'My friend was taken as an Isil sex slave. She hanged herself rather than let them touch her'
Published 26/05/2016 | 02:30
Commander Khatoon Khider has just returned from the frontline in Iraq, where she and her all-female battalion have been battling Isil.
Their enemy is formidable, but the Yazidi women of the Sun Brigade had been preparing for the moment since the jihadists marauded their villages, murdering their fathers and brothers and spiriting away their sisters.
It was not that long ago that Ms Khider, a renowned singer in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, was performing folklore songs for crowds all over the country.
But she could not look on as her homeland was invaded and the Yazidi people - one of Iraq's oldest minorities - were massacred.
"Our holy book prohibits us from killing, so it was not lightly that we decided to take up arms," she said.
The Yazidis, who once numbered around 600,000 in Iraq, are monotheists who believe God has placed the world under the care of seven angels. The so-called Islamic State (Isil) considers them "devil worshippers," and has declared its intention to execute or enslave all members of the sect.
She remembers the day Isil arrived in her village in Sinjar province clearly. They seemed to have come from nowhere on that hot August day in 2014.
The balaclaved men began shooting from their pickup trucks, driving more than 50,000 people seeking safety up Mount Sinjar.
Ms Khider (36) along with her family and friends, was trapped for nearly 11 days without food, water or shade as Isil circled below.
"I will never forget watching those families trying to escape," she told reporters.
The United States carried out its first air strikes against Isil on the foot of the mountain to try to free those trapped. But by that point, hundreds had already died of dehydration and heatstroke, and thousands of women and children had been abducted to be sold into slavery.
Those who managed to escape recount stories of unspeakable cruelty. Children as young as nine were raped and killed in front of their mothers. Ms Khider's friend Ceylan was bought at a slave auction in a local market by an Isil emir.
"She was taken by ISIS (Isil) as a sex slave and when they asked her to go to the bathroom to prepare herself as a bride for one fighter, she hanged herself rather than let anyone touch her," she says.
They then raped her dead body in front of the other women to make an example.
"We are these girls' mothers, sisters, daughters," she says. "We weep for them."
Ms Khider knew she could not return to singing while so many girls were still being held - the UN estimates the current figure to be as high as 3,500. It was then she decided to form an all-female battalion to take Isil on.
She travelled to the frontline to ask the chief of staff to the Peshmerga, the armed forces of Kurdistan which receives funding and support from the US and the UK. After consulting the president, he agreed to train them up.
Most of the women, whose ages range between 18 and 38, had never held a gun until they joined. Before the massacres in Sinjar, they had been students, teachers and cooks.
The Peshmerga, which has a proud history of recruiting female soldiers, taught them how to use weapons and what to do the event of a chemical attack.
She says their ranks now number 1,000, including some of the freed slaves, and many more have requested to join.
"When they go to the battlefields it is a psychological comfort," she said.
"Yazidi girls suffered a lot under the rule of ISIS, so when we wear our military dress and meet them face-to-face this makes our burden easier, because we go to fight our enemy and protect all of womankind."
She says she has killed a number of Isil jihadists in battle, but when the women capture a fighter alive they do not treat them as the captured Yazidis were, but rather "deal with them according to the law."
Ms Khider's battalion and the rest of the Peshmerga are preparing for their biggest battle yet - the fight to retake Mosul from Isil.
For the Sun Brigade, the city is not just important for strategic reasons. "There are a lot of girls still being held in the city," she explains.
"We cannot go back to our families until we've brought them all home." (© Daily Telegraph, London)