Writer's note: In March last year, Kimberley Taylor became the first (and only) British woman to travel to Syria to take up arms against ISIS. Within days of her arrival, the 28-year-old former maths student from Blackburn joined the Women's Protection Units (YPJ) —the all-female affiliate army of the People's Protection Units (YPG) of Syrian Kurdistan—and has been fighting alongside them ever since. For the past three months, Kimberley —known to friends as Kimmie, but to comrades as Zilan Dilmar—has been part of the offensive to liberate Raqqa, Isis' de-facto capital. At the end of March, I spoke to Kimberley, over a series of Skype conversations, to find out what life is like for a woman on the frontline against ISIS. Two days later, she deployed to Raqqa to fight in what will likely be ISIS's bitter last stand. These are her words, but they have been edited and condensed for clarity. Read part two and part three.
I woke up 7AM this morning to the sound of radios going crazy. Friends said they could see movement, but no one was sure. Then I heard gunfire.
We've spent the past week liberating frontline villages along the Euphrates River towards Raqqa, ISIS' capital city. Last night, my tabur [platoon]—a mix of eight YPJ women and six YPG men, plus a female commander named Sorxwin— camped in a town a few hundred metres behind the frontline. Today was supposed to be our day off, which is why we'd slept in later than usual. ISIS often attack then. They think they can catch us off guard behind our lines. But they are lashing out like a cornered dog: we're stronger, more organized, have the might of coalition airstrikes on our side, and have almost completely encircled Raqqa. They've nowhere left to run.
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As the noise of battle grew, there was a bang on the door. It was Chekdar, a 24-year-old male fighter who we'd grown close to in recent months. We joke that he's one of the girls because he loved hanging out with us and was always joining in on our conversations and activities. He was very protective, and all the girls liked him. He wasn't laughing now. "We need to get on the roof," he shouted. "We need to see where the attack is coming from."
We leapt up, pulled on our boots, grabbed our Kalashnikovs, and raced upstairs. But as we peered out across the town—an urban sprawl of burnt-out cars and broken buildings—we saw that a house where a group of our friends had been sleeping was under attack, about 200 metres away. People were swarming around it shooting, but we weren't sure if they were ISIS or the YPG, so we couldn't fire at them, or call in an airstrike. And we couldn't leave our position for fear of leaving it exposed to attack from another direction. We felt so useless.
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Then Chekdar decided to leave the base we were protecting to help our friends. We told him to stay, but he wouldn't listen. "Stay here and protect the house," he shouted as he ran off. "I'll be back soon." I lost sight of him in the fighting after a few minutes.
Civilians were running in every direction—kids, women, and the elderly. It was pandemonium. We shouted at them to stop or turn back, but they were so scared and confused that they didn't listen. We tried firing in the air to get their attention, but that made them freak out even more. I saw one old man running away with a flock of sheep. I even saw another come out for the toilet, but a Kurd sent him back. So he ran round the back of his house, crouched down, and did a poo. They're strange, the things you see in war.
How do you respect a dead body?
Soon ISIS started firing rockets at the compound. Shrapnel sprayed in every direction on impact. When they started bringing the injured to our house, people's faces were disfigured. There's only one doctor in our unit so I stayed to help the wounded, attempting to patch them up as best we could. Then the dead started coming in.
Some bodies were really bad. One guy's head was cut in half—we tried to reassemble it with bandages.To see bodies was hard. I mean, I've seen corpses before, lots. But to see dead people you know, people you've joked with, smoked with, and suffered with, is heartbreaking. But you have to stay rational as you cut their clothes off and dress them for the morgue. To see these people naked and lifeless on a table like that was horrible. You're trying to be respectful, but how do you respect a dead body?
Around 9AM, Chekdar's body was carried in. I held back tears as I cut off his uniform, remembering the last conversation we'd had about helping each other to quit smoking. After his body was taken away, I took his lighter out of his clothes. It's a crappy white lighter that doesn't work, but it reminds me of him. I know he'd want someone to keep it.
By 10AM, the fight finally died down. The ISIS fighters who weren't dead had fled, and we were left with six bodies and many more injured. Civilians too. The worst was this little girl, who can't have been more than 11 years old. She'd been shot in the groin, the bullet exiting through her backside. I'll never forget the smell of her insides, which I was trying to keep from popping out as the doctor wrapped her in bandages. But it was impossible to stem the bleeding; the wound was just too big. She was whimpering and was pale and cold. And her mom was there, just holding her daughter's head and speaking softly in Arabic. She kept looking at us, smiling in hope. Deep down we both knew it was in vain. The hospital was four hours away and we didn't have enough equipment or help. But we couldn't just leave her to die. You have to try, right? We patched her up as best we could and put her in the next ambulance to hospital. I haven't heard what happened to her yet. In a way I don't want to. I think it would be too hard.
When the girl left, I threw up.
Atmosphere at camp has been eerily strange since the attack. Everyone has been really quiet all day: there's none of the usual laughter and jokes. Some people couldn't speak a word to anyone, everyone's so upset. Apart from losing Chekdar, it was the young girl that really affected me. In the moment, you try to bury your emotions and treat such patients with the same care as you would another soldier. But these are the memories that, in the quiet moments, haunt you. I've not been able to get her out of my head all day. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can still see her pale little face.
We saw a lot of death and destruction today. Normally one or two friends get injured but rarely anything as bad as that. Six of our friends are dead, which ISIS probably saw as a success. But it was nothing compared to the damage we do to them. We're bigger in number, better organized, and have them on the run. In the grand scheme of things we are winning by miles. ISIS will fall; there is no other possible outcome.
And I intend to be there when they do.
Read part two of Kimberley Taylor's diary tomorrow on Broadly.
Illustrations by Nayon Cho.