Exclusive: First British woman joins fight against Isis in Syria

Published in The Guardian on 09 Feb 2017

Exclusive: Kimberley Taylor, 27, who quit UK last year to join all-female military unit, says she is willing to give her life to end extremism. Matt Blake was the first journalist to speak to her.

This story originally appeared in the Guardian. If you’d prefer to read it there, click here.

© Nazım Daştan/Dicle Haber Ajansı

A self-styled “revolutionary” from Blackburn is believed to have become the first British woman to travel to Syria to join the fight against Islamic State.

Kimberley Taylor, 27, left the UK to join the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the all-female affiliate army of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Syrian Kurdistan, last March.

Known as Kimmie and also by the name Zilan Dilmar, she told the Guardian she had spent the past 11 months learning Kurdish and studying regional politics, weaponry and battlefield tactics at the YPJ’s dedicated military academy.

She said she had travelled to the frontline in Syria in October and is involved in the push towards Raqqa, Isis’s de facto capital and the likely battleground for the group’s last stand against the coalition Syrian Democratic Forces.

“I’m willing to give my life for this,” she said in a phone interview from her frontline base 19 miles (30km) from Raqqa. “It’s for the whole world, for humanity and all oppressed people, everywhere. It’s not just [Isis’s] killing and raping. It’s its systematic mental and physical torture on a scale we can’t imagine.”

Explaining her motivation to join the fight against Isis, Taylor recounts the story of a friend, an Arab YPJ fighter from Syria, whose village was ransacked by Isis soldiers last year. “She was from a pro-Assad family and her eight-year-old sister wrote on a wall: ‘Without our leader, there is no life’. She did it as a protest against Isis,” she said.
“So they took her to a tall building and ran her over and over again with a car. Then, with the last one pushed her off the building. My friend ran away to join the YPJ.”

Taylor, who speaks with a soft Lancashire accent, grew up in Darwen, near Blackburn, until the family moved to Merseyside in her teens. She studied maths at the University of Liverpool before spending her early 20s travelling the world, hitchhiking wherever she could, always alone.

She said she had travelled extensively across Africa, South America and Europe, and became involved in political activism working as a writer for leftwing magazines and websites.

Her journey to Syria began during a trip 18 months ago to report for a friend’s humanitarian website on the first anniversary of the Sinjar massacre of August 2014, during which Isis kidnapped and enslaved 5,000 Yazidi women and children and slaughtered as many men and boys. “I was torn apart at the conditions refugees from Syria and southern Iraq were living under,” she said. “The lack of food, medicine, shelter, would have been hard enough for any human to endure. I remember my feelings of guilt and frustration when mothers outstretched their arms, holding their babies towards me, begging me to take their child to a better life.”

She decided to return to the area to aid the fight against Isis after speaking to a Yazidi man who refused to leave because jihadis were holding his two daughters captive.

“In that moment, I made a promise to myself that I would commit my life to helping these people,” Taylor said.

She returned to England for a few months before moving to Sweden to study political science at Stockholm University. Then, in March last year, she travelled to Rojava, the autonomous region of northern Syria and heartland of the country’s Kurdish diaspora, to report on the emerging women’s movement for a Swedish socialist newspaper.
She immediately “fell in love” with the ideology – anti-capitalist and feminist – that had taken hold in the region, and decided to quit her degree and stay.

“They call it Democratic Confederalism,” she says. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re anti-capitalist’, and doing marches and protests every week. They’ve completely recreated society putting women at the front of everything.”

Inspired by the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) in Turkey (known to his followers as Apo, or uncle in the northern Kurdish dialect Kurmanji), and sparked by 2011’s Arab spring, the Kurds of Rojava began their fight for self-determination in 2011. Their autonomous administration was formally declared in November 2013.

Women are at the heart of Öcalan’s vision of a socialist utopia. The political vacuum created by the chaos in Syria has allowed this experiment to flourish, unlike similar attempts in south-eastern Turkey, which have been crushed by the Turkish state. Grassroots people’s assemblies and cooperatives have been established, including a system of co-presidentship whereby a man and a woman share power at every level. The feminist YPJ was also set up and has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against Isis since the declaration of its Islamic caliphate in 2014.

Taylor sees this as the antidote to the consumer-driven capitalist society of the west. “For so many years I’ve thought we need a revolution in Europe,” she said. “In Europe everyone’s depressed or has money problems or is losing jobs. Life is losing its meaning because of the capitalist system. But Rojava is an example for the whole world to follow. When I first arrived I thought: ‘I have to be here. I have to learn everything and be part of it’.”

Taylor is part of the YPJ’s combat media team, with whom she moved to Raqqa last week. Her primary job is to record the militia’s operations, writing battlefield reports and taking photographs and video of the action.

However, she says her task not always easy in a live war zone. “This is really tough because you also have to fight as I’m in the middle of a war,” she says. “Actually most of the time I’m not doing any videos at all, but fighting with the unit when we come under attack.”

Taylor did not tell her family she was going to war until she arrived. “I was upset in the first instance upon learning of Kimmie’s intentions to join the YPJ and worry about her safety,” says her father, Phil, 57, a former teacher. “But to ask her not to follow her beliefs would be like asking her to cut her arm off. She just wants to change the world. An uncertain and divided world. Don’t we all? But where most of us think and talk about it, she acts. She is truly one in a million and we are very proud of who she is and what she stands for.”

He says the family have had no contact from the British authorities.

While Taylor says she has not seen much action other than a few skirmishes in the short time she has been at the front, she is under no illusions as to what lies ahead.

“Raqqa is Isis’s capital city in Syria and they won’t give it up without a fight,” she says. “It’s also the main city where those Yazidi girls have been sold around as sex slaves all this time. I want to get in there because this is something in my heart. I need to do it.”

The foreign fighters involved in the fight against Isis

Kimberley Taylor is one of an estimated 50-80 British citizens who have travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight against Isis, since the first wave arrived in the autumn of 2014.

They join either the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of northern Syria, or the Kurdish Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, unlike the YPG, the Peshmerga only accepts qualified former soldiers and generally does not allow its international volunteers near the frontline.

Neither army will release the exact number of foreigners in their ranks for security reasons (Isis is said to have put a $150,000 (£120,000) bounty on the head of every westerner there), but it is believed that between 800 and 1,000 foreign volunteers have joined the war against Isis, from Canada to Korea, Slovakia to Spain.

Of them, 27 international volunteers have been killed so far (that does not include the many thousands of Turkish and Iranian Kurds who have also died defending what they see as their ancestral heartland), including eight Americans, four Australians, four Germans, two Canadians and three Brits. It also includes one woman, a 19-year-old German named Ivana Hoffmann, who died in March 2015 while fighting with the YPJ.