Risking Everything

Embedding With the Women Who Are Kicking ISIS Ass

It’s not enough for some Kurdish mothers to send their sons off to war against Islamic State. Their daughters are going, too.

12.15.14 10:55 AM ET

SULIMANIYA, Iraq—Every morning when veteran fighter Lt. Col. Nasreen Hamlawa walks into her office, the first thing she sees is her daughter’s martyr poster. Snapped on the front lines outside Kirkuk just days before she was killed, Rangin Hamlawa, 26, dressed in classic beige peshmerga fatigues and holding a sniper rifle, stares hard into the camera.

“I’m glad my daughter died for a cause,” Hamlawa said calmly, referring to the duty of the peshmergas (described as a “regional guard force” in the Iraqi constitution) to defend Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. “It’s a cause, beliefs that I share,” she said, “and now all I want is to return to the battlefield to continue that work.”

Hamlawa was by her daughter’s side when she was fatally wounded in October. A round of mortar fire launched by the Islamic State landed near their position, riddling Rangin’s body with shrapnel. As Rangin was being prepared to be evacuated to a hospital back in Sulimaniya, Hamlawa’s fellow fighters told her to stay by her daughter’s side and travel with her to the hospital. But, Hamlawa says, she choose to stay on the front lines instead, “I stayed with my other daughters.” Ten days later Rangin died. 

Martyr Rangin, as she’s now referred to at the base, was the first female peshmerga fighter to be killed in battle from the 2nd Battalion, since its founding 18 years ago. While the senior officers are veterans of battles against Saddam Hussein’s forces and the Iran-Iraq War, for the majority of the more than 500 women in the unit, the fight against the Islamic State was the first time they’d seen battle.

And while Hamlawa says her daughter’s death has only strengthened the resolve of her fellow fighters, the unit has since been taken off the front lines and called back to their base for further training.

The unit’s commander, Col. Nahida Ahmed Rashid, denies that ordering her troops off the front lines had anything to do with Rangin’s death. She says the women were called back as a matter of common practice for more heavy weapons training. But she admits she’s stir crazy at the base; she wants to return to the fight.

“[Rangin’s death], her loss made our women stronger and more adamant to take their revenge,” she said. “We didn’t want to come back [to our base].”

But, she says, Rangin’s death has also left a “gap” in her unit. “It a big loss,” she says, her eyes sad but dry. “She was one of our bravest fighters.”

Susannah George

Throughout the afternoon, Rashid was inundated with phone calls and knocks on the door. Since Rangin’s death, Rashid says the numbers of women seeking to join the peshmerga has skyrocketed. 

“We are getting more and more people asking to join,” she said, so many that she has had to start turning them down because she no longer has the capacity to train new fighters. 

Gesturing to a small photograph of Rangin she wears on her lapel, Rashid says she saw a lot of herself in the young officer and was hoping that one day she would take over command of the unit. 

“I could see she was a talented leader,” Rashid said of her first impressions of Rangin. “I’m getting older so I was trying to train her to be the one to replace me if I’m not here anymore.” Rashid said she was initially criticized for making the relatively junior Rangin her deputy, but she believed in the young fighter and stood by her decision. 

“All these peshmerga are my daughters but this one was special to me, she was close to me,” Rashid said, “I loved her so much, everyone did.”

The 2nd Battalion was formally established in 1996 during the Kurdish civil war by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as they were battling the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). 

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In four years of brutal fighting reportedly sparked by a quarrel between a KDP landlord and a group of PUK shop owners, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people were killed. However, the true death toll is believed to be higher as mass graves dating back to that period are still being discovered in the Kurdish region. The conflict ended in 1998 following intensive U.S. mediation with a treaty that divided power and resources between the two parties.

“The idea was to eliminate the difference between men and women in Kurdistan,” said Rashid, who was then a founding member of the unit. After fighting alongside her brothers for years in the 1980s, she demanded the women fighters be formally recognized. 

“We wanted to have what the civilized nations do,” she said, “Have women in the armed forces and at the same time fight for women’s rights.”

The relatively young unit partnered with American troops in 2003 during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but rarely saw battle. Most female peshmerga fighters were tasked with staffing checkpoints and guarding bases alongside their male counterparts. But following the fall of Mosul and the Islamic State’s ultimate thwarted advance on Erbil, the unit was called up to fight. 

“We were part of the unit protecting gas and oil depots outside of Kirkuk,” Rashid says. Her unit first deployed in late June—“A very hot summer,” she remembers. “We first participated in the fight in Basheer against [ISIS], then later our women deployed to the Jalawla area.” 

In both arenas, Rashid describes the work of her troops as critical to the Peshmerga victories achieved around the strategically important city of Kirkuk.

“Of course the women fighters are important [in the fight against the Islamic State],” said Jaber Yawer, the spokesman for the peshmerga forces. Darkly joking, he added, “We were running out of the men.” 

Yawer says as a matter of policy, the female peshmerga unit is treated the same as the other male units. “We don’t think that they are weak,” he said. “They play an important role fighting next to the men because they complement one another.”

Susannah George

Like Rashid, Hamlawa, the mother of the slain female fighter, first fought alongside her brothers in the 1970s against Saddam Hussein’s forces before formally joining the peshmerga when the female unit was established. She says her family encouraged her to join and she, in turn, encouraged her own children.

“We’ve been brought up that Kurdistan is the first thing, to liberate our country and protect our country, so that’s our guiding principle,” she explained from behind a desk in her dark office, “I always wanted my children to follow my path.”

Her family, she said, was aware of the risks. “When you become a peshmerga your life becomes like a butterfly,” she said. “You can go at any moment.”

Another of Hamlawa’s children—a son—is on the front lines outside Kirkuk, she says, while her three surviving daughters, all fighters as well, want to return as soon as possible. 

“Children are dear to their mothers, but our land, Kurdistan, is also dear to us.” At this, Hamlawa’s strong eyes water slightly. She dabbed them with a tissue and continued without ceremony. “Without martyrs, you’ll never see a free Kurdistan.”