‘We all die one way or another’: Why one Canadian woman volunteered to fight ISIS in Syria

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer

Watching the new documentary short Fear Us Women and its subject Hanna Bohman — a Canadian citizen who traded her life of comfort for one of terror as a volunteer anti-ISIS soldier in Syria — it’s easy to view her as some sort of untouchable superhero.

She speaks to the camera with an astonishing calm, her AK slung over her shoulder, about how she lives with the other soldiers in the dirt, shooting, and that it’s no big deal. “It’s just camping with guns,” she says at one point, “and hunting people instead of deer.” She later adds, “We all die one way or another.”

But after listening to Bohman speak in person about what drives her, she becomes instantly, existentially relatable — even though most wouldn’t take it so far.

“In 2014 … I had some health scares — I’d been hit by a car, I fell through a roof and split my head open, I had a heart issue — and it just kind of made me rethink living and dying and stuff like that,” Bohman, 48, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. It all forced her to come to terms with the idea that death could come at any time, and to realize that she didn’t want to hang around long enough to be kept alive by machines, just because others might not be ready to let her go.

“What are they going to say in the obituary? ‘Send flowers.’ I wanted something more,” she says she realized. “I want to die doing something where people are like, ‘Holy shit, that’s crazy, but she stood up for something.’ I’ve been feeling this way for years, so unhappy, so lost with my life, I knew I had to do something else. I just didn’t know what.”

That’s when she first caught wind of ISIS, and how its forces were raping, killing, and oppressively traumatizing women and children, and how there existed an incredible, barely-heard-about all-female Kurdish army, YPJ (which stands for, in translation, Women’s Protection Unit), fighting on the frontlines against terrorism. And Bohman wanted in.

Hanna Bohman in Syria. (Photo: Courtesy Fear Us Women)

“I was in sales, so, pretty boring stuff. And I was dating this guy for a year and a half, from Lebanon, who went home and came back with a bride,” she recalls of her life in Vancouver at the time. “Though that was a very small part of the picture — no man is worth going to war for!” So she reached out to a recruiter and began the process of getting smuggled into Syria, through Iraq, as a western volunteer with the YPJ.

Her story is told in the stunning 27-minute film, available online as of Thursday, that was executive-produced by Olivia Wilde and directed by David Darg, from Ryot (part of the Oath brands, as is Yahoo). The title, Fear Us Women, comes from a poem Bohman wrote, to the men of ISIS: “Fear us women, oh enemies of humanity, for you who die by our hand will burn in hell forever.” She has it tattooed on her left arm in both Arabic and Kurdish.

She first arrived on the frontlines in February 2015, just four months after making the decision to go, and had five days of training. She was such a good shot with her AK that she was quickly made a sniper, and spent her days lying in the dirt and in the sun, ready to shoot, and often shooting. She took a break after three months, for health reasons, and then returned for another nine months, only leaving at that time because a young woman from her regime had fled Syria and needed help getting to safety in Canada.

Photo courtesy Fear Us Women

“I’ve been working on it since I left,” she says, both because the woman’s mother asked her to help and because of the responsibility she feels in the situation: “The government is not friends with the revolution, with the Kurds, but I was there legally so they couldn’t do anything to me. So they went through her — attacked her and raped her — so that’s my focus, to get her out safe.”

After that, Bohman’s unsure of how she’ll continue to fight. “The war is changing now, ISIS is almost defeated,” she says, “so the next will be Assad and the regime of Turkey … but if I go and fight the Turks [a NATO ally], then I’ll be labeled a terrorist.”

Bohman is surprisingly even keeled when she speaks, both in person and on camera from the front lines, about the atrocities she’s witnessed. When asked how that is, she notes that perhaps her relative comfort with such violent situations is a product of her difficult upbringing. “I grew up with violence. Every male role model in my life up until the age of 18 was an abuser. So that’s probably why it’s not scary so much,” she says. “We also lived on a horse ranch and had guns to chase off animals. But I’m not a fan of guns. I bought my first one when I was in Iraq [while being smuggled through into Syria], and then I left it there.”

But dealing with the aftermath of the trauma — particularly what lingers after seeing so many comrades killed — has been hard, she admits.

“What I’ve found is the best way to get over that is to make more memories as a buffer. And just time. The first friend I had killed was a few years ago, so that makes it easier,” she says. “Unless I think about it — like just today, not even an hour ago, a girl that I had met in May of 2015 found me on Facebook and sent me messages. She was part of a group of girls [in which] three were killed in one suicide blast, right after I saw them. So that brought it up again.”

Sometimes Bohman finds solace in speaking with the handful of other Canadians she knows in Vancouver who have volunteered in Syria, although they are all men, and it’s not quite the same.

Now, while speaking out along with the release of Fear Us Women, her hope is that she can let the world know about the bravery of the YPJ, and the heroes that are so often unsung. “There was this girl named Erin who was surrounded, and she strapped herself with explosives and blew herself up so her team could escape. These are stories we don’t hear,” Bohman shares. “And I did nothing compared to that. But I can tell their stories, and humanize them, because right now since ISIS is almost defeated, the U.S. coalition could abandon them. But now is when they need more support than ever.”

Watch the full 27-minute film, Fear Us Women, below.

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