AT 5 AM ON AN APRIL MORNING THIS YEAR, 30 young women emerged in khaki flak jackets from a dormitory in Syria’s north-eastern plains. Under the still-dark sky, they gathered on the gravelly ground at the front of a temporary facility where they were camped, filing into neat rows, one behind the other, an arm’s length apart. Once they were in position, they sharply saluted their commander, a lean, stern woman about twice the recruits’ age.
Then, as the sun peeped over the horizon, the armed unit went through their morning drills. They exercised for an hour or so, jogging from end to end on a roughly 100-metre-long concrete street that led out of the compound, breaking into occasional sprints, and doing push-ups, stretches and lunges. One of the camp members, 21-year-old Rokan Abrahim, took on the role of instructor for the day and performed the exercises alongside them, barking orders to coordinate the routine. When they had finished, they broke off into twos and threes and walked back towards the residential quarters, chatting and laughing with each other.
It was the start of another day at this all-women Kurdish rebel training camp in north-east Syria.Women from different parts of Syria’s Kurdish regions had enrolled in a 15-day-long physical education and combat program designed to prepare them for the frontlines. The 30 soldiers of the camp were women between the ages of 19 and 25, and were part of the only all-women armed unit in Syria, known as the Women’s Protection Unit, or the YPJ. Once the fortnight of lectures, assault courses, rifle practice and combat training concluded, the women were to disperse to various battlefronts and checkpoints across the north-east of the country.