'I Was Showered in Blood': What Happened When ISIS Came to Our Camp
Kimberley Taylor is the first British woman to go and fight ISIS alongside Kurdish forces in Syria. This is her diary.
All illustrations by Nayon Cho
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 one and part three.
I woke up at 3AM this morning for guard duty—two hours alone on the roof of our sleeping quarters. Squinting out into the night, I could see nothing but darkness. I nibble on a packet of sunflower seeds.
I'm always terrified on guard duty. All I think is, "Oh god, what if an ISIS sniper pops me off with one shot and sneaks into the building and blows up my friends?" I've never heard of that happening, but it's a psychological thing. There's no way to prevent being shot by a sniper if you're on guard. That would be it—lights out. I wouldn't know a thing. But like my commander, 30-year-old Sorxwîn, always says: "Fear is good; it keeps you alert.'
The sun rose around 5AM and no one shot me, and I swapped shifts and went back to bed for a bit. On days we're not advancing we'll lie in as long as possible, usually until Sorxwin gets angry. We all got up at 6AM, washed in a bucket, and prepared breakfast. It's the same every meal: tinned sardines or chicken Spam with naan bread and Dairylea cheese triangles. We try and make it as YPJ as possible by cutting it up into nice squares and putting it in a bowl, washed down with tea and cigarettes.
If the time comes when I'm forced to kill someone in battle, I'm ready.
We're still camped in one of the villages that sprawl along the northern banks of the Euphrates River, about ten miles east of Raqqa. But we've moved through so many this week, I don't remember this one's name. To be honest, I can't even remember what day it is anymore, things move so fast. Or so slowly, depending if we're on operation or not.
They say war is 99 percent boredom and one percent action. And today, as we await orders, we're definitely in the 99 percent. Slow days can be really boring—there's literally nothing to do. So mostly we talk: about the Kurdish revolution or each other's lives, about the future, or the war. I'm also teaching Sorxwîn English. She's really keen to learn although, despite going over it at least 40 times, her "hello, how are you" still sounds more like "hullabaloo."
In the afternoon, a few of the girls and I drove around to check on the positions of another unit nearby and chatted, drank tea, ate sunflower seeds, and smoked. We smoke a lot.
I've been with my current infantry tabur [platoon] for two months, since I joined the Wrath of Euphrates operation [to liberate Raqqa], and the girls are already like sisters to me. Most are in their early 20s, and are incredibly sweet, if a little naïve about the world. They're always asking me about life in the West, and think Europe is one big country. They say things like, "So, do you speak foreign?" I'm like, "Which foreign?" They think Europe is this magical utopian land.
I'll never forget what they did for me last Christmas. I was explaining why I wanted to find internet to speak to my family on Christmas Eve, and they were like, "What's Christmas?" I explained that Christ is Christianity's version of Mohammed and we celebrate his birthday. They still couldn't get their heads around it. "You're not religious," they said, "why are you celebrating that?" When Christmas Day arrived they sent me outside all morning while they scurried in and out of our house, giggling and whispering, like they were hatching some secret plan. Finally, at lunchtime, they led me indoors where a feast of crisps, sweets and cakes had been laid neatly on a cloth on the floor. Those things are hard to get here on the frontline. They sang "Happy Birthday" to me in very broken English. I couldn't have asked for a nicer gift.
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Sorxwîn's probably my best friend. She's one of three commanders who coordinates the front line, and loves nothing more than taking the piss out of me. She's always asking, as she did at lunch, "So when are you going back to Europe? It's nice there, right?" And I always say, "No Sorxwîn, you know I don't like Europe. The system is terrible there, that's why I'm here." She smiles wryly—she thinks it's hilarious that I'd rather be here than in cosy Europe.
After supper, we cleaned our weapons and went to bed. There's never enough blankets so we all have to squeeze together, two girls per sleeping mat. And obviously, we sleep next to our Kalashnikovs. Mine is Polish and she's older than me. Made in 1987, she is a little beaten up, with carvings on the butt by previous owners. But she's rust-free and easy to disassemble and clean, and hasn't jammed on me once. If the time comes when I'm forced to kill someone in battle, I'm ready.
When we're on operation I usually join Sorxwîn on the front, right behind the fighting. Together we identify positions where the enemy is to either order a ground attack or call in an airstrike, which we record on an iPad.
It's getting weird. The closer we get to Raqqa, the more deserted the villages seem, apart from the wild dogs and cats. It's as if all the important guys have fled to Raqqa, leaving the less important ones to die. Like, two days ago we surrounded an enemy mansion. As we were about to call in a strike, a group of really young ISIS fighters in their late teens came out waving a white flag, weeping. They had black beards and camouflage uniforms and stank like they hadn't washed in weeks (all the ISIS fighters I've seen were filthy). "I don't want to do this anymore," they cried in Arabic as a male YPG unit took them prisoner. "I want to go home." It was funny—ISIS haven't even managed to convince their own fighters to die for their caliphate.
ISIS commanders seem to live like kings. They left vast mansions empty, with manicured gardens, ornately-carved wooden doors, tiled floors—even Western toilets! I've not been on a Western toilet in a year so yesterday, after we liberated one town on the banks of the Euphrates River, I took the opportunity, which was nice. Their occupants had clearly left in a hurry; we found gold watches, jewellery, and suitcases filled with clothes. Yesterday, an English guy I know even found a tube of lube on a bedside table. His Kurdish wasn't good enough to explain it in words so he had to act it out for the YPG fighters there. The men thought it was hilarious. The only girl in the room ran out with embarrassment.
That's not to say the women of the YPJ are that timid in battle. When the bullets start to fly it's as if a switch flicks inside them, and everyone knows exactly what to do. They run towards the fight, without fear in their eyes. Never have I been prouder to be with the YPJ than when our base was attacked by suicide bombers in February.
I woke up at 4AM to the sound of ISIS fighters swarming into our compound, shooting. The girl on guard duty on the roof was shot in the arm but fought on. Only when a piece of shrapnel lodged in her head did she fall back. As we took defensive positions outside, we heard a shriek of "Allahu Akhbar" [God is great] and a man with a black beard ran around the corner and blew himself up. Guts and body parts flew everywhere, and I was showered in blood. I couldn't eat for two days after that. Moments later, a second man was running straight at us. Just as he got to within 15 metres away, a group of girls ahead of me shot him dead before he could detonate his bomb vest. I'm pretty sure I owe them my life.
It won't be long until we get to Raqqa now. And we're under no illusions that it'll be the fight of our lives. ISIS have had four years to dig in: Their best fighters are there and they'll have booby-trapped every door, window, and empty shop they can. It'll be a bloodbath, but we'll flush them out—no matter the cost.
I'm not scared. I feel safe with these girls. They are so fearless and organised in battle. They aren't just girls with guns, here for show – they are soldiers, as tough and scrappy as any man I know.
You can read the first part of Kimberley's diary here, and the final instalment of her diary tomorrow, on Broadly.
Illustrations by Nayon Cho.