SNUNY, IRAQ —
On a quiet Monday evening, young female soldiers play volleyball as the sun goes down over their base, a converted schoolhouse.
Not far from mass graves along the side of the road where hundreds of people were killed by IS, the women say they joined up not to fight, but to fight back.
Of all of the victims Islamic State militants have created in this region, Yazidi women arguably have the most reason to be angry.
"Militants took our daughters and sisters and sold them in other cities," said Najwa Ali Ismail, a 25-year-old soldier."I joined the peshmerga to defend my homeland."
In 2014, under Islamic State rule, as many as 7,000 Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to the mountains surrounding Sinjar. Thousands died of exposure.
Others were slaughtered in the city and thrown in the mass graves they had been forced to dig. Roughly 5,000 other people were also killed in an attempt to wipe out the religious sect — an act the United Nations has called a genocide.
As members of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, the women fighters are now preparing for battle — if called upon — with daily exercises and weapons training, according to unit leader Capt. Xatun Ali.
Ali, the original member of the unit, solicited the peshmerga forces for a place in their army after fleeing her home in 2014. She spent nearly two weeks in the mountains before peshmerga soldiers beat back enough jihadists for civilians to flee.
Many starved, she says, and some women chose suicide over rape. After she escaped, her family suggested she flee to Europe, like so many other refugees. But she wanted to stay and fight.
Since the IS take over of much of this region, this brigade has grown from one to hundreds, and thousands more Yazidi women have asked to join.
“Any weapons kind of weapons we use on the frontlines are to defend our daughters and our people. As Yazidis, we do not believe in attacking and murdering people," Ali said. "But nowadays terrorists are blowing themselves up and killing people. They are like fire. We must fight fire with fire.”
Ali fought on the frontlines when Sinjar was captured by peshmerga soldiers a year ago. Now her troops are training to defend not just other Yazidis, but also Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region in Iraq.
In the meantime, she says her brigade, like other peshmerga troops, is focused on holding the IS lines back, and healing the ruined towns and cities IS left behind.
"Since the mass graves are on the roadside, people see them and it makes them sad," she said. "There are people in there from age 1 to 90. We need to move them."