Meet the women warriors who drove Islamic State from in Raqqa – and have vowed to keep fighting
The Kurdish Women’s Protection Units celebrate their liberation of Yazidi sex slaves
A Kurdish female militia that took a lead role in freeing the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State group said on Thursday it will continue the fight to liberate women from the extremists’ brutal rule.
In a highly symbolic gesture, Nisreen Abdullah of the Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, made the statement in Raqqa’s Paradise Square – the same place where IS fighters once carried out public killings.
She said the all-women force, which is part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling IS, lost 30 fighters in the four-month battle to liberate Raqqa.
Under the rule of the Islamic State group, women were forced to wear all-encompassing veils and could be stoned to death for adultery. Hundreds of women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi minority were captured and forced into sexual slavery.
Raqqa was centre-stage of IS’ brutality, the de facto capital of the militants self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
“We have achieved our goal, which was to pound the strongholds of terrorism in its capital, liberate women and restore honour to Yazidi women by liberating dozens of slaves,” Abdullah said.
The SDF, a coalition of several factions including the YPJ, said on Tuesday that military operations in Raqqa have ended and that their fighters have taken full control of the city.
The spokesman for the US-led coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, tweeted on Thursday that the SDF has cleared 98 per cent of the city, adding that some militants remain holed up in a small pocket east of the stadium. Dillon added that buildings and tunnels are being checked for holdouts.
Among the most prominent of the women fighters who helped liberate Raqqa is Rojda Felat, who commanded thousands of troops who clinched the defining victory against jihadists.
Her jet black hair plaited and sometimes covered by a black-and-white keffiyeh, the Kurdish woman cuts an unmistakable figure on Syria’s northern battlefields.
Pictures of her fixing the Syrian Democratic Forces’ yellow flag on Paradise Square were beamed around the world Tuesday.
The Marxist-inspired YPG prides itself on its promotion of gender equality.
As a top commander Felat rose through the ranks and found herself commanding one of the biggest operations ever against IS.
“Comrade Rojda is one of the main YPJ commanders,” said Nisreen Abdullah, herself a founding member of the all-female unit, who fought alongside Felat in Raqqa and elsewhere.
“Her character is shaped by her determination to fight for women’s freedom,” Abdullah said.
“During this campaign she had a real impact: she raised the victory flag in Daesh’s capital,” she said, using an Arab acronym for IS.
Felat, who according to fellow SDF officers is 37 years old, assumed overall command of the first phase of the Raqqa operation.
Command of later phases was then shared with others, including another YPJ female officer.
The jihadists, who ruled over large parts of Syria and Iraq for more than three years, “carried out the worst atrocities against women, they made them slaves and machines meant to satisfy their every desire,” Abdullah said.
One of the worst crimes perpetrated by the ultra-violent jihadist group was the genocide against the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq which saw IS kidnap and enslave thousands of women and girls.
In various interviews Felat, who is from the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northeast Syria, has spoken of the importance of promoting women in war.
She cites a diverse range of heroes, including early 20th century German philosopher and activist Rosa Luxemburg, but also Napoleon and Kurdish fighter Saladin.
“Whether as fighters or commanders, the Women’s Protection Units always embody a spirit of camaraderie, a group spirit, there is always an awareness of our responsibility,” said Jihad Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the SDF’s Raqa operation.
“All the commanders, particularly Rojda, embody this.”
On Tuesday, Felat grinned broadly, her weapon hanging from her shoulder, as she waved the SDF flag at Paradise Square.
“It’s a historical moment and we know it will change many things,” she said.