Saria has long black hair and honey-coloured eyes and she wears olive military fatigues.

She is 25 and in charge of 500 fighters in a zone that stretches for 100km along the Shaho mountain range inside Iran.

Born in the Iranian city of Mako, Saria - a codename meaning "flower" - left her family to join the outlawed paramilitary group Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) in 2008. She has not seen them since.

"Marriage and a husband does not interest me. It would be so mundane after life in the mountains. I would prefer to be a wife for the Kurdish people, not just for one man. We want peace and democracy and for the Kurds to have the same rights as everyone else."


Saria and her battalion of women belong to an ethnic group of 20 million people in Kurdistan, where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet.

Predominantly Sunni Muslims, the Kurds have been subjugated by neighbours for most of their history. Moves to set up an independent Kurdish state have all failed.

In 1991, an uprising against Saddam Hussein was brutally crushed following the first Gulf War and about 1.5 million Kurdish refugees later fled the dictator's wrath, many taking sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdish anxiety escalated in January when the US army left Iraq nearly nine years after the invasion that brought down Saddam's regime. The dictator's downfall was wildly celebrated by the Kurds but the departure of the Americans has given rise to concern that a civil war could erupt between Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

In the Qandil mountains of Iraq, where PJAK is based, Kurdish minds are concentrated on Iran, which backs Iraq's Shiite militias, and to the north, Turkey, whose jets bomb the mountains almost daily.

Since its formation in 2004 PJAK members have been dug in the mountains in support of Kurds in Iran. Indeed, the organisation's membership is predominantly Kurds born in Iran, and about half are women.

PJAK has an armed wing for women, and the commander of its 3000-strong military force is a woman who uses the codename, Layla.

During my stay in Qandil, Layla was unavailable for interview but she arranged for Saria, one of her battalion commanders, to meet me.


During a battle with Iran last summer, Saria was operating inside the Iranian city of Kermanshah alongside PJAK's network of underground activists. Iranian Kurds are frightened, she says, because they were heavily involved in the Green Movement that protested against the 2009 Iranian election results, political dissent that was crushed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's security forces.

Membership of PJAK alone can result in a death sentence. Shirin Alamhouli was hanged in Tehran's Evin Prison last year with four other Kurds for allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks.

"I would commit suicide rather than be captured by the Iranian regime," Saria says.

She has returned from Iran and is back in Qandil,

an enchanting landscape where wild horses roam and in early winter the valleys are coloured in glorious shades of copper.

This evening, however, the talk among the female guerrillas is of an uncertain future. It is dusk and as the temperature plummets outside, the Kurdish fighters huddle around a gas heater in an underground bunker drinking sweet tea and eating cakes.

"Chony (How are you?)," they say as a comrade called Shelaan enters after a stint patrolling outside. She places her Kalashnikov rifle against an earthen wall and blows on cupped hands before sitting down on a mat under a photograph of the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Shelaan accepts tea and begins to bemoan winter but as a television set in a corner flashes images to accompany the day's news, her conversation tails off. Iran has shot down an American spy drone and there are reports of air strikes by Turkish fighter planes targeting comrades holed up in caves in the Qandil range.

Kurds know that life in the mountains is precarious. Hostile military jets launch frequent missile attacks and last summer this area was the target of an offensive by Iran as it tried to flush out thousands of Kurdish rebels on its western border. It was a battle that some of this cell fought in and although the rebels enjoy calm tonight they know violence could erupt again at any time.

PJAK describes itself as a political, social and cultural movement with an armed faction that shares Qandil as a base with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK - branded a terrorist group by America and the EU - has been fighting Turkey since 1984 in a bid to secure more rights for 14 million Kurds who live in the south of the country. PJAK grew out of the PKK and is viewed as the latter's Iranian wing.

America proscribed PJAK as a terrorist group in 2009 and the movement is banned in Iran. But I find widespread support for PJAK and the PKK among local villagers in Qandil.

Ocalan started the PKK in 1978, taking up arms against Turkey in 1984 while calling for an independent Kurdish state. It is an ongoing conflict that has resulted in an estimated 45,000 deaths.

He was captured in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 1999, and sentenced to death for treason but the court's ruling was commuted to life imprisonment.

In Qandil, some of the women talk about their reasons for joining PJAK. Hawler, 37, who is Syrian, joined the PKK in 1993 when she was 19 and spent five years involved in covert political work before she was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured.

At the time the PKK was allowed bases inside Syria but the organisation was forced to move to Qandil after being expelled by the government in 1998. Hawler has been living in the mountains for nearly 13 years.

"All over the world, women are viewed as nothing, but Ocalan says women are stars. After I read his philosophy I felt energised," she says.

The Kurds appear undaunted by what might lie ahead. PJAK is a way of life and they seem prepared to devote their lives to the cause.

They have few possessions aside from their weapons and uniforms. Alcohol and drugs are prohibited. Sexual relations are also frowned upon, and men and women sleep in separate communal quarters. I spend four days with the group and despite the monastic living conditions, I do not sense any unhappiness.

Greeks, Norwegians and eight German women have joined PJAK's ranks. I meet a Kurd from Australia who is undergoing ideological training with a view to joining. He explains that Ocalan's philosophy is fundamental to education and that his teachings are complemented by - among other things - the Oscar-winning film Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson, which tells the story of the Scottish freedom fighter, William Wallace; the film is officially part of PJAK's education program and a favourite among the Kurds.

Sheelan is a 19-year-old Azeri from Kotul in Iran who joined PJAK about a year ago. She explains that her father died when she was only a year old and that from the age of 6 she made carpets with her siblings.

"That [making carpets] probably would have been my whole life," Shelaan says, adding that joining PJAK was an escape route from a hard-line regime and a patriarchal society.

She views Qandil as paradise, as do her comrades. The views are majestic with snow-capped summits and hills stretching off in every direction. During daytime, there is hardly a sound and to the uninitiated there would be no hint of the militarised zone that exists here, a veneer of tranquillity that belies the political turmoil.