30 minutes East of Slemani (or Sulaymaniyah), Kurdish pearl of Northern Iraq, a breathtaking landscape draws me under its spell. Rolling hills, lush green valleys, and rugged mountain ranges. The region is known for its rich agricultural land, with fields of wheat, barley, and other crops spreading out across the countryside. The area is also home to a variety of flora and fauna, including olive trees, fruit orchards, and a range of wildlife species such as foxes, rabbits, and birds. The region is also home to a number of small villages and towns, as well as the city of Slemani itself, which sits nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. The landscape is dotted with ancient ruins and historical landmarks, reflecting the region's rich cultural and historical heritage. Overall, the landscape of northern Iraq around Slemani is a beautiful and varied mix of natural beauty and human development.
And yet, it is not as peaceful as you would think. Recently, Iranian missile and drone attacks in the area increased significantly, mirroring the IRGC's frustration with exile opposition parties and militias nurturing the demonstrations and protests inside Iran. Women. Life. Freedom. More than a hashtag, it might be the preamble of eventually toppling the totalitarian regime.
We leave the highway and struggle over unpaved roads until Kareem, friend and fixer, tells us to don our body armor. This always leads to grumbling and moaning, the heavy and rigid NIJ4 vests with ballistic plates are never comfortable to wear, sitting pressed and crowded in the back of a fucked up SUV doesn't improve the comfort. But better be safe than sorry, or so the saying goes...
NOT A PEACEFUL PLACE TO WORK
After another 30 minutes, we arrive at the gate of a highly secured compound - one of Komalah's bases in Northern Iraq. Komalah. I have been yearning to meet with them for years, ever since I started documenting the Peshmerga's war on ISIS. Komalah is a Kurdish political party in Iran that was founded in 1991. It is a left-wing, secular party that advocates for the rights of the Kurdish minority in Iran and for democratic and social justice in the country. The party has been active in the Kurdish regions of Iran, especially in the province of Kurdistan, and has played a significant role in the Kurdish resistance movement in the country.
The party's military wing, the Komalah Peshmerga is a guerrilla organization that has been involved in armed conflict with the Iranian government and has carried out attacks against military and government targets in the Kurdish regions of Iran. The Komalah Peshmerga has faced significant persecution and repression from the Iranian government, and many of its members and leaders have been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. Despite these challenges, the party and its military wing have continued to operate and to advocate for the rights of the Kurdish people in Iran.
So here I am, meeting with some of their female fighters and recruits.
It is the usual thing: Meeting soldiers, donning my gear, greeting and handshaking, joking and drinking tea. It takes some time to actually "check in", but then, it is not a hotel. It is a war zone, and my home will be a bomb shelter in a undisclosed location. It is a home for ten or so girls and their female commander.
Most of the girls are fresh recruits, all of them running from a what they call "brutal and inhumane" regime in Iran or, as they call it, "Rojhilat" - the Kurdish land of the rising sun. After some while, I actually start working which is simply talking and chatting.
One of the girls is Zhina, a 31 year old Kurd from Northern Iran. She had always been passionate about fighting for women's rights. For some time, she has been involved with the Komalah, which advocates for women's rights and social justice in Iran. Recently, Zhina joined the protests that have been sweeping the country, fighting for change and equality. However, during one of these protests, she was shot in the left shoulder, causing her to seek medical attention. After receiving treatment, Zhina was informed by her fellow activists that she was on the watchlist of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Gasht-e-Ershad (guidance patrol). This put her in danger, as these groups are known for their brutal tactics and repression of opposition. To avoid being caught and possibly tortured or raped by the IRGC, Zhina decided to escape. She threw away her cellphone and, using the jewelry of her mother, bought a new one and paid a smuggler 300 USD to help her escape. For the next few days, Zhina had to hide in a house, wounded and terrified of being caught by the IRGC. When the time finally came, she and the smuggler fled over the mountains, spending two nights in the wilderness.
Eventually, Zhina was caught by the Asayis (secret police) while attempting to escape. She was interrogated and told them that she was planning to join Komalah. The group was informed of her capture and they arranged for her to be picked up and treated for her injuries, both physical and psychological. Now, Zhina is training to become a Peshmerga, learning about the group's ideology, history, tactics, and medical basics. She is determined to use her skills to fight for women's rights in Iran and is ready to die for the cause.
Zhina wants to become a legend in the fight for women's rights and will stop at nothing to achieve her goal.
Embedding with fire squads, platoons, brigades or whatever means becoming a part of their routine. Simply said, you have to be a part of the tribe. If not, forget it. You will photograph shit that nobody cares about.
So, throughout the next hours and days, I always came back to chatting with the commander of the girls. Bahar, 42 years old, made of tendons, ligaments, muscle, skin and tattoos. Clearly, a no-nonsense person who will be at ease breaking your nose or ripping you apart in case you're up to some bullshit. Being a Pesh' since 2018, she features a high level of discipline and ethics, was promoted to become a group leader for recruits, teaching them in party doctrine, military tactics, ethics and philosophy of life. However, she does not want to talk about her past.
"Too much pain" was her simple answer, and I did not want to press for more...
Bahar has a clear definition of "Peshmerga", typically being defined as "Those who face death".
To her it means motherhood, sisterhood, taking responsibility & care for her sisters. Bahar would die for her recruits, I could feel it. Discipline, strength - but also tenderness and empathy are a true leaders traits that come very close to what I saw in Bahar.
Only when asked about her past back in Iran, Bahar suddenly becomes silent, insecure. I feel that I touched something I shouldn't have had. So I apologize.
"No problem" she replies, "I just do not wish to talk about my past. It's too much pain."
I guess I cannot really imagine what this woman has been going through. And I'm not sure I even want to...
"I do not wish to talk about my past. It is too much pain."
Bahar, 42, commander.
On the next day, I am joining the brigades medic who conducts basic medical training with the recruits. One of them is Kimiya. It is easy to tell that she is one of the "fresh" recruits. Properly dressed and combed hair, carefully applied lipstick - telltale signs that a young woman is, well, a young woman. Being a Peshmerga In the rough and unforgiving mountains, however, will ultimately refine her focus of daily body care.
"Soon she will have set aside most of her girlish behaviors" some other, more senior women tell me. I'm not sure what to think and feel about this. On the one hand, yes, it does make sense in a war zone. On the other one, however, I feel pity about a young woman being deprived of her girlhood by such cruel circumstances.
Kimiya, a 18 year old girl who decided to escape a regime that does not respect women, Kurdish women in particular. Although she loves her homeland, Rojhilat, she felt that she had to join Komalah in order to become a Peshmerga.
Despite her young age, her eyes are incredibly determined - I believe that this young woman will make her way through the ranks and ultimately a difference in the future.