, worried openly that their air power would not be enough to stop the men of the Islamic State from adding Kobani to its list of victories. But Azeema never felt differently, even while she and her fellow fighters battled the men of ISIS each day.


The first time she fought house to house, Azeema took only one lesson from the experience: If they discover weakness in us, they will win.

That had become the truth of the battle for her. She could only think about her role in the fight in one way: The enemy in front of me, this man standing nine feet away, he has come to kill me. He massacred my people. It’s my job to kill him first. And that’s all there is.

“Haval Azeema,” the invisible voice spoke from her pocket again. “What is happening there? What is the situation?”

Azeema stopped her work boring a hole through the wall in the house they had just taken and squatted low to answer her commander.

“They have been rocketing us all day and their snipers killed one of our fighters when we crossed the street,” Azeema told Nowruz. “We hung the black curtain across the buildings to protect our position, but they know this tactic and they shot where they guessed we were and got lucky.”

What Azeema left out, Nowruz already knew. After the ISIS sniper killed Azeema’s fighter, a young woman who also was a friend, two other ISIS men ran out, grabbed her body, and dragged her toward their position. Then they took out their once‑glimmering knives, now turned brown by Kobani’s dust and rubble, and beheaded her corpse right there on the street for all their men to see. Azeema watched as her friend’s head with its brown hair rolled away from her body and her blood turned the ground beneath her from dull grey to deep red. In case Azeema or her teammates had any doubt about what fate awaited them if captured, ISIS erased it. Sometimes the Islamic State shared images of beheaded YPJ fighters on social media.

Azeema wanted revenge. The more friends and battlefield buddies ISIS shot dead or rocketed or beheaded, the more motivated she and her forces grew to shove these men out of their town and to hand them their first military defeat.

Sometimes in the middle of their offensives, while they shot their weapons at Azeema and her unit, ISIS fighters would shout “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great.” Their cries would echo across the city’s streets and interrupt the rat‑tat‑rat‑tat sound of small‑arms fire. Azeema’s soldiers would shout back in Arabic, “Kobani is the greatest!”

In quieter moments, during pauses in the fighting, her forces would break out the tambor, an instrument akin to a banjo. A young fighter named Baran, who had a deep singing voice they all loved, would pick up his instrument and play songs about Kobani and the friends they had lost:

Today, I will make Kobani’s resistance into a poem and distribute it among all the people of the world.

Ah, woe to me, I am gazing at the streets of Kobani and seeing the mothers’ tears.

Children and the elderly are crying out; tears of children are streaming through the streets of Kobani like the Euphrates River.

Even if it were your last moment, Azeema decided, you could still sing and dance. You couldn’t shed your humanity just because your enemy had lost theirs.

Azeema grew accustomed to the physical intensity of war and the noise and the smells. But she would never get used to the death of her friends. She would replay every loss in her mind. But as much as she wanted to dwell on each death, and learn from it, she knew she couldn’t: she would lose many more of her forces if she didn’t bring 100 percent of her focus to the sound of bullets coming for them. At night, if she could rest, she would think about those ISIS had killed while she waited for sleep.

Nowruz’s voice came back in.

“Azeema, stay where you are,” she said. “We are facing a big fight both on the west side and the east side of the city, and we need to defend the lines that we have. Do not move forward. Hold your position.”

Azeema had expected that Nowruz would say this, but she also knew that her team had to make progress soon or ISIS would be able to connect their positions and encircle them fully. Azeema had earned a reputation for taking risks others wouldn’t and maybe even shouldn’t. When Nowruz had come to visit her the week before, she told Azeema something she would never share on the radio for others to overhear: that they already had lost enough commanders to ISIS bullets and mortars. They needed her to stay alive; they needed her leadership.

“Haval Azeema, you are doing just what we need you to right there. Hold the position and keep them back,” Nowruz said again on the radio. Her voice came in firmer than usual.

“I understand,” Azeema said. “Haval Nowruz, one other thing: we really need bullets here. We are running low on ammunition. When should we expect supplies?”

There was a pause on the other end of the radio. Then: “We are doing our best, Haval. We will get something to you by tomorrow.” Azeema trusted Nowruz, but she had a feeling that they were seriously low on both troop reinforcements and bullets. In this case, Azeema told herself, maybe it was best to know less instead of more. If ammunition wouldn’t arrive for days, no point in hearing that now. She shoved her radio back into her vest and returned her focus to the fight.

Just then her silver cell phone rang.

“Azeema.” It was Dilawer, one of the men who fought with her, along with Harun, his teammate. Dilawer’s tone was calm. “We have a big problem. Daesh has a whole group of us pinned down over here; they have us under siege,” he said, using another name for ISIS. “We are trapped.”

Azeema standing with flag in the Kobani countryside, January 2015
Azeema standing with a flag in the Kobani countryside in Syria, in January 2015.Courtesy Mustafa Alali

The plan had been for three or four small groups of fighters to clear ISIS from a few houses they thought they could take over; the YPG forces set out to meet in one location, with reinforcements to follow quickly. ISIS, however, found the gap between the teams and exploited it; instead of one larger YPG group battling a smattering of ISIS men, Dilawer and his teammates had become sitting ducks in the two‑story house where they had managed to hole up.

“Can you give me your grid coordinates?” Azeema asked.

“We can’t.” Dilawer reminded her of what she already knew: ISIS would be listening. He urged her to come to the school near Mishtanour Hill so they could try to show her a sign that would make clear their location.

“Okay. Don’t worry,” Azeema said. “We will get you out of there. And stay off the radios—I don’t want anyone else from our side trying to be a hero and coming to rescue you while we figure out how we are going to get you out of there. Don’t look out the windows, because the enemy is going to try to shoot you. And spread out, a few of you, on the first floor to make sure no one can enter.”

She took a breath while she collected her thoughts.

“Just stay calm and I will get you out; no matter what we will get you out of there,” she said, listening to the sound of gunfire directed at her fellow forces while she spoke.

She hung up the phone and stood motionless for just a moment. For the first time in Kobani, Azeema felt doubt and fear tug at her.

She hadn’t eaten more than bread in close to forty hours and had barely slept in days—just thirty minutes here and there. When her fighters urged her to rest, she would always answer them in the same way: “When you feel like at any moment a bullet might travel right to your front line, it’s impossible to sleep. We’ll sleep when the fight is over.” Now she needed to think and to focus her imagination on how she would get them out.

She called Nowruz and explained what had happened, careful not to use the radio. ISIS monitored their channels, just as the YPJ monitored ISIS exchanges by taking the radios of the ISIS men they killed. Better to use the cell phone network from the Turkish company Turkcell, even if it meant Turkey could hear every move they made.

She let Nowruz know that she was going to try to get closer to their position. If her forces could get near enough, they could shoot mortars that would create enough smoke and confusion for Dilawer’s group to escape.

Azeema knew Nowruz needed her to stay put—she had already told her that. But now twenty‑one of her friends and teammates would die if she did nothing, and she would never abandon her responsibility to bring them back safely.

Azeema nudged two of her fighters to come with her, a young woman she had fought with for months and a young man who came from Kobani and knew its neighborhoods well. Weapons pressed against their shoulders, the three of them ducked out of their covered position and set out to rescue their friends.

Arriving at the hillside school, Azeema called Dilawer and Harun back.

“I’m here at the school and I can’t figure out which house is yours,” Azeema said.

“It’s the one that looks like it is still being built; you can see the beams,” Harun said.

“That’s about half the street.” Indeed, all the houses she could see looked gap‑toothed and injured. And Harun had lost count of how many houses stood to the left and right of the place where they now were pinned down. There was no way to know where they were.

“Okay, let’s try this. Can you wave something white from the window?” Azeema asked. Another of their fighters, Israel, crawled toward the window of the building separating him and his team from their deaths and waved a white scarf for a few seconds, letting only his arm dangle out.

“Got you!” Azeema shouted. “Great. Now can you show a red scarf from the same window, so I can know it is you?”

Israel did as she asked.

She called Judi—a young man responsible for the few heavy weapons, such as mortars and machine guns, the YPG had in its possession—and told him to come to her location as soon as he could. They needed to move fast. Then she got back on the phone with Harun and told him to wait for her call and not to take instructions from anyone else. She knew that other fighters, worried about Harun and Dilawer and their teammates, were trying to offer advice over the radio about what they should do. A lot of what they were being told would get them all killed, Azeema felt certain. They had to follow only her instructions if she was going to be able to extricate them from this disaster.

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

Judi at last arrived at the school. Azeema pointed to where their teammates sat awaiting rescue, and Judi examined the distance from there to where they stood.

“Make sure you don’t hit that house,” Azeema said, pointing again to where the scarves had just flown from the window. “But you can hit anything else in that area. It is all ISIS. They have it surrounded.”

“I don’t know, Haval,” Judi said. “We’ll do our best, but I think we’re likely to be too far away for mortars to make any difference.” By now it was close to 3:00 p.m., more than an hour after Azeema first received Dilawer’s call. Time mattered and they were losing it.

Judi shook his head and began preparing. Azeema could tell he did not feel certain that firing mortar rounds would make any difference, and the truth was that she shared his concern. She had to move up, closer to the building, and see for herself how far away the mortar rounds fell.

“Come on, let’s go see Judi’s work,” Azeema said. She shared a smile with the two fighters accompanying her, but none of them underestimated the danger they were charging into.

The whistling ping of bullets sliced the air around Azeema and her teammates as they ran, low to the ground in a high‑speed, crouched blur, across the first paved street dividing their territory from that of ISIS. They shoved their bodies behind a gutted build‑ ing and gathered their breath, finding safety against the wall. They made no sound and gestured toward the next street. They crossed three more streets the same way, fully exposed to ISIS fire. Then Azeema felt certain that they could move no closer without getting themselves killed. The noise of men shooting at them hung in her ears, but judging by the sounds the bullets made, none had landed close enough to really bring trouble. She craved a cigarette.

Ducking into a hollowed‑out building close enough for her to see the Islamic State’s forces and to make out their black uniforms with ease, Azeema called the group back. They needed to be ready to run, she explained—the smoke from the mortars soon to be fired would create only a brief moment of chaos and cover in which they could escape.

Azeema looked down at her black digital watch. Only about twelve or thirteen minutes had passed since she left Judi, though adrenaline made it feel like hours. By her assessment, the mortar rounds should have been falling by now. She wondered what the holdup could be. Two or three minutes later, the crackling boom of incoming mortars broke up her thoughts. She craned her neck in the direction of her forces and watched as Judi went to work.

His fears were realized: not one of his mortars landed near enough to create an opening for Harun, Dilawer, Israel, and the eighteen others ISIS held trapped. Even the closest one landed well short. No smoke at all in which they could make their escape.

Azeema paused and put her head in her hands while she looked at the ground and spoke to herself silently for a moment. She had to keep her team’s spirits up, even if she felt sure they were run‑ ning out of time and options.

She called her teammates again. “Dilawer, don’t worry—we have another plan,” she said. She made sure to sound more con‑ fident than she felt in that moment. “Just don’t listen to anyone else—and stay off the radio.”

She had only one option left.

On the twenty-seventh of September, the U.S. had launched its first strikes in the area of Kobani, with Air Force F‑15Es targeting an ISIS command and control center. Four days later, Adm. John Kirby of the Navy, the Pentagon press secretary, announced that America had conducted seventy‑six airstrikes.

But if U.S. airpower sounded game‑changing from a podium, it sure didn’t look like it on the ground. By October, ISIS had managed to back Azeema and Nowruz and their teammates into just a handful of square kilometers of the city. As far as weaponry went, the YPG and the YPJ had only AK‑47s, a random smattering of heavy weapons, and some PKMs, a machine gun designed de‑ cades earlier. ISIS had tanks, artillery systems, and even 155‑ millimeter Howitzers they had taken from Iraqi forces, who had received the equipment from America. They had armor. They showed up to the fight with weaponry created not to pick off a fighter here and there, but to kill their opponents in large numbers.

Just a few days after the U.S. airstrikes began, ISIS dominated the media narrative by raising two of its black flags on the east side of the city. On October 7, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who loudly opposed American assistance to the YPG, put it succinctly: U.S. airstrikes had yet to make a dent in the ISIS steamroll.

“Kobani is about to fall,” Erdogan told reporters. “I am telling the West: dropping bombs from the air will not provide a solution.”

On the limitations of helping the Kurds only from the air, American political leaders agreed with Erdogan. They worked to lower the public’s expectations even while TV images of a besieged Kobani increased pressure on the White House to do more to help.

“As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani, it is also important to remember you have to step back and understand the strategic objective,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a press conference. The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, formed in September 2014, had political and military objectives whose scope went beyond any one battle. The fight against ISIS was about more than defending Kobani; it was about attacking the group’s infrastructure and its ability to command and control its forces in both Syria and Iraq.

White House advisers made clear they believed that the fall of Kobani might be inevitable. Few could imagine how airpower alone, without a U.S. ground presence, would stop ISIS from conquering Kobani. Indeed, in acknowledging this reality, deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken urged reporters to realize the scale of the challenge and just how many towns across two countries faced the same threat from ISIS.

“There are other Kobanis in Iraq; there are other Kobanis in Syria on a daily basis,” Blinken noted.

Of course, for those Americans working with the Syrian Kurds to keep the town from falling to ISIS—from special operations leaders in the U.S. to their forces on the ground in Iraq—there was only one Kobani, and it was taking a beating. Back in the U.S., special operations leaders and team members now played a key role in events happening half a world away. They catalogued a mental list of the ISIS advantages: access to night‑vision gear, thermal weapons sights, and heavy weapons. A real knowledge of war, born of experience and fluency in siege warfare, with the ability to enter one home and pass through an entire city block undetected by crawling house to house through holes blown out between the walls. ISIS was no insurgent operation. Informed by more than a decade of fighting the Americans in Iraq, these men had mustered up a near‑conventional military, a force skilled in tactics and aligned on strategy to take and keep territory.

By the end of the first week of October, right around the time of Secretary Kerry’s statement, the situation in Kobani was so dire that members of the special operations team began to sleep in a conference room at their headquarters on two‑inch‑thick, rollout Tempur‑Pedic mattresses. If the U.S. had the resources available to launch airstrikes—which at that time was a big “if,” given the focus on Iraq, the limited airpower in the region only months prior, and the reality that no one had planned even six months earlier to provide aerial support to a ground force in Syria—and the Syrian Kurds and the Americans both had a confirmed location where they could strike ISIS with no civilians present, they wanted to do their part to help. The only way to ensure the team could be reached quickly once a location was confirmed? Never leave the office.

Still, by the second week of October, the U.S. was authorizing airstrikes to support the ground forces only in a trickle and rarely in time to make a difference. Leo James, who helped build the foundation for U.S.‑YPG cooperation with Polat Can over the summer, called his leaders from Sulaymaniyah to argue his case in the clearest language possible.

“We are going to lose here—in a big, big way. And we are going to lose in the next twenty‑four hours if we don’t change things,” Leo said. He himself was fighting ISIS on the ground in the Iraqi town of Kirkuk—a forty‑minute drive from Sulaymaniyah— whenever he wasn’t at the operations center monitoring events in Syria. This was what Kerry and Blinken had meant when they said the U.S.‑led coalition’s effort to stop ISIS covered two countries and was more than just one town in northern Syria. “This partner is going to be defeated and with it we will lose our best—probably our only—chance to stop these guys. They cannot fall back any further. They are going to fight until the last person dies, and then this whole thing is all over. People here cannot believe that we can’t do more. You want to talk about the story ISIS is going to sell out of this? Are we prepared to watch the victory lap they are about to take?”

As October wore on, the U.S. stepped deeper into the fight. Kobani had become a symbol of resistance, fueled by the satellite feeds that traveled from cameras on a Turkish hilltop to televisions all around the world.

The strikes began to make a difference as they came in greater number and with greater frequency; on October 14, U.S. Central Command announced that it had carried out more than twenty airstrikes near Kobani, seriously damaging crucial ISIS staging areas.

Still, the People’s Protection Units couldn’t always get U.S. airpower when they needed it; indeed, most of the time it took a minimum of an hour for the U.S. to confirm locations, make certain no civilians could be found there, and get the resources necessary for a strike. That lag had led to lost lives. Azeema knew this when she called Bavar, a Syrian Kurd from Kobani who worked as the go‑between for the YPG and the U.S. Bavar had a tablet with the town’s coordinates and Google Earth access. He worked with his fellow fighters to find the exact coordinates of the locations where ISIS gathered. He passed these coordinates to Polat Can or others back in Sulaymaniyah, who then shared them with the Americans, who began their verification process.

Azeema called Bavar with her walkie‑talkie while keeping Dilawer on the line, her cell phone pinned to her right ear. She kept her voice calm, urging Dilawer to stay with her and not give up and not listen to anyone trying to put forward another plan; help would arrive. She just had to get everyone to hang in there a bit longer.

“Hold on, Dilawer,” Azeema said, handing the phone to a teammate as Bavar answered her call on the radio. Azeema began describing in short sentences exactly where her forces sat trapped. Static interfered every fifth or sixth word. She repeated their location to make sure he heard.

“Look, I know the Americans can’t answer every request for strikes, but we have close to twenty‑five people in there,” she said. “We have no other option 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. back to the Middle East, where American airplanes awaited approvals.

Azeema paced in the shell of a structure where she now holed up, waiting to see what would happen, while her request for a strike traveled across the globe.

She got back on the phone with Dilawer’s group and yelled at them to crouch in corners, away from windows, with their hands over their ears.

Minutes passed. She started to think about what would happen if she had to recover bodies instead of her teammates alive.

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

A whizzing roar overwhelmed her ears as the bomber unleashed its munitions. Seconds passed as she saw the explosives fall toward the earth.

She stopped breathing.

Finally, only moments later, Azeema watched buildings buckle toward the ground and, with them, all those inside. Smoke billowed and rolled down the street in waves as the charred structures leveled by the strike exhaled black.

Azeema called Harun, but he didn’t answer. She ran forward, straight toward the building too dangerous to approach only a few minutes earlier. She wanted to be the first to greet her teammates if they actually made it out.

And then she saw it: the huge smile of Dilawer as he ran toward her, full of joy. Azeema caught him in her arms and the two hugged.

“The others?” she asked. “Everyone is alive.”

Azeema doubled over, her chest touching her knee for a moment as the news that no one was dead sank in. One of their teammates, a young woman, had been shot in the leg. Shrapnel had hit Harun in the forehead and left a gash. But they had all survived.

One of Azeema’s fighters called on the radio for a car to whisk their injured teammates to the hospital. They needed care right away—they had lost a lot of blood. But both were conscious and looked remarkably happy for people who had been wounded.

By the time Azeema and her forces—including the uninjured nineteen who had made it through the day’s events—returned to their positions on the southern front line, night and its crisp coolness had arrived.

“Rest tonight,” Azeema told her troops. She gave the fighters who had been by her side all day a wink. “Get sleep. Tomorrow is guaranteed to bring more adventure.”

She at last took her rifle off her shoulder and carefully placed it next to her.

“First World War I, then World War II, now Kobani,” Azeema said, lighting the cigarette she had thought of for hours, a twinkle of mischief in her dark brown eyes. “The world is never going to forget this fight.”

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

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