As thousands of Syrian refugees flee the country, escaping Bashar al-Assad's barrel bombs and the barbarism of ISIS, one woman from Canada has headed to the war zone for a second time.
Hanna Bohman, a.k.a. Tiger Sun, joined the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) women's militia army of the People's Defense Unit, known as the YPJ, in the Kurdish region of Syria (Rojava), following a near-fatal motorbike accident last year.
Bohman flew out to Rojava in February, as soon as she was physically able, and took up arms with the Kurds to fight ISIS. There she spent six months, serving in two different units, the first of which was with new recruits and saw little action besides keeping watch over open territory. The second unit had more experience and Bohman's first night was inaugurated with a firefight with ISIS. But the lack of "normal food like steak and pizza" lead to malnutrition and exhaustion, prompting Bohman to head back to Vancouver to recuperate and regain some of the 30 pounds she had lost.
Bohman is one of a handful of Canadians who are known to have joined the fight against ISIS.
The men who have left the lands of democracy to join the ranks of the YPJ and the Peshmerga in Iraq to fight ISIS include former servicemen, security contractors, and even one Hollywood actor.
As for the women, it seems that ISIS has the greater pulling power and there has been no shortage of media coverage flummoxed over seemingly bright teenage girls leaving the comforts of human rights to become jihadi brides.
Bohman is one of the few Western women to have joined the fight against ISIS, or the "Satanic State" as she calls them.
And now that she has regained strength, she's back to take up her post with the Kurdish freedom fighters. This time, she's better equipped and better prepared while documenting her experience on her Facebook page. VICE talked to Bohman about joining the YPJ, gender equality, and ancient weaponry.
VICE: Why did you return to Rojava?
Hanna Bohman: I decided to return for two reasons. The first—I miss the friends I made. The second reason is deeper. After returning to Canada, I couldn't imagine going back to a normal job. Nothing seemed to inspire me. In fact, things were getting stressful. The cost of living in Vancouver is ridiculous. I went through $10,000 in two months and I wasn't even paying rent, so the idea of getting back into the rat race again didn't appeal to me at all. It was the same reason I went to Rojava in the first place. I had wasted so much of my life trying to make a living, that I hadn't actually started to live. Fighting the Satanic State and being part of the revolution in Rojava is a dream come true. Not that I dreamed of killing people, but that I am now truly useful. I'm actually contributing to the betterment of other peoples' lives, and for me, that's far more important than selling insurance, or banking services.
Why and how did you join the YPJ?
It was mainly because of what ISIS was doing and how our governments were doing nothing to stop it. I thought that if people can join and volunteer for ISIS, then people can volunteer to fight ISIS, too. The Lions of Rojava Facebook page [set up by YPG fighter Jordan Matson] put me in touch with the YPJ and I joined them in February 2015, as soon as I was fit. I flew to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and was smuggled across the border in a rubber dinghy.
Did you get any training?
I went to the academy and got four hours of training—how to assemble and disassemble an AK, the Dragonov—pretty much what I could have learnt from YouTube. There was no medical or procedural training. They (Kurds) go through ideological training, which includes gender equality and ecological responsibilities. It's supposed to be 45 days, but from what I've seen actually fighting with them, they rely on senior members with experience and learn on the job.
The YPG are affiliated with the PKK—a terrorist organization according to the US. What was your impression of them?
The YPG and the PKK are separate, but they follow the same ideology based on Abdullah Ocalan's teaching. The PKK defends the Kurds from Turkey and many have come to Rojava. A lot of the commanders are PKK, they're always the best-educated and nicest ones. They call themselves humanists—they treat everyone with humanity, even if they are the enemy.
What is a typical day like as a YPJ fighter?
It is boring. Most of the day is spent with no fighting. You wake up around 5 AM and it's really chill, not a regimented army. You get up, have breakfast—meals are communal and the food is mainly vegetarian. It is a peasant militia and a lot of the food is donated. I had meat eight times in three-and-a-half months and even then it was just scraps of meat.
How is it as a woman fighting with the YPJ?
They're so ahead of us on gender equality. To get equal treatment we [in the West] have to protest and then laws are changed. Over there it is so equal, there is no conscious division, the women are naturally included and work with the men equally at every level—they're in the trenches, they take positions, sometimes they're the only ones fighting. It's just so equal that it's hard to explain. It's more of a matriarchal society, I never felt threatened by the men or objectified.
Did you kill anyone during your first tour?
No, I didn't, I only had an AK which is only really good for 300 meters, and even then if you hit something, it's luck.
Is there a weapons shortage?
There are guns, including American-made guns, but ammunition is hard to find. It is not a case of weapons shortage, it is a case of weapon quality. [The Kurds] don't have heavy weapons, and with the air strikes, they don't need to fight that much.
How does your experience this time round differ from your first visit?
For my second tour here, I decided to concentrate more on documenting life in Rojava. I want to show more of the life outside of the military. I recently went to Kobane, which is probably the global symbol of resistance against the Satanic State. A lot of other cities were also attacked, but none like Kobane. At one point, 80 percent of the city was under terrorist control, but the YPG and YPJ fought back and saved their city. However, a lot of young fighters died, and it's incredibly tragic how they were essentially left to fight the Satanic State without help from anyone else. So I wanted to document what has become an important moral victory for the Kurds.
The city is absolutely obliterated, yet it's the most lively city in Rojava. The Kurds didn't give up defending Kobane, and now they're not giving up rebuilding it. Families are returning, schools are reopening, shops are back in business, and the city is coming back from the dead. It was an incredibly emotional visit and I hope my photos and stories from Kobane will help in some way.
Since the end of your first visit, Turkey's airstrikes have targeted PKK strongholds in Syria and Iraq. What has been the impact?
The Turkish airstrikes don't seem to be as problematic for the PKK as the media makes it out to be. Turkey claimed about 300 Kurds were killed in the airstrikes, but how do they know that? They didn't land helicopters so they could count the bodies. They posted videos showing hits on buildings and houses and claimed they were PKK hideouts but that's bullshit. I've been to the camps. They don't stay in buildings and houses because they're easy targets. I think only about seven PKK fighters were killed in all the airstrikes. In reality, the Turks killed innocent villagers who had no connection to the PKK.
Did the Canadian government give you any grief when you returned?
I have been contacted by various government agencies—they're more concerned with Canadians who joined ISIS. I went to the US and spoke to the services there. They pretty much know what I had to tell them.
Where is your Instagram account?
It keeps getting suspended and my Facebook account has been suspended four times. Turkey has an active campaign to censor anything on the internet, so you can't post a map of Kurdistan. I'm being targeted by ISIS supporters and Turkish nationalists who report my account. Turks were attacking me on Instagram, one guy said he would enjoy raping my ass after ISIS cut my head off.
How long do you think you'll stay this time?
I've only been back about a month but I plan on staying at least six months, but that depends on my health again. I lost far too much weight the last time I was here but hopefully this time, I'll be better able to manage my calorie intake.