When the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS fell in Syria, Shaelynn Jabs couldn’t celebrate. Too many fellow soldiers had died.
But nearly two months later she recalls the feeling of liberation as women on Raqqa’s pulverized streets ripped black veils from their faces.
“This is what everyone died and fought for,” Jabs told CBC News in an exclusive interview, from her home in Drayton Valley, Alta, 130 kilometres southwest of Edmonton. “Now they have the opportunity to live a better, freer life.”
It wasn’t the first time Jabs, 21, had left the safety of her Alberta home for the Syrian battlefield.
Undeterred by her lack of military experience, she first learned about combat medicine online.
In October 2015, Jabs joined the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), and its female counterpart, the YPJ, until a bomb blast ruptured her eardrum and forced a brief return home.
Her most recent 16-month tour has also left its mark.
In her Drayton Valley home last week, Jabs limped as she looked for work and responded to frequent messages from Kurdish friends checking in. A maroon Harley Davidson toque protected the ear she’s lost partial hearing in again. Vision in one eye is blurry.
“Old injuries adding up,” shrugged Jabs, who has outlasted a bullet that ricocheted into her abdomen, shrapnel embedded in her leg and two deadly vehicle rollovers.
Her army fatigues now replaced by black jeans and shirt, a tug of her collar revealed a freshly inked compass with the coordinates of Raqqa.
During the four-and-a-half month Raqqa operation, 793 fighters were killed, according to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
As more comrades died, Kurdish “replacement soldiers” kept getting younger, recalled Jabs. Often they had just lost a parent or sibling,
“I’ve been through a lot of operations but none were as bloody as Raqqa,” Jabs said.
Public Safety Canada does not comment directly about individuals who volunteer overseas to join the fight against ISIS. But authorities advise against any travel to Iraq or Syria.
By August, the Kurdish-led SDF forces, backed by U.S. and British airpower, had made significant gains. That made what happened next for Jabs even more surprising.
First came the crackling of distant gunfire.
She and fellow soldiers were chatting, laughing and going over drills at a makeshift triage centre — a bloodstained converted storefront with a few mattresses and a wall lined with supplies’
At first, Jabs thought it was an evening training exercise. But they soon realized they were under attack from all sides.
Militants who had crawled up through the tunnels were targeting their field hospital and base.
From the triage centre, 15 members set out to fight off the militants. All were killed by machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades, said Jabs.
For the next seven days the injured kept coming. At night, Jabs and her team worked by the light of headlamps.
When it was over, they reclaimed their territory. But another 20 or so comrades had died.
“They gave up everything, literally sacrificed everything, so other people could have a chance,” said Jabs.
“Every household has at least two or three martyrs. Every house, every family knows what it’s like to lose at war.”
As the SDF re-took cities, villages and towns, Jabs shared lighthearted and often gutwrenching posts on Facebook. Then months would go by without a word, as anxious loved ones waited for her next post. At one point, a fake martyr photo surfaced online suggesting she had died.
Other images circulated too. In her Drayton Valley kitchen, Jabs smiled as she acknowleded a photo praising her heroism had been slightly altered by a supporter. Gone is the cigarette hanging from her lips the original photo.
It reads: ‘Canadian YPG Heroine Jabs. Combat medic in Raqqa. She has a heart as big as the ocean. A great woman.”
Videos published by the YPG feature Jabs in combat and more recently in action as a senior medic.
The goal for Jabs and her team was to keep patients alive long enough to make the 30-minute drive to the field hospital, she said. Many first needed rescuing.
Usually the call for help came from the radio with screams and gunfire in the background. Then Jabs and her team would jump into their Humvee, heading straight for the line of fire.
Rescue under sniper fire
On one such rescue, Jabs remembered ducking her head out from behind a wall where she and a colleague had taken cover. She surveyed the road where soldiers had been hit daily by a sniper tucked into a building half a football field away.
A bleeding soldier was steps in front of her. There was no cover. Machine gun bullets spit up sand as they whizzed by.
As the sniper reloaded, she and her comrade ran for it. They dragged the man off the road. Jabs got to work on the bullet lodged in his chest.
“You just get used to it,” said Jabs. “You don’t think about it. It’s like I could get shot, but there’s lots of times I could get shot. It’s just like any other day.”
Staying alive required resourcefulness when supplies ran out. For splints, Jabs used rifles or boards snapped from crumbling buildings.
Curtains, headbands and belts all made good tourniquets.
Often with minutes between life and death, Jabs said she had to decide who would get her attention based on their best chance of survival.
“You’re deciding which friend to save,” said Jabs. “Sometimes the people that you’re treating are the people you just had breakfast with that morning.”
In a city laden with mines and unexploded mortar, staying alive required constant vigilance. Fleeing militants wired booby traps to the simplest of items, said Jabs. Money, TVs or a box of cakes could all be deadly.
On one occasion, it was food that lured three comrades into a store while Jabs was sitting outside.
The blast of metal shards ripped into the face of a 17-year-old standing just two feet away. She patched him up but isn’t sure if he made it.
‘They gave up everything, literally sacrificed everything, so other people could have a chance’ – Shaelynn Jabs
“That’s the hardest part is never knowing,” said Jabs, describing a visit to the hospital where she ran into former patients who had survived. “Your heart just bursts with joy because (they) made it.”
One order was particularly difficult to carry out. Jabs extracted a bullet from the calf of a young man thought to be an ISIS leader with valuable intelligence.
It appeared even harder for the patient, who hurled insults her way.
“They hate women so much that even a woman treating them, saving their life, angers them,” Jabs said.
Freeing sex slaves
All around her were reminders both hopeful and cruel that kept her going, Jabs said.
She recalled her unit’s discovery of a black building covered in white arabic writing that appeared to be a local brothel for trafficked women and girls forced into sexual slavery.
Fleeing ISIS fighters had left a few of them behind.
In one tiny, windowless cell, Jabs said she and her comrades found a skeletal teenager curled up on a bed lying in her own feces.
Initially mistaking the male liberators for rapists, the girl lashed out. Her wrist bones jutted out at grotesque angles.
Jabs said she later told them her wrists were repeatedly broken from being held down and raped.
“And she had to do this for soldier after soldier after soldier,” said Jabs. “She’d been there for two years in the same cell — never left.”
Abused, raped and tortured women were sent to areas where women protect women, said Jabs.
Under the care of the Molijan, which translates into House of Women, they would be rehabilitated and integrated into one of the Kurdish communes across a large swath of Syria.
Attitudes toward women have changed sharply in recent years thanks to the influence of the Kurdish forces, said Jabs. Once blamed and even killed for the cruelties inflicted upon them, the wellbeing of these female victims is now the priority.
“It’s the first thing they think of and that’s what makes me so proud,” Jabs said.
The women of Jinwar
For some, life begins anew in Jinwar — a village set up for and inhabited solely by women recovering from sexual exploitation.
On one visit, Jabs said she joined hundreds celebrating the construction of another stone and clay home, one of a dozen that house about 12 women each.
“All these women who were stuck in their houses their entire life were trained and taught how to build their own houses, how to do the work that everyone (had previously) said — ‘No, this is a man’s work,’ ” said Jabs.
“And just looking at these women — this is why I came here, this is exactly why I came here.”
Back in Alberta, caring for her Kurdish friends continues.
In coordination with a doctor in Syria, Jabs plans to raise money to purchase a 3D printer and materials to make prosthetics “so they can live the lives that they fought for,” she said.