Kurdish female fighters have celebrated in Raqqa this week after the defeat of ISIS militants, whose brutal rule over the city has come to an end after almost four years.
When asked what motivated them to dive into one of the fiercest battles against the terror group to date, the women said they did it both for the Kurdish cause and to liberate the women of Raqqa.
ISIS ruled the Syrian city with a barbarity that gripped the world, and women in particular experienced an oppression many never thought imaginable.
They were forced to cover their bodies head to toe or risk public lashings. ISIS also captured and sold girls and women as sex slaves, particularly Kurdish-Yazidi minority women trafficked into Raqqa from northern Iraq.
After Tuesday’s announcement that ISIS had been defeated, the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) vowed to keep on fighting, many lamenting the 30 women they lost in the operation.
“As the YPJ we vow that will continue this path, go after terrorism where it is in our country, avenge all women victims in the world and continue the message of our martyred comrades,” the YPJ said in a statement.
Here’s what some of the YPJ fighters said.
Shanda Afreen has been fighting ISIS for four years.
“The leader – Abdullah Ocalan – has concentrated on women’s freedom, so we are fighting to free women and to liberate people mentally. Our fight is not only against ISIS, our fight is against the chauvinist mentality against women,” Afreen said.
“Evil is not only from ISIS men – evil could come from women. Women need to educate themselves and evolve ideologically.”
Abdullah Ocalan is the jailed founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – or PKK – a separatist group that Turkey, the United States and the European Union regard as a terrorist organization. Kurdish fighters raised a flag bearing Ocalan’s face in central Raqqa earlier this week.
Avrim Difram was still a teenager when she started fighting against ISIS three years ago, and now at the age of 20, she recalls losing several fellow fighters. But it has made her all the more determined to keep fighting.
“We are fighting to free the people who are under oppression and to free the leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned in Turkey,” she told CNN.
“Women were especially oppressed by ISIS in Raqqa. That’s another reason why we fight ISIS – we wanted to free women from oppression.”
Wulat Romin, 24, has been fighting ISIS for a year and half, joining the battle in Raqqa, Tabqa and Al-Hol.
“I fight for the freedom of the Kurdish people. I fight against injustice, for righteousness in general,” she said.
“And I fight for the freedom of women in particular.”
Sozdar Derik has been fighting ISIS for six years.
“I am fighting against the big oppression that has befallen our homeland and our women. These people – ISIS – see women as sex objects, as sub-human,” she said. “We fight against that.”
CNN’s Arwa Damon reported from Raqqa. Angela Dewan wrote from London.