We left Erbil at about 9am for the city of Sulaymaniyah, which is situated about 180km to the southeast and is home to the women of 2nd Battalion, 6th Brigade, an all female unit of about 500 Peshmerga fighters. The temperature was already into the high 30’s°c and it was only going to get hotter. The journey was to take about two and a half hours and would take us into a beautiful part or Kurdistan I’d not see before. The road was pretty good in comparison to some of the roads we had travelled along and had light traffic, which was a bonus. The standard of driving in Iraq is scarily bad, verging on suicidal, with the roadside littered with the wreckage of almost certainly fatal collisions. Road traffic accidents are the 3rd biggest killer of Iraqis, accounting for more deaths than war, which is only 5th on the list of the biggest killers. Coronary heart disease being the number 1. I told our driver to take it easy and drive carefully as we had plenty of time to get there and we didn’t want to become another statistic.
About halfway though our journey we came to, what appeared to be, a border crossing and for all intents and purposes it was.
“We’re crossing from the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) area to the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) area.” our fixer told us.
The KDP and PUK are the two main rival political factions within the Peshmerga who today jointly govern the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government).
The 2nd Battalion, 6th Brigade has a proud history dating back to the 1990s when women were incorporated into the Peshmerga to bolster force numbers in the fight against the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Now they fight IS (Islamic State).
We arrived at the training camp on the outskirts of the city at about 11.30am. The 2nd Battalions barracks and HQ are situated in a large sprawling military compound, along with several male divisions. It took us a little while to find the women’s camp and by then the temperature was already soaring into the mid 40’s°c. We finally spotted a couple of women in uniform outside a building by the side of the road and figured we must be in the right place. We were directed a further 200 meters down the road to the HQ where a formidable looking woman greeted us. She wore neatly pressed green combats with a pistol strapped to her side and introduced herself as Capt. Mujda Rashid.
“Welcome! Come in, come in! How was your drive?” she said in broken English as she ushered us into the single story building that was the HQ. “I’m taking you to meet Col. Rashid,” she said.
A female fighter dressed in desert fatigues armed with an AK47 sprang to attention as we walked in through the door into the building. We made our way into a large room with a desk and bookshelf at one end and the peshmerga flag standing in the corner.
Col. Nahida Ahmed Rashid, a 49 year old married mother of an 11 year old daughter, came from around her desk to greet us. She shook our hands and invited us to sit as a pretty soldier in desert camos and dyed red hair brought and served us tea.
Col. Rashid gave us a brief history of her battalion, explaining it was formed in 1996 to help in the fight against Saddam Hussein and outlined the training that she puts her soldiers, who are all volunteers, though before they are allowed to the front line to fight.
Peshmerga is Kurdish for “those who confront death,” and the Colonel explains why Daesh, as IS are scathingly called here, are afraid to fight her female troops and flee from them.
She says: “Daesh are worried that if they are killed by a woman on the battlefield they won’t go to paradise. It’s a weapon for us. They don’t like to be killed by us. But we know we must never be captured by Daesh. They don’t treat women like human beings.”
Col. Rashid encourages each of her soldiers to carry an extra round (bullet) for themselves in the event that they are about to be captured.
“We have seen what they have done to the Yazidi women and they have not taken up arms against Daesh. So we know that our fate would be very bad. Daesh have put my photograph on their website and encouraged their members to capture me. They set an ambush for us in Kirkuk recently. They wanted to kidnap us but it was foiled.”
She adds, defiantly: “I’m not hiding. We were so close to Daesh at the front line at Kirkuk I could see them with my own eyes. You know you might be killed. And if they have a sharp knife I won’t suffer much.”
Col. Rashid began her military career in her teens, fighting for the Kurdish separatist movement in the struggle for Kurdish rights against the Iraqi regime formerly led by Saddam Hussein and is now the Pershmerga’s highest ranking female officer.
She says her family accept the dangers she faces, explaining: “I was in the Peshmerga before I was married. When I met my husband I said, ‘This is my job. Take it or leave it’. When I was at the front line I didn’t tell him. I didn’t want to worry him.”
She shakes her head when asked about young British girls who leave the freedoms of the UK for a life as jihadi brides inside the brutal IS.
“These British women have been deceived by Daesh’s propaganda,” she says.”Daesh don’t believe in women, not even their own. They use them as suicide bombers. There is no freedom for women there. It’s like they put women in a jail by keeping them in the home and making them cover every part of the body if they go out. They use women for their own disgusting purposes.”
The Peshmerga also promote women’s rights and equality. Colonel Rashid says: “We believe we are unique in the Middle East. We teach equality. We provide shelter for women who have suffered domestic abuse. About 85 per cent of Peshmerga women are university students. We’ve created a generation of educated women here. We allow our soldiers to marry. They stay with us until they’re eight months pregnant and can take a year long maternity leave, six months on full pay.”
An old air-conditioning unit clattered into life right next to the window where I was sitting, threatening to drown out any chance I had hearing any more of the conversation, so I decide to leave the reporter, Oliver, and go outside to look for something to photograph.
Stepping outside was like walking into a blast furnace with the temperature in the shade now pushing 50°c. I walked over to where Captain Mujda Rashid was marching a squad of about 15 women up and down the road outside the barracks.
Captain Mujda Rashid is 42 years old, married and the mother of 3 children. She’s also a front line veteran having fought IS in Daquq south of Kirkuk.
“I joined Pershmerga in 2005 because I want to defend my homeland and live freely. I want to defend our right to live.” she told me.
When asked what her family think about her being a soldier, she tells me “They are very proud.”
The women have been drilling in the midday sun for about an hour and look tired and hot. Capt. Rashid tells me that they had already been for a run in the morning.
“We have to be hard on them to make them good soldiers. We are going to get our weapons now to do some training.” she says.
I follow them to a building that serves as their armoury, glad to get out of the sun for a few moments. As the girls file in then out of the single story structure, each now toting an AK47 rifle, a striking young woman catches my eye. I ask if I can take her picture to which she agrees.
While I set up the shot I ask her name, “Sgt. Sazan Taib”, she tells me, and that she’s 23 years old. Sazan speaks reasonable English, which makes things easier for me when taking her picture. We chat a little while I shoot her portrait. She tells me she wants to go to university and study to be a lawyer.
When asked about what people think of her joining the Peshmerger she says: “Some people say it’s a shameful thing we are doing. But it’s my decision. I do what I want”.
I get my shots and she joins the rest of her squad.
After demonstrating how fast they can strip and reassemble their weapons the squad moves on to patrolling up and down the street and the open terrain around the area. I start feeling the first signs of heat exhaustion as I start to feel sick and lethargic with my head starting to thump. I decide its time to leave the girls to it and get out of the sun and find some water.