In an abandoned luxury apartment building in Til Kocher, Syria, a group of young women laugh, sing songs, and prepare chai tea for their guests. In the adjacent room is an arsenal of weapons ranging from American M4 rifles to Hungarian-made Dragunovs and locally manufactured Zagrov .50-caliber sniper rifles. The cheerful young women enjoying their morning compose a seven-woman sniper unit that falls under the YPJ militia currently fighting ISIS in northern Syria. If you had failed to note all the hardware lying around their arms room, you would never know that these women were snipers, and you would never guess that some of them have racked up dozens of kills.
The oldest of the group is 27, a European Kurd who returned from the diaspora when she heard reports about ISIS murdering children. The youngest of the group said she was 16, but quickly corrected herself and reported that she was actually 18. Later that day, the teenage Kurd slung the .50 caliber Zagrov over her shoulder and walked out to do some target practice.
They don’t tell a lot of war stories. Inside their common room, the pictures of the “shaheed”—their friends martyred in the war against the Islamic militants—hang on the wall. The young women are safe for the moment in the Kurdish-held rear areas, but they can be called out in two-woman sniper teams to jump into the fray at any time in response to commanders’ requests on the front lines. In the meantime, they try to compartmentalize the war and retain some sense of normalcy.
Although some would probably deny it, the Kurds have an incentive system of sorts for their snipers. Sidearms are a prized possession on the battlefield, and snipers who achieve 20 kills receive a Makarov pistol. Once they kill 100 ISIS fighters, they are awarded a Beretta pistol. Some of the women I met have a Makarov; others are well on their way to earning the Beretta.