Kimmie Taylor sits at the top of an open concrete staircase gazing at the sun as it sets over Isis-held Raqqa city, cigarette between her fingers.
She turns her head slowly towards the entrance to the courtyard, and just as slowly raises her free hand in greeting.
It’s exactly how you imagine the female fighters of the YPJ (Kurdish Women’s Protection Units). But Kimmie isn’t what I expected at all.
“Oh, yours is the first British accent I’ve heard in ages,” she says, her Lancastrian accent a reminder the same is true for me.
In reality, she knows exactly what she’s doing. After studying for a masters degree in political theory at Stockholm University, Kimmie was invited by friends with similar left wing politics to explore Rojava – the self-declared autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Syria – for the first time in 2015.
In a country turned upside down by a brutal civil war, she found something to believe in. The Kurdish democratic, feminist movement is building a fairer society – and fighting off Isis at the same time.
“I picked up a gun because I knew how people at home would react to that. I’d already been in Rojava for ages at that point, working with Yazidis and other people fleeing Isis, learning Kurdish, learning about the revolution and how society works here.
“I came back to Europe and gave talks and tried to raise awareness. But nothing happened. The interest just fizzles out. So when I came back I decided to join the YPJ because I knew it would get people’s attention.”
She was right. The softly spoken northerner has been able to bring the complex reality of Syria’s war home for people in the UK in a way they otherwise may not have been able to imagine.
Particularly before July, when the US-backed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) managed to encircle Raqqa, the capital of Isis’ so-called caliphate, she played a major role helping the YPJ’s media team, filming herself talking about what it was like to be shot at by Isis snipers and witness a suicide bomber detonate his explosives just metres in front of her.
The past year has been hard. Kimmie has witnessed extreme suffering in the communities ravaged by Isis and lost three friends and a mentor along the way.
Like the Kurdish, Arab and Yazidi women who have trained as fighters, though, it has hardened her resolve to fight. The seven other women of Kimmie’s unit have on occasion cried after learning they haven’t been picked for front-line missions.
“I have given everything to this fight and I am willing to die for what Rojava is trying to achieve. I keep moving units because I want to stay on the front line as long as possible,” she says.
But as the SDF closes in on the last few hundred jihadis left in the city, an unanswered question is looming: what will she do next?
“Build the rest of the revolution, obviously. Going home to the UK is not an option,” she says.
While Kimmie may travel back to mainland Europe to raise awareness of the Kurdish cause, she is worried trying to go home would get her arrested.
While in previous interviews her family members have said that they have had no contact with the British authorities over their daughter’s presence in Syria, Kimmie’s lawyer has warned that their communications are probably being bugged.
There remains little precedent in British law for returning YPJ and YPG (Men’s Protection Units) fighters. Some manage to walk back in with little questioning – but Josh Walker, a YPG volunteer from Wales, became the first person to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws on his return from Syria last year. His trial is later this month.
Besides, Kimmie says, there is still work for her to do in Syria. There are civic institutions and election processes to strengthen, women’s history syllabuses to write for university curriculums and water channels, school and hospitals to rebuild.
“This revolution, this building of the society and empowerment of women is about changing society,” she says. “The people won’t accept groups like Daesh again.
“People are relearning their place in the world as Syrians, as Arabs, as Kurdish people, as Turkmens or Assyrians… they’re understanding how to organise democratically and it’s working. This is the answer for Syria.
“I’ve learned [in my time] here and the struggles that I’ve been through. This is an education that I couldn’t have got anywhere else.”
So does she finally feel like she’s found her movement? That she’s a true revolutionary? “Yes, I am a revolutionary,” she says. A grin breaks out on her face. I believe her.
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