They say that death by a woman’s hand blocks the way to paradise for potential martyrs. As more and more Kurdish women take up weapons and join the fight against ISIS, more male jihadists are forced to consider this possibility.

This project attempts to trace the collective desires held by these Kurdish freedom fighters. In the course of my effort, I have tried to capture not only the individual traits of these women, but also their shared destinies. At the same time, these pictures uncover a perspective on their environment, especially the poetic way that the Kurdish culture views itself. Finally, it presents a view of Kobanî, a city in Syria, which has become a ghost town: buildings often only exist in memories. Walls are shot to pieces; empty window frames only show lost spaces. And yet, a ragged, melancholic coziness exists amidst all this destruction.

Through this work, a bridge between the photographer and the fighters emerges. These women give up their old names when they join the fight. In this act of autonomy, they choose a new one: “Haval,” which means something like “friend.”

The women depicted here have been at the forefront of a brutal, deadly struggle against the monstrous ISIS. These individuals risk their lives on behalf of a country that has never existed—though every Kurd knows its borders. This narrow strip of a homeland—the wild Kurdistan— is a mountain and valley spot of longing; it is attacked from every angle. However, this fight is not only about their survival: it is also about a self-determined existence, freedom and independence. This fight for deliverance has an existential note to it.

If one of the fighters dies, the others mourn for only one day. In a sparse cemetery, where only plastic flowers can blossom, the comrades shoot their Kalashnikovs in the air to honor her. The hazards and losses are real, but there is no time to process them. When the fighters are frightened, they sing it away. Even while they grieve for a comrade killed in action, they sing.

These are the fragile, beautiful moments—moments where brutality meets poetry. Yet the reality is grim. There is bombing every night: under one’s feet, one feels the detonations. No one sleeps, and yet the fight goes on.

Still, as soon as this war is won, says one of the “mountain’s daughters” [their name for each other], the real fight will begin.

The threat comes from the outside, by ISIS incursions—but also from the inside. The fight for deliverance is equally directed toward the old social traditions that will continue to suppress them. In the no-man’s-land these women occupy right now, they are outlawed—but in the Kurdish tradition in which they grew up, they also lived without rights. Now, this emergency context has opened up the possibility to change something. These are the women who have the least to lose and the most to gain.

Sonja Hamad’s pictures show young women, almost girls, who are still vulnerable—and yet also utterly determined. They believe deeply that they can be stronger than the men who have suppressed them for decades. They all carry their scars like prizes. And once in a while, colorful shirts that are almost childish come to the fore under their uniforms.

—Hannah Zufall

Editors’ note: Now in its 7th year, Circulation(s) is a Paris-based festival that showcases young and emerging photographic talents from across Europe. In the weeks leading up to this year’s edition, opening on January 21, we will be sharing some of our favorite photographers from the program. We’re also excited to be working with Circulation(s) as an official media partner. Look out for more information regarding the festival in the weeks to come!

If you liked this article, you might also like these features: Women of War presents an all-female fighting unit in Aleppo, Syria; Joanna: From Denmark to Kurdistan delves into the journey of a Danish-Kurdish Peshmerga soldier; and Mourning Kobanî further explores the YPJ (the female Kurdish fighters) in the Syrian city of Kobanî.