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.

Everybody fights.

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.

YPJ member in training.

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.