The Mother Who Fought ISIS to the Death

As a Peshmerga fighter, she had an advantage: The enemy fears being killed by a woman.
by Sándor Jászberényi Nov. 18, 2014 7:07 p.m. ET

If you get to know someone in a war, they might well die much sooner than you’d prefer. As a foreign correspondent, I’ve buried many people over the years. True, it’s not really me who buries them. More likely, I am sipping a beer in Cairo or Budapest when I get the news.

My latest such loss was Rengin Yusuf. She was, like me, in her 30s. She was a mother. I met her among other Kurds this summer in a military training camp in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, where she served in a women’s regiment in the fight against the radical Islamists of ISIS. I interviewed her and her fellow officers over tea and then took their pictures. They asked me not to call them “women Peshmergas” because, they said, there is no such thing. A Peshmerga is a Peshmerga, or, in Kurdish, “someone who confronts death.”

The regiment’s youngest woman, Rengin Yusuf was strikingly attractive, with long black hair and a furtive smile. Our conversation didn’t extend beyond what was expected of us. I was the foreign correspondent; she, the Peshmerga. She and the others had been ordered to speak to me to demonstrate that the Kurdish “army” is free of sexism.

As I write these lines, it has been a month since Rengin Yusuf died. The Kurdish PUK Party representative who had been my host notified me via Facebook . “Do you remember this woman?” he asked. “You spoke to her.” “I remember,” I replied. “They killed her,” he wrote, and then asked, “How are you?” I filled him in on how things are back in Europe, and then I paid some bills.

Only in the wake of Rengin Yusuf’s death did I confirm that Kurdish women are not only fighting but are also among the bravest Peshmergas. There is a silent revolution under way in Iraq replete with fallen female heroes, who, besides defending their homeland, sought to prove something to men—with deeds not words, without “feminist” slogans.

From a combat perspective the male and female units are no different. Each is the same small-arms-equipped force with intrepid soldiers. Sexism is ingrained across much of the Middle East, of course, and we foreign correspondents have unwittingly reinforced it by reporting on women soldiers as if they are different. But they go into battle, and die, just like the men.

As for Rengin Yusuf’s death, this is what I learned: On Oct. 4 she participated in a Kurdish-led offensive to recapture the city of Daquq, near Kirkuk. Yusuf acted as a sniper as the Peshmergas pursued ISIS troops, who while retreating showed mercy neither to people nor animals. She was shot. Several AK-47 machine-gun rounds passed through her body; she wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest.

Her fellow Peshmergas carried her, wounded, over the sand dunes to a hospital. But the doctors couldn’t save her. She died in great pain on Oct. 11.

Rengin Yusuf was a woman. A Peshmerga. A warrior. She left behind two little daughters.