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Canadian Woman Joins Offensive to Capture ISIS’s Syrian Stronghold

Shaelynn Jabs, 20, is back in the Middle East for her second tour with Kurdish forces fighting ISIS.
November 1, 2016, 6:40pm

All photos from Shaelynn Jabs Facebook

A young Canadian woman is heading toward Raqqa as part of the new offensive to take back the Islamic State's stronghold in Syria.

"There were new orders. Everyone is nervous, but it's official," Shaelynn Jabs told me via Facebook message.

VICE News first reported on the 20-year-old from Drayton Valley, Alberta, in March, when she was forced to return home from northern Syria after a suicide truck bomber left her with a skull fracture and permanent damage to her right ear. She was 19 at the time.

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But she couldn't stay away from the frontlines for long, and by September, Jabs had returned for a second tour alongside the Syrian Kurdish militia she has come to consider family. Though she'd been involved in minor confrontations, she had not yet seen close combat since she has been back in the region, and is "more excited than anything" about this new chapter.

"It's frustrating, knowing friends are fighting and you're sitting and waiting," she told VICE News. Jabs had fought alongside Westerners and Kurds in the past, but this time she's part of an all-Kurdish and Yazidi tabor, or group. "I speak good enough Kurdish, [so] it doesn't bother me any."

The U.S. announced its

plans for advancing on Raqqa last week, but Turkey's resistance to Kurdish participation in the offensive appears to have delayed the launch.

Jabs has been moving through northern Syria and northern Iraq with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) and most recently with the YBS, a Yazidi militia based in the Iraqi city of Sinjar. Last week, ISIS militants attacked the Yazidi city and clashed with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters posted there. Reuters reported that 15 ISIS militants were killed in the attack apparently meant to divert attention and resources from the ongoing advance toward Mosul, the Islamic State's stronghold in Iraq.

"The exact spot I was supposed to be at a few days ago got attacked today," said Jabs of the ISIS counter-offensive. She'd been in the city a few days earlier with the YBS, patrolling the heaps of rubble and shells of buildings that were once the homes and businesses of the Yazidis. In 2014, ISIS invaded the area, executing thousands of men and kidnapping and enslaving women and girls. The city was liberated late last year.

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"I got to meet some Yazidi soldiers who told us some truly heartbreaking stories," Jabs told VICE News. She was taken to one of Sinjar's mass grave sites. "The bodies were so mangled they couldn't tell who was who so they made a grave marker there as a way to remember."

Jabs' initial tour was in a region known as Rojava, where she'd been fighting with the YPG. The bomb that forced her home collapsed a building around Jabs and her fellow fighters. They saved two mothers and a young boy, but three children were killed.

"That day really changed me in a lot of ways," she said in an interview before leaving Alberta and returning to Syria. "I know that's kind of cliché, but every time I think about it there, I think about that day and I think about how I never want civilians to go through that."

She'd been home for little more than six months, just enough time to reconnect with loved ones and make enough money to go back and help protect Syria's Kurds.

"The majority of the casualties of war is [sic] civilians who just want to live their normal lives," she said. "I want to stop ISIS from going into civilians' homes and killing families and thinking it's OK. That's basically it in a nutshell."

Though Jabs is eager to get back into combat, the danger of the situation is not lost on the young soldier. Before returning to Syria she recalled how many friends she'd already lost on the battlefield. "It's gotta be over 12. That's not all Westerners. That's Kurds too. I've met quite a few of them that aren't around anymore."

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German Gunter Helsten was one of those closest to her. The veteran of the German armed forces fought under the Kurdish name Rustem Cudî and was a mentor to many of the young fighters in the YPG and YPJ. He was killed in battle in February. Jabs' mother, Brenda, said that to honour him, Shaelynn now uses his Kurdish last name in addition to Dilan, the name she'd been given by the Kurds on her first tour.

"The world doesn't see it's a thing that needs to be changed, that we need to be doing something because our citizens are making it [their problem] now because we want to do something," said Jabs. "The government needs to see that their citizens want to see change."

Gunter Helsten, via Facebook

At least a dozen Canadians have gone overseas to fight against the Islamic State. The Canadian government has not outlawed helping Kurdish forces but does discourage citizens from travelling to the region. And it has charged Canadians who have pledged allegiance to ISIS with terrorism-related offences for being part of an officially listed terrorist entity.

When Jabs returned to Canada after her first tour, two Canadian intelligence officials showed up to speak with her. "They were asking me weird questions like where I was, what exactly I was doing, if I killed anyone," said Jabs. "They wanted to know how we fight, what we do as a unit and how we work as a unit." The intelligence officers that interviewed her also left her a warning. "They told me that if the YPG or YPJ ever goes on the terrorist list, they'll come for me, kind of thing," she said.

She questioned how that would apply if she'd already returned home and was no longer associated with the Kurdish groups. "They just kept saying that, like, if it ever happens I'd be forced to go to court and they might lay charges. They were just trying to scare me into not wanting to help [the Kurds] anymore."

While the list of terrorist entities does include the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group that advocates for an independent Kurdish state in the region, they operate separately from most other Kurdish units. Neither the YPG/YPJ nor the YBS are on Canada's list of terrorist entities.

Follow Tomas Urbina on Twitter