Neil Shea


From longform to shortform: Instagram essays from Iraq and elsewhere

Broken rifles, broken hearts

Iraqi Kurdistan — Most of us are new. Only a few thought we would be soldiers. It’s not something most girls grow up wanting. But we change. The world offers a chance, or forces a choice. There is no other way to say it. Some of my sisters are Arabs and came up from Baghdad. They ran away to Kurdistan escaping violent husbands, or families who wanted them caged. Others of us are Kurds, and we too fled beatings, adulterers, hypocrites. Of course, some here joined the women’s brigade simply to fight. Defend. Perhaps to kill. After all, no woman can look to ISIS and see life. Or happiness. Death is no victory. Even the devout know justice is not made with men’s hands.

So we march. We train, just as soldiers everywhere, for a day that may never come. At the firing range that afternoon we practiced with rifles as old as our fathers. We dug through crates of loose ammunition made for an imaginary war. The brass chipped paint from our fingernails. Our hands shook. We were nervous, not used to the weight of the steel or the cold crescent moon of the trigger. Most of us are new, so our first shots flew wide or high or spitted into the dust. But we learned. Felt recoil. Smelled powder. Hot cartridges bounced on our boot tops.

And then, one by one, our rifles began breaking. Stocks fell off and charging handles froze. There were misfires and other problems. Soon, a pile of dead weapons lay on the ground. My commander stood over them and said How can we meet ISIS with this? Tell them we need better guns! You held up your hands and laughed, helpless. You knew this fight would last all the rest of our lives.

From longform to shortform: Instagram essays from Iraq and elsewhere