Virtually every YPG fighter has a rule: Save the last bullet for yourself. In the war against ISIS, which they call the Daash, it is far better to choose your own way out rather than be captured by the jihadists and their so-called Islamic State.
One source on the ground in Rojava (Kurdish-held Syria) told me that he once arranged an exchange of fallen fighters with the Daash. In the middle of a battlefield, they met in an abandoned house where both the YPG and Daash fighters could kill everyone inside if someone tried to pull a fast one. The YPG was trading seven dead Daash for four dead YPG fighters. When the Daash came inside, they brought five black garbage bags, dumped them on the ground, recovered their dead fighters, and quickly drove off.
The YPG leader knew something was wrong. The bodies of the three female soldiers had been sexually mutilated. The male fighter was worse off, his body parts tossed into two separate bags. When the YPG commander opened the bag, “All I saw was legs.” He also told me that when female YPG members are captured, the Daash are known to torture and rape them over open commo nets so that the YPG can hear. Most of the fighters simply turn off their radios at that point.
As disgusting as the war crimes committed by the Daash are, don’t think that the YPG fighters, including the women, are deterred.
I met a member of an all-female sniper unit in the alcove of a building, talking to one of her friends. She carried herself differently than some of the new recruits and rear-echelon types I had met. She was quiet, polite, sure of herself, and I later learned she had somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 kills to her name. She was 18 years old.
I first noticed the lone bullet, attached to the AK-47 barrel with a link from an American-made disintegrating metal-link machine-gun belt, when I visited a YPG training camp out in the desert. I was asked if I understood why they carry a single bullet in this manner. I did. It didn’t require further explanation.
At the training facility, the men of the YPG and the women of the YPJ train side by side. At the time of my arrival, they were running a stress-shoot lane. Instructors would run alongside the recruits as they conducted individual movement techniques for about a hundred meters, then the recruits would sprint another hundred meters, set their Kalashnikovs down on some sandbags and get behind a PKM machine gun. They would fire single shots at balloons hung on a cement wall 50 meters downrange.
With only two shots to fire, most of them scored at least one hit. One shooter even chalked up an elusive “one shot, two kills” when his bullet sent concrete chips flying—popping both balloons.
The format of the stress-shoot training was competitive in the sense that the recruits were being tested, but was also very collaborative. It was like a combination of military training and a pep rally. The other recruits would sit off to the side, segregated into two lines by gender, and cheer on their teammates.
This was all part of a 40-day YPG training course, which included training on weapons and tactics, but also integrated political training. When the trainees were asked why they joined the YPG or YPJ, nearly all of them answered with a name: Abdullah Ocalan.
Not to have some kind of “old-soldier” moment, but they all looked so young. Just about all of them looked like they were teenagers. It is not uncommon for 15 and 16 year olds to sign up to go fight the Daash. The YPG says that these young men and women lie about their age to get in. I’m not so sure I believe this. I think the YPG is taking these young volunteers, not because they want to, but because they are desperate. Perhaps an entire generation has already been lost in this war.
More than once I inquired about a fighter’s age and was initially told that she was 16. A minute later, she would think better of it and say, “No, actually I’m 18.” As much as it hurts to see boy and girl soldiers sent up to the front lines, it is literally an issue of who will fight for their freedom if not them? I know most of them will be sent to the front lines in places like Kobani. Everyone knows that getting sent to Kobani is a one-way trip.
This is the grim calculus of war, one in which political leaders make compromises to safeguard the future of their culture and their people against the barbarians of ISIS.
There was one older man present for the training. He crouched off to the side, never saying a word. Like the other PKK members I had come across in Rojava, if asked, they would tell you they are YPG. The PKK’s role in the war has been completely whitewashed. This is another cold decision made for purposes of realpolitik. With the PKK considered a terrorist organization by America and many other Western countries, the YPG has to be the public face of the war.
The lie isn’t meant to deceive the West—everyone knows what is going on here—but this was a decision made early on in the war for Rojava. In order to legitimize the state of Rojava in the eyes of the West, the PKK has to fade into the background.
For something new to be born, something old has to die.