Derike, Syria – Zagros, 22, sits on the edge of his hospital bed, singing songs pledging alliance to the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
He is in remarkable spirits despite having had both arms mangled by an improvised explosive device that hit the car he was travelling in near Jazaa, in northeastern Syria along the Iraqi border.
“I didn’t receive any medical treatment until I arrived at the hospital,” Zagros tells Al Jazeera at the hospital in Derike, a small and largely deserted Syrian town in Hasaka province. “They just threw me in the back of the truck and drove. I was conscious the entire time.”
Zagros arrived at this somewhat rundown hospital more than an hour later. His right arm was so badly blown apart that what remained of it had to be taped to his stomach.
“It’s a miracle he survived,” Dr Hazar Ahmad, deputy director of the hospital, told Al Jazeera. “The YPG [People’s Protection Units] don’t have the numbers to have paramedics on the front line. When you have to choose between fighting power and paramedics, they choose the fighting force.”
Ahmad said there were no medical or mobile clinics across the region, and a severe shortage of doctors.
“The trained medical staff stay at the hospitals, away from the front line,” he said. “We have a lack of surgeons and specialists [so] we can’t spare sending them to the front line. Of the 20 doctors we had, one-third have left.”
Despite the nature of Zagros’ injuries, he says he would return to the battlefield as soon as possible: “I still want to fight. I can aim with what I have left of my arms and use the trigger with my feet.”
Many fighters choose to wear simple headscarves rather than helmets, Ahmad noted. “Every fighter sees themself as a martyr in progress,” he said. In addition to their lack of medical training, YPG fighters and their female comrades, the YPJ, generally do not use any kind of body armour.
“The main reason we don’t use it is because we have very limited resources. We just don’t have the means. In addition, we’re not a regular military. We rely on hit-and-run tactics,” official YPG spokesperson Redur Khalil told Al Jazeera.
Because of the rapidity of ISIL’s onslaught, Khalil added, the YPG did not have time to medically train its fighters.
At a residential complex on the outskirts of Derike, two apartment blocks stand next to one another. One houses the families of fallen YPG soldiers, while the other is the “House of the Wounded”, where injured YPG/YPJ fighters released from hospital stay until they have fully recovered.
Washin, 27, lies motionless on a mattress on the floor of her room, watching state television news. Two weeks ago at Rabia, a small border town between Iraq and Syria, ISIL fighters detonated a car close to a wall she was hiding behind. The wall fell on top of her.
“I only joined the YPJ six weeks ago. Of course I will go back to the front line. I want revenge for all the fallen martyrs and to defend our homeland,” Washin says, noting she narrowly avoided permanent head injuries.
Isterik, 20, who joined the YPJ three months ago, was with Washin when the wall fell down. She says Abdullah Ocalan – the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose image adorns checkpoints, bases and front lines across the region – influenced her decision to join the YPJ. The YPG/YPJ is an offshoot of the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla group that the United States and European Union labelled a terrorist organisation because of its three-decade insurgency against NATO ally Turkey.
With burns covering the right side of her body, Isterik says she also lost hearing in her right ear.
“Ocalan’s thoughts gave me the will to fight for my home country,” she says, adding she planned to head back to the front line once doctors gave her the all clear. “I don’t know what else I would have done if I hadn’t joined the YPJ. My family raises their head in pride that someone from their family is fighting for and representing their country.”
We want to make their life here as normal as possible but of course, as long as we're at war, there will be more injuries.
Dr Xaybun, who manages the House of the Wounded, said it was currently home to 40 wounded fighters with an array of different injuries.
“We have people with shrapnel wounds, cut-off limbs, gunshot wounds, open abdomens,” Xaybun told Al Jazeera. “People here see it as a temporary home. We want to make their life here as normal as possible but of course, as long as we’re at war, there will be more injuries.”
Rezan Hagi, a paramedic who travels to and from the front lines, cited severe medicine shortages for the group’s makeshift ambulance.
“We don’t have any dedicated ambulances. We were able to capture a truck from ISIL so we provide medical treatment in the back of the pick-up,” Hagi told Al Jazeera. “But often we can’t get to the front line and we lack blood serum, needles and specialists. The other day we had to use a gun as a splinter for a fighter who had broken his leg.”
Hagi said many injuries could be avoided if fighters wore body armour and helmets. “But they don’t like it,” he noted. “In some places there is body armour available but they refuse to wear it. It’s the way of warfare here. They don’t have any heavy weaponry so they run a lot and an extra 15kg is really not suitable.”
Tolhildan, a 22-year-old fighter from the southern Turkish city of Mersin who is also injured and staying at the home, says he left his job at a pastry shop to join the YPG in Syria three months ago. He was shot in the arm in Tel Hamis during an ISIL attack but is expected to make a full recovery.
“We don’t like anybody to suppress the Kurds anywhere in the world,” Tolhildan says. “I am proud to be defending the Kurds.”