“I Want To Be A Part Of This. This Is History.” Interview With Hanna Böhman Of FEAR US WOMEN
[Published at Film Inquiry] Fear Us Women follows Hanna Böhman, a Canadian civilian who, at 46, felt she needed a drastic change in her life. There was a void that had been growing as she moved from meaningless job to job. As soon as she hear about the YPJ, Böhman found her calling, and volunteered to fight against ISIS alongside the Kurds in Syria, one of the most dangerous countries in the world right now.
After three years of fighting, documented by David Darg in Fear Us Women, Böhman is back in Canada, planning a refugee program for those impoverished and affected by the conflict. Böhman isn’t extreme, pompous, showy, or impulsive. On the contrary, she’s grounded, humbled, soft-spoken, eloquent, and enlightened.
In-between screenings of Fear Us Women, I had a chance to speak with Böhman about her time in Syria. We spoke about the Syrian conflict, its complexities, the various political theories and ideologies associated with it, a bit about the YPJ, YPG, and their history, and her personal plight to make humanity a brighter place.
Böhman speaks in depth about the importance of liberating women in the Middle East, what it means to fight and defeat such a hate-filled, morally perverse group such as ISIS, the conditions, turmoil, and effects of battle, and the importance of helping refugees both in the perilous camps and in getting them to safer conditions abroad.
Alex Arabian for Film Inquiry: How was the screening in Whistler (Canada)?
Hanna Böhman: It was alright. It was good. It was received really well. Lots of people liked it.
There is much history to learn about the Middle East in order to understand this complex conflict. What were some of the driving forces that led you to join the YPJ?
Hanna Böhman: Mainly I just wanted to do something fulfilling with my life. I just spent too much of my life doing things I didn’t want to do, but you feel like you have to do, you know? Society puts pressure on you to conform and be part of the machine and don’t rock the boat. So, I was just doing jobs, that’s really just what they were. They were just jobs. Nothing that inspired me. And it was perhaps a bit of a midlife crisis. I was just tired and bored and unhappy and getting really frustrated; I just felt like I was not having any luck with my life, and I needed the changes. And I couldn’t just make one change in my life, I had to change everything.
So I decided to pursue what I really wanted to do, and I’ve always been interested in combat photography, and then when I learned about what the Kurds were doing, especially the YPJ fighting for women’s rights and trying to build a new democratic model in the region, I was just blown away with them. I was so inspired by them; the same thing that the producer Diego [Traverso] and the director Dave [Darg] felt too.
They were amazed that these women were in not some condescending, patronizing military role, but they were actually fighting and they were getting killed just as much as the men were, and I thought this is amazing, who are these girls, I want to know who these girls are. And after I did a bunch of research, I’m like, I don’t want to watch this anymore, I want to be a part of this. This is history. So, everything just worked out; I was looking for a cause, and I found one, and I had the time and the money, so I went and did it. I put all my fears aside and committed myself to it and went and did it.
The film touches upon it briefly, but can you elaborate on how you found out about the YPJ and YPG and the recruitment process starting with the Facebook page you discovered?
Hanna Böhman: Well, I first heard of an American that had joined named Jordan Matson, and he’s part of the Facebook page helping other people – giving information to people how to join. So I contacted that page and they put me in touch with a YPJ recruiter, and her and I talked for a while, and then I made the decision to go there. And so it was just buying a ticket to Iraq.
But then once you get there, they have to give you this phone number and you have to call this number, and a taxi took you to this chariot in the city and somebody met me and took me to a safe house, and then flew into the mountains, and waited at some camps for a few more days and then eventually climbed the border in the middle of the night near the Tigris River. And then that’s it, and we were in Syria and we get into another camp. Pretty straightforward. Originally [they told me training] was 45 days, and then when I get there it’s 15 days, and then it was 5 days. But in reality, it was only four hours.
Would you say the YPJ considers itself the PKK of Syria, or is that an oversimplification?
Hanna Böhman: No, they don’t say that at all. It’s its own entity; they’re not the same.
Some members of the YPG and YPJ are trained by the PKK. Were you trained by any members of the PKK?
Hanna Böhman: No, no.
It seems both the PKK and YPJ want democratic confederalism. How frequently did ocalan come up while you were there and is he a major inspiration to you and the YPJ and YPG?
Hanna Böhman: They don’t force it on you or anything like that. You know, he’s their inspiration. It’s like Americans love George Washington – they love Öcalan. But it’s not really a thing. It took me a while before I even really knew much about him. I like what he says – like he says, “no nation can be free until its women are free.”
So, right there, that’s an indication of what type of person he is, right? Where everyone else in the region says things like women shouldn’t be allowed to drive and women shouldn’t be allowed to laugh in public. Everyone else wants to oppress women and he wants to free women. I haven’t read any of his stuff or anything. I read a couple of the pamphlets, just mainly I learned from what other people were telling me about him.
Öcalan developed democratic confederalism from social theorist, Murray Bookchin, primarily known for his anarchist theories. Have you read any Bookchin?
Hanna Böhman: No. I’m not an anarchist; I’d never even heard of him until later.
There are so many groups fighting against a common enemy. On top of fighting alongside SDF forces, what were some other groups that you fought alongside?
Hanna Böhman: Well there’s Yazidis there, there’s Arabs, Christians, Syrians, and then there’s smaller groups, individuals, and people from other countries.
What can you say about Erdoğan and the impact he’s had on the conflict in Syria and beyond?
Hanna Böhman: Well, he supports ISIS, so he’s just made things worse and he’s still going to continue to make things worse, hacking acid. So there’s going to be more war. I mean ISIS is done [in Syria], but ISIS is Turkey, essentially. As long as Turkey is there, there’ll still be more war. I hate Turkey, Turkey has no interest – Erdoğan said he doesn’t want a Kurdish state or border, but he’s ok with ISIS there. That’s another indication of what kind of person he is. So Erdoğan is a real problem.
Right now, Syria is considered a dangerous place, but you fought fearlessly for justice, Kurdish independence, and women’s rights. Is there an anarchistic aspect of the YPJ (Kurds want a stateless Kurdistan), or is that a common misconception?
Hanna Böhman: The Kurds’ ideology in Syria is a stateless idea. But what the YPG/YPJ fight for isn’t always necessarily what the people want. You know, some of the Kurdish people, they do want the state, but the YPG/YPJ are not going to force any idea onto anyone. So they’ll do what the people want. That’s their social contract; they have a real democracy, so they have to listen to what the people want and they have to respect that.
What role, aside from aggravating the complicated multi-sided proxy conflict, if any, did the Arab Spring have in strengthening the YPG and YPJ?
Hanna Böhman: Well, the YPG [was established] I think in 2002. It was underground, and it started because of the soccer riot where the regime went and killed a bunch of Kurdish people. So the YPG was formed to protect people. YPJ came along later in 2012 I think. So that’s essentially how it started in the beginning; they were just set up to protect themselves because they couldn’t count on the regime to protect them. There was always a bias by the regime. Kurds were always second-class citizens. Then the Arab Spring happened, and the Kurds took advantage of it to protect themselves.
What ideology, if any, do you most closely associate with? Communism, socialism, anarchism, democratic confederalism?
Hanna Böhman: Humanism. I don’t associate with any of those. I’m more a humanist. I’m not a political person.
How do you deal with death and loss of others? What’s the hardest part of battle?
Hanna Böhman: The hardest part of it is when friends go missing and I don’t know where they are – that’s the hardest part. When they’re dead, I know where they are. So it’s easier to accept that way. It’s not easy; I hate to say that it gets easier and easier because it doesn’t, but the reaction to it – it’s not as strong as it was the first time.
The first time it happened, it was really horrible, and over time, it happens again, and again, and again, and you just kind of accept the fact that it’s happening, so it doesn’t suck as much. It’s war. It happens. It’s one of those things you don’t know until you do it. And I wondered how I would feel before, and then it happened, and now I know. Sometimes it comes later. Sometimes I’ll see somebody that looks like somebody I knew, and I’ll go, “that looks like that girl in my unit.” And I know it couldn’t be her. Why would she be here in Canada? But yeah, it’s just the way I process.
Did you ever miss your former life in Canada while you were fighting?
Hanna Böhman: No, no. I missed sushi and I missed my motorbike and that’s it. I didn’t have a life before. I existed, but it wasn’t life.
Conversely, do you ever miss fighting in the YPJ?
Hanna Böhman: Yeah, everyday.
Technically, the west doesn’t officially arm the YPJ, and you referred to the conditions of your units as something out of Mad Max. However, since you have a common enemy in ISIS, they’re able to call in air strikes and support. However, the west has frequently leveraged jihadism throughout history to benefit their own needs, much to the detriment of others. Does the YPJ or YPG consider the west a consistent ally in any capacity?
Hanna Böhman: No, the Kurds don’t consider anyone a consistent ally. That’s why they have that saying, “No friends but the mountain.” They’ve been betrayed so many times in the past that they rely on themselves. You know, they’ll take advantage of opportunities as they come up, but they’re not surprised when they get betrayed.
Two stories that stand out to me are the genocide of the Yazidis and the Siege of Kobani. It’s very much a modern-day Sparta versus the Persian Empire story, David and Goliath in both instances. Your most prominent battle that you fought in, Tell Abyad, was very similar. Could you speak a bit about that battle?
Hanna Böhman: Well, I was with a rogue unit of five men and just me – five western men, which is against the rules, but we went there anyways. And we ended up getting lost on the way there and we ended up pushing a territory we didn’t recognize anymore. And the drivers were on the phone trying to figure out where we were and there was bodies on the side of the road. So we were like, “ok, we need to fall back, we don’t know if we’ve pushed into ISIS territory or not.”
So we fell back, spent the night on the roof of a house, and then the next day we pushed up and we were able to get to the frontline of Tell Abyad. And there was a hill overlooking the city, and we went up to this hill and some commanders were there. And they were like, “ok, you six, go take the city!” And that’s where I put that video on YouTube. I’m like, “this is crazy, but, ok,” so we jumped into this [kind of] piggy bank with this bulldozer, steel placed, welded on it, and we pushed up.
And it turns out there wasn’t just six of us, there was maybe eight or ten other Kurds already at this house about 500 meters from the bridge that led into Tell Abyad. And so we spent all day fighting to capture this bridge. We would push up, ISIS would fire on us, we would fall back and then call airstrikes from our position and push up again. Finally they would fire on us again which would reveal their positions and we’d fall back. On the third attempt we finally took the bridge, but the bridge was blown up so we couldn’t bring any equipment across, we could just climb across. And we had to hold the bridge overnight, and the next day we took the city.
But it was that night, that evening after we had just taken the bridge, and there was about a dozen of us on the other side of the bridge – I was the only one with binoculars – so I’m looking at the city, and I see two guys on an open staircase, and one’s peeking around the corner and one’s on the floor. And I viewed it through the sniper, and I guess their sniper could see me too, and that’s when I heard the bullet go by, but I also felt it go by just over the top of my head. That was the closest I came to getting killed. But snipers are always shooting at me I guess because I’m so much taller than the Kurdish girls and an easy target. That was our biggest battle there; other than that everything was just little skirmishes here and there.
Do consider yourself a good shot with the sniper?
Hanna Böhman: No. No. When I was younger, yes, I was really good, but now, no. Unfortunately just average; I would need to practice a lot more. [Over] there, with an ISIS guy – he was hiding behind a wall, and he kept putting his water bottle at the wall above his head, so I just shot the water bottle, it was about 200 meters away, just to mess with him.
How would you describe the human and moral character of the members of ISIS who are fully committed to the cause?
Hanna Böhman: Well, they’re committed, for sure, they’re believers. Their goal is to [kill] or die trying, and they will go to the kingdom of Allah in either case. So, when you fight the believers, you’re in a fight till the death. But clearly they’ve declared war on Islam; Islam does not teach that, to kill people like that, to murder people like that. There’s fanatic versions of Islam like there’s fanatic versions of Judaism and fanatic versions of Christianity. So they’ve declared war on essentially humanity. Everything they do is just ridiculous.
And even then, people who capture a lot of ISIS fighters, and [the fighters] admit that this is not Islam. They even know that what they were told was not the reality. So it’s really just a bunch of money-hungry, power-grabbing socio- [and] psychopaths who run ISIS. There’s a lot of hypocrisy among those guys, too. Like, we’ll capture areas and there’ll be, like, a bunch of porn there and drugs and stuff, and they’re not supposed to be doing [that stuff].
Do you and the YPG and YPJ have faith in Assad to compromise?
Hanna Böhman: No. No. Russia’s advocating for the Kurds for the region, and Russia of course supports Assad, so Assad might be forced to maintain that. But no, I don’t have faith in anyone in that region anymore. I don’t really have a lot of faith in our own government to do the right thing anymore.
Could you speak a bit about what you’re doing now in regards to helping refugees?
Hanna Böhman: Yeah, I’m just trying to help to get some refugees settled into Canada. I was actually speaking with some people yesterday about setting up an NGO for that, so I think we’re going to move forward with that. That’s essentially my main goal now: I don’t want to kill any more people, I just want to help people. That seems more important now.
There’s a lot of people who just want to be safe and have a normal life, and things would have to change so much in the Middle East for them to get that. So, you know, coming to a Western country is their best chance at happiness and peace. I met some beautiful people out there and I’d like to help them.
What’s the timeline for that?
Hanna Böhman: Well, depending on the process, it can be years. So, that’s the problem, right? I’d like to help them get here sooner. But also, when they’re in their refugee camps, I like to be able to help them while they’re there. Especially [because] the camps are horrible places. So, “it’s the U.N. where they’ll be taken care of.” Well, not really, it’s very basic.
They live in tents, the weather there can get freezing, the tents catch fire when they try to keep warm inside. People can take advantage of the refugee situation too because pedophiles, cows, prostitution rings that go in there and capture children, and other human trafficking rings that go in there and kidnap girls and women, and organ harvesters who kidnap people for their organs; it’s a horrible thing. You know, like I said, people think it’s great, it’s safe and everything, but no. It’s very, very basic.
There’s a lot of corruption. Even the U.N., you can’t trust them. So, hopefully you’ll be able to help them there as well, not just to get here, but to help while they’re stuck there in the process. It’s still very preliminary what I’m doing. Still have to figure things out. Hopefully I can have that set up within three months, I think.
You’re an inspiration to so many, empowering women and men as evidenced by the outpouring letters of people who’ve changed their lives for the better because of you. Do you view yourself as a role model?
Hanna Böhman: Not really…well, kind of, sort of I realize, whether I like it or not, I’ve become a bit of one, so I had better behave like one. The YPJ have and the letters from people have made me lot more conscious that people need – I hate to say inspiration because I really don’t think of myself like that – but people will get inspiration from other people. And I’ve always regarded my life as a train-wreck.
But I realize there are people out there who are looking for an example of what they can do with their lives, and they look at me and are like, “ok well, I can do what that person is doing. I can do that.” So like ok well now I better be careful and make sure I stay incorruptible and do the right thing. So that has actually allowed me to be a better person because I realize there are people watching. I have to be a good example.
Film Inquiry would like to thank Hanna Böhman for her time, unprecedented insight into the YPJ, inspiration, knowledge regarding the Syrian conflict, and humanitarian efforts.
Read our review of Fear Us Women here.