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April 29, 2020 28 mins

In this episode, we travel to the city of Raqqa to meet the male and female co-presidents in charge of its defense and embed with a mixed-gender military unit in the streets of the Islamic State's former world headquarters. 


Episode Transcript: https://www.thewomenswar.com/

Music: "Bella Ciao" by Astronautalis (feat. Subp Yao & Rickolus)

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Transcript

Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
Welcome to the Women's War, a production of I Heart Radiom.
The weird thing about war is how damned normal most

(00:20):
of it feels. One of my strongest memories of the
battle from Mosel isn't the time an Isis snipering early
put around through my head, or the time that an
Isis mortar team dropped a pair of a hundred and
twenty millimeter shells on the other side of a wall
from me. It's a night I spent with my photographer,
my fixers, and an old bombed out mosque with a
bunch of a racky civil defense guys. While I sat
and drank tea. They ripped out the wiring from an

(00:42):
old refrigerator and used it to connect an old CRT
television to a generator. They succeeded, and we spent the
night drowning out the sounds of gunfire and death with
a blurry subtitled transmission of the film Clear and Present Danger. Today,
we are driving to Rocca, the former capital of the
Islamic State, to embed with one of Rojava's military units.

(01:02):
This will not be an exciting war story, full of
blood and guts and daring dew, but it is still
a war story, because every story that comes out of
Syria today is in some way a war story. Let's
talk some more about Rocca. More than three quarters of
the city was leveled during the battle to liberate it,
and as is usually the case with violent liberations, very

(01:23):
little was left behind aside from shattered buildings and shattered lives.
The stf have been criticized for the level of destruction
they wrought upon the city, but the bulk of the
actual damage was done by air and artillery strikes conducted
by American guns and American planes. It was an ugly fight,
as sieges of cities always are. In the modern era,

(01:43):
military planners have developed a new term, feral cities, for
what happens when an urban area within a state passes
out of the control of that state. The United States
military has spent years developing special small unit tactics for
fighting these sorts of wars, but when it came to
Moslin Rocca, they let local forces do most of the
dying and supported them instead by blowing up whole city blocks.

(02:05):
I caught several chunks of the battle from Mosele myself,
and I have failed ever since to adequately describe the
brutality I witnessed, and from everything I've read and heard,
Rocca was just as bad. There are very valid arguments
that more of the city was destroyed and more of
its people killed than was necessary. Some of the blame
for this surely falls upon the SDF, who, after losing

(02:26):
more than eleven thousand of their comrades in battle, took
every opportunity they could to avoid fighting door to door.
A good deal of the blame, though, must also fall
upon the Trump administration. The man who campaigned on bombing
the ship out of ICE's delivered on that promise. At
least civilian casualties as a result of US air strikes
increased massively after Donald Trump took office. By two thousand nineteen,

(02:49):
annual civilian deaths caused by American action in Afghanistan alone
had tripled. Rocca's destruction also amped up significantly under Trump,
just as his administration laxed reporting requirements for the Department
of Defense and effectively made it much easier for them
to avoid telling anyone about deadly air strikes. In April
two thousand nineteen, Amnesty International released a report titled Rhetoric

(03:12):
Versus Reality, How the most precise air campaign and history
left Rocca the most destroyed city in modern times. By
some counts, up to eighty percent of Rocca was leveled.
As Jake and I shower and dress and pound Mahmud
instant coffee, the worst instant coffee on God's green earth.
I think about what it means to be the most

(03:32):
destroyed city in modern times. When I visited Mosel, there
were places where buildings and the people in them had
been pounded into a substance finer than sand. I literally
cannot picture a more destroyed city. I will admit to
feeling some nerves ahead of this trip too. Our goals
that day were twofold to interview the co presidents in
charge of defending Rocca and to go on patrol with

(03:54):
a squadron of SDF fighters in search of ISIS sleeper cells.
The former capital of the Islamic State is still filled
with its soldiers dashies as some call them. They'd carried
out several attacks in the days before our arrival, and
it was made very clear to us that Rocca is
one of those places in the world where just about
anything could happen. During our visit, we meet Kabat a

(04:15):
bit after dawn, and after pounding down another terrible coffee
and smoking a cigarette that actually tastes good by comparison,
we pile into the van and roll off down the road.
On the way, we see a line of gas trucks,
dozens long, waiting for their chance to cross into the
regime controlled chunks of Syria. These trucks are part of
the devil's bargain that Rojaba has struck to ensure its survival.

(04:35):
The fuel gives them critical leverage against the Assad regime.
If the government gets pushy, they can throttle the flow
of oil and stop serious tanks in their tracks. We
stopped for breakfasts and tell Tamar, a small mixed Assyrian,
Kurdish and Arab village. Kabbat takes us to a little
roadside stand and orders eight or nine oblong flatbread pizza
styled dishes. They're delicious. All of the food here is delicious.

(05:02):
This is what is this uh ratter mind. We get
to talking a bit of shop about our experiences with
war zone journalism, and we soon move on to the
subject of cigarettes, which are almost an item of religious
significance to soldiers at the front. If you embed in
an Iraqi military unit. You will be offered many, many cigarettes,
and you'd be kind of a dick if you turned

(05:23):
one down. It's just the way Howbat informs us that
in this regard, things in Rojava are not wildly different
from things in Iraq. One thing this place never run
short of is cigarettes. No. I'm I stand all the
front lines, and everyone's smoking, everyone never sometimes not smoking.

(05:45):
But I remember one journalist he quit smoking for a
few years, and he came to here and he wanted
to interview one of these Swedish eyes. Did they he
arrived band they stopped at all the interviews at camping.
In the evening, I found him on the stairs. The

(06:07):
conversation moves on and Jake talks about a friend of
his who was stabbed to death during a robbery gone
bad back in his hometown. There's a lot of talk
about what leads to such utterly pointless crimes and how
they can be more unsettling than the targeted violence from
groups like ISIS. Kabat tells us that she's glad her
brother died fighting for something at least as opposed to
falling in some random cruel tragedy. She tells us she

(06:30):
thinks stuff like that is less common here, perhaps because
death from other things is so much more common. It's
a sort of conversation I've had before. I was in Dublin, Ireland,
at a hostel on the day after the two thousand
twelve Sandy Hook shooting. I went up drinking and talking
about the massacre with a Venezuelan friend. Now he'd actually
seen people murdered for their property with his own eyes,
shot to death by masked men on motorcycles in the

(06:52):
streets of Caracas. Even so, he was horrified by the
idea of a school shooting like Sandy Hook. People kill
each other here, he told me. But no one does that.
No one does that. After a couple hours on the road,
we arrive at the STF Media office. It's a dusty,
gray white compound of several buildings that looks like it
used to be a private business. Today it's where the

(07:13):
sundry militias of Rojava interface with journalists. We will come
to know this place very well. There's a gate to
the compound and a WYPG man guards it. I notice
his A K forty seven as we pass by. He's
customized it beautifully with a colorful rap for the magazine
that turns it into a copy of the WIPG. Patch.
On his shoulder there is a single bullet mounted to

(07:34):
the top of the barrel, stored on a little pop
out container. Hobat explains that this setup is common among
the soldiers of the WYPG. The last bullet is to
use on themselves rather than be captured by Isis. We
enter the office and sit down for the requisite Kurdish
ta with a man who very much wants to be
our new friend. Mr. English. That's not his real name,

(07:55):
but it is what he seriously called himself and what
everyone else in the office sort of I rollingly called um.
Mr English is an SDF Media liaison and an English
literature major. He has powerful dad joke energy, and he
is supremely excited for a chance to put his English
speaking skills to use. Are you go? Yeah, you are, Yeah,

(08:20):
you are here, you are American? Here you go? And
Americans say, um, So, if if a brick goes into
the shop, I say, yeah, please, can I have that?
Americans say can I get that? We sit and sip
coffee and answer just a whole bunch of questions about
our language from our very excited new friend. While we
do that, Kabat talks to sdf officers and works out

(08:41):
the final arrangements for a trip to Rocca. She works,
and Jake and I listened to Mr English talk about
his daughter. He shows us many pictures and Bragg's that
she just graduated college in Aleppo with an engineering degree.
Like many in Rojaba, she found herself in the awkward
position of living in the Autonomous Region of Syria, which
rejects government contr role, but going to school in regime territory.

(09:03):
The whole conversation occurs in what is essentially a waiting
room with walls bedecked in pictures of the SDFS martyrs.
Directly above my chair is a plastic box with a
camera in it. Underneath the martyr's photo. Mr English explains
to me that this is the camera that man was
carrying when he was shot dead. Working for the SDFS
Media division at the front lines, it's a fun thing
to see right before you go to inim bed as

(09:24):
a member of the media with a military unit looking
for isis guys. We receive approval to drive into Rocca,
all right, so it's uh am Wednesday, j and we're

(09:50):
on our way into Rocca. Rocca looks a lot like
Moslded when last I visited. The destruction is extensive, but
it is markedly less scary than we had been led
to exp act, at least so far. A decent amount
of repair work is clearly underway. Already we passed lively
streets filled with people in shop stalls, and then a
block or two later we'll hit streets that have been

(10:10):
absolutely leveled by high explosives. They're like islands of life
in a sea of death, or like anti tumors of
some sort of weird reverse cancer, slowly taking back the ruins.
As Alan's van whirls over cracked and broken streets, we
in the van share a lively conversation about suicide. I
noticed when we uh the guy guy who was on

(10:31):
guard duty had the bullet mounted on the top of
his a K forty seven. This reminds Jacob, a Kurdish
fighter he used to know have All kim All who
found himself cut off after a firefight surrounded by isis
lovely guard. You won't look down in a house grenade. Yeah,

(10:55):
oh my god, Yeah, it's great. I'm one of the
other send me the picture. I was like, why, why
do you do this? I don't want to see this.
We stopped by the side of the street and Kabat's friend, Ahmed,
jumps into the car with us. He's a lifelong Rocca
resident who now works for the SDF. Ahmed lived here

(11:15):
back when Isis was in charge, and interestingly enough, he
found them okay. At first, crime went down at least,
he tells us with a shrug, but over time things
grew markedly more brutal. In the years since Rocca fell
Or was liberated, Ahmed started working with the SDF. He
tells us he's happier with them and that he likes
seeing Arabs and curds eating together. I asked him if

(11:35):
it took him getting used to going from dash control
to working with a woman like Kabat. In response, he
swings his arm around Kabat's shoulder and fixes me with
an easy grin. He says, Kabbat is my best friend.
Of course, Kabat brings on that a lot of work
and he makes a nice side business helping to set
up and arrange inbeds and interviews with the SDF. I
don't know the man but he strikes me as the

(11:56):
sort of very friendly, very charming fellow who will find
a way to make a decent life for himself under
any system. We stop outside a large complex of buildings
based around what looks like it used to be a
very large office park, has been appropriated by the Syrian
Democratic Forces as part of the Nerve Center for their
soldiers defending Roca. Armed men and women of the YPG
and J form a buzzing hive of activity outside a

(12:19):
regular procession of technicals. Toyota trucks with machine guns mounted
in the beds passed through on their way to conduct patrols.
Jakobot and I will be heading out with one of
those patrols soon, but before that can happen, we've got
to have a meeting with the two code presidents of
the Rocket says. I've had a lot of meetings like
this when I was in Iraq. We'd be trying to
secure an embed up at the front, and first we'd

(12:39):
have to hang out with a room full of Iraqi
generals and colonels to put in some FaceTime and get
their permission to go forward. This generally meant an hour
or two of watching Ammirati television and drinking Shi coffee.
We'd have long winding conversations that would end with one
of the generals telling us we could go up to
the front. Now my experience with the rocket Defense Counsel
would prove very different. We are led into see the

(13:01):
co presidents of Racca Za sayish of all Czechick and
have al Kabat. I realized that's confusing. Unlike our Kabat,
this one is a man in his miss fifties. Of
all Cechick is a woman of about the same age.
This is my first time seeing a woman in one
of these general level sit downs before embedding with a unit.
At first, she pays us little attention while her male

(13:21):
colleague answers questions. Of all, Cichick is busy juggling multiple
cell phones and a regular stream of subordinates, starting in
and out with questions and answers. She wears urban pattern
camo fatigue pants, sneakers, and a dark gray Safari shirt.
She has a square, serious face and hard eyes. Jake
and I exchange some polite q and a's with their colleague,
but Cichick is the person we really want to talk with,

(13:43):
and after twenty minutes or so we succeed in getting
her attention enough for a serious interview. I start by
asking her how Rocca, the city that spent years under
the thumb of hardline and seriously misogynistic Islamic militants, adapted
to having hundreds of armed women patrolling its streets. Of course,
as hard, things were difficult until the people here started
to believe in us. There were many times when people

(14:04):
refused to recognize our authority. They would say, these are women.
How can they pretend to administer our city? How can
these women be in charge of us? Some people would
even lecture us and say it is morally wrong for
women to wear that sort of clothing. Women should not
be in the security forces at all, have all. Chichik
explains that her process of building personal trust in the
community has been slow and mainly focused around repeated, firm

(14:27):
but polite conversations with leaders in the community. We made
them understand after so many conversations, they accepted that I
was determined and there was a place for me in
this community. It's not as difficult now. I'm sure determination
was a factor, but I'm equally sure that the sheer
number of guns have all Chicheck and her comrades could
bring to bear had an impact on them being taken seriously.

(14:49):
She more or less confirmed this when I asked her
for her take on how this new system had come together.
We seized it. I asked what she saw as the
importance of having both men and women out on the
street protecting their community. Women have an important role in this.
Why because if you don't have any women in the
security forces, then the women in that society will not
be able to communicate with the men on an equal level.

(15:10):
We got to talking a little more about her background
and what her life had been like before the revolution.
She told us that as a young woman living under
a SODS dictatorship, she'd thought about doing this kind of
work for years before she ever got the opportunity. Whenever
I would pass through a regime checkpoint, I would daydream
about what it would be like to take over from them.
I thought, after all the violence we've experienced at their hands,

(15:32):
we would have to be more democratic if we were
in their position. And so Once Isis was defeated, the
SDFS goal was not just to occupy the city, but
to actually give the young women here who'd spent years
living under isis a chance to take control of their
own lives after the beginning. After we secured the city,
we immediately started recruiting women for the SASH. Seventy women joined.

(15:53):
The women took their place everywhere, the checkpoints office, media office,
commissary in the bureau, the administration, the patrols, and communications
in every place. Jake and I brought up that in
our own countries women had only very recently been allowed
to apply for frontline combat roles. I told her that
this was controversial among many men in my country who
thought women weren't as capable of doing these kinds of jobs.

(16:14):
That is the system preventing women from empowering themselves. When
women are empowered, man's power deserts him. At this point
in the conversation, have all Habbat spoke up as a man,
if there's a woman on your side, your work becomes easier.
He brought up American style democracy and questioned whether or
not men and women are really equal in my country.

(16:35):
In the United States, how many women do you have
in government and so they don't get to make decisions?
Trump says, I withdraw, and he withdraws. There's a woman
next to him, but she is just for decoration. In
the American Congress, likewise, there are women, but they cannot
take any decision. It's men who are in charge. He
points out that gender balance is one of the key

(16:56):
advantages of the co presidency system, which he says frustrates
the u US forces that they work with on a
regular basis. The Americans ask us what is this code
chair system? They didn't like it because having two points
of contact made things more complex than our military prefers.
But as have all, Kabat pointed out, if the chair
were alone, it would probably be only one man, and

(17:18):
that's not right. You suppress half of society. A young
soldier comes to the door and signals that our ride
is just about ready. I have time for one more question,
and so I asked haval Cichek, how many people in
Rocket today she thinks, really support the new system and
the gains for women's rights, and how many wish things
would go back to the way they were under Isis
or the Assad regime. The men in public, they say

(17:40):
they want women to be empowered, but inside, in terms
of the essence the mentality, they don't change. The masculine
mentality cannot be changed. She fixes her partner with a
strange look that I can't quite read. I don't know
either of them well enough to tell if this is
a joke between the two of them, or if she's
suddenly signaling something about hal Kabat. I thank them both
for their time, and then we head now the stairs

(18:00):
to meet them. Men and women that will be going
on patrol with we're getting on the truck. Oh no,
I can we meet them down at the base vehicle pool.
It's a happening location filled with a couple of dozen
very busy men and women. The unit will be going
on patrol with is twelve strong, ten men and two women.
They're busy loading their two RpK medium machine guns into
the beds of the two Toyota Highluxes that will be

(18:22):
writing into hopefully not battle. I should stop here to
say a little something about the high Lux. We don't
have them in the United States. Our equivalent would be
the Tacoma. And on the surface, that's all. The high
Lux is yet another regional Toyota pick up. But if
you travel the sundry war zones of planet Earth, the
single most common vehicle you see won't be a Humby
or some other military jeep. It won't be a tank

(18:43):
or an armored personnel carrier. It'll be the noble high
Lux bearing men and women on their way to war,
or acting as a mobile gun platform for some armed
force on a budget. Over the years, I've seen high
lux is mounted with anti vehicular cannons, grenade launchers, heavy
machine guns, and one time a recoilist rifle the size
of a motorcycle the SDF high Lux as we hop

(19:03):
onto our humble By comparison, the machine guns in the
back don't even have a permanent mount. They rest on
the top of the cabin, perched on a stack of rugs.
The largest man in each vehicle holds the gun in
place on our drive into downtown. I don't speak Arabic,
the language used by all the soldiers in this unit,
so I couldn't really judge what they were saying, but
it was easy to pick up on the general vibe

(19:24):
of the unit. Most of them were from seventeen to
nineteen years old, with the two women in the unit
being seventeen and eighteen. The oldest person was a man
in his early twenties with very cool sunglasses. Before we
loaded up. Both the young women seemed to mostly stick
with each other, but when the go time hit, they
both hopped into separate vehicles. The less populated districts we
drive through on our way to downtown Rocca have been

(19:45):
just utterly leveled piles of rubble that are themselves the
size of large buildings loom over us. It reminds me
a lot of mosle. A man with a rifle could
lurk behind any of the broken windows or bombed outdoor
frames we pass, but none do today, as our drivers
do the vehicle equivalent of elbow their way through traffic.
Jake and I talk with the soldiers about what it's

(20:05):
like to patrol through the streets of your own shattered home.
It's so grateful for us because it's apart from our
body can. For example, he's saying that seeing his hometown
like this hurts him as much as it would hurt
him if he'd lost his arm. Seeing the ruined skyline

(20:26):
of Rocca is like looking at his own severed limb
in the dirt. As we near our destination, Jake turns
to the young woman in the truck with us. She's
just seventeen, and she looks like she should still be
in high school. I know I had friends back in
the US who joined the Marine Corps at age seventeen,
but it's still strange to see someone so young in
a uniform holding a gun. Jake asks her a question.

(20:48):
So we're in a city right now where women were
enslaved and they were killed. They had no rights, so
they couldn't even whoop the streets, you know, without covering
the whole faces. Now you're here and you'll keep in
the city's safe as a female with the we was
like completely banded to be out of the home round cover.
But low I am participating more effectively. It slight a

(21:13):
free She's saying that under ice is she was banned
from even going outside if she was unescorted by a man.
Now she's free to participate in society, and she's decided
to do that by picking up a gun and protecting
her community. We had a traffic circle in the middle
of town, and both trucks pulled sideways, blocking off sections
of traffic and bringing the stop and go action of
midday rocket to a stop. The young soldiers were with

(21:35):
pile out of their trucks quickly and set up a
pair of air SAT's checkpoints, drivers are briefly questioned and
forced to show documents. In a few instances, cars are
searched inside and out for contraband weaponry. I spent a
lot of time looking at the faces of the people
in the traffic and the people being searched. Rocket is
not a normal part of Rojava, and the streets feel
profoundly different. For one thing, there are an awful lot

(21:57):
of angry people here. Equal numbers of men and women
on the streets seemed to both fall into this group,
but they express it differently. The angry women tend to
wear full nikabs with only their eyes visible, and they
turn away from us as soon as we see them.
The angry men are different. They tend to be much older.
Most are in their late forties or fifties. They have
hard faces, very long beards, and you can see in

(22:18):
their eyes that they were much happier back when the
previous folks were in charge. I particularly enjoy seeing the
young women in our unit take licenses and give orders
to these men as they go about their business. I
can see little girls on the street watching curiously, taking
all this in. Whatever else is going on here, however,
permanent the other achievements of the revolution proved to be.

(22:40):
This is undeniably real. The memories in these young girls
heads may prove to be the most radical accomplishment of
the Rojhavin project. The patrol passes without violence, and after
a couple hours, we returned to the base. When we
get back there, we see several smaller groups of soldiers
preparing to head out. Our truck stops and we all
get off and say oh goodbyes. As Kobat thanks our hosts,

(23:01):
I find my attention drawn a few feet to the right,
where the driver of another high lucks chats with one
of his comrades, a short woman wearing a headscarf. She's
pointing to different locations on the map, and he's nodding
in agreement with her. It's a small moment that's noteworthy
for how normal it is here now, just two years
after the Islamic State was kicked out. We say our goodbyes,

(23:21):
pile into a lawns fan, and then we're off to
the city of Kobani for the night. As we barrel
down the highway, Jake Kobat and I talked about our
interview with the two Asaish leaders. We met this morning.

(23:44):
When we'd asked the woman of Alchichek about her early life,
she'd given very few details, just saying that she lived
at home with her family before the revolution. That may
have been true, but Jake suspected she was from the mountains.
This is common local slang for she was in the
p k K. A number of influential figures in Rajavan
politics and in the military got their start in the
p KK or Curdistan Workers Party. The p k K

(24:07):
is the originally Marxist guerrilla group that helped to found
this place. Membership in the p k K is the
kind of thing people talk about furtively, and there are
a lot of false rumors as a result of this.
The old fighters from the p KK tend to be quiet,
stone faced, and hard. Kabat tells us that people used
to spread rumors that she was from the mountains because
she never wears any makeup. We enter Kobani in the

(24:28):
late afternoon, just a little before sunset. Kabat takes us
to see the city's enormous cemetery, which is several times
the size of the one in Komischlow. Kobani was the
site of some of the bloodiest fighting against Isis, and
the scale of death that occurred here is obvious in
the rows and rows of colorful graves. We watched the
sunset there. The orange light of the fading sun mixes

(24:48):
well with the reds, greens, and yellows of these revolutionary graves.
As I walked through the rows of dead, I find
myself drawn to the dates of their birth and of
their death. I do the math in my head with
every shahida pass. A terrible number sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen
years old, a few or even younger. In the dark
days when Isis laid siege to this town, an awful

(25:09):
lot of kids were forced to take up arms to
defend their homeland. Thinking back to the seventeen year old
fighter we met in Rocca, I realized that many still are.
Kobani is a city permanently shaped by the battle that
ran through its streets from September of two thousand fourteen
to January of two thousand fifteen. It's been called the
Kurdish Stalingrad. By the end of the fighting, more than

(25:30):
seventy percent of the city lay in ruins. Almost all
of it has been rebuilt in the half decades since,
but a single destroyed neighborhood remains. The local communes in
the city decided to leave it as a memorial and
an open air museum. Kabat takes us there next, just
as darkness hits. You can see everything just as it
was rebel piled up into fighting positions, cars blown into

(25:52):
the sides of buildings, ruined tanks, pulverized masonry. It's not
lost on me that from several of the old fighting
positions you can see across the border into Turkey. Kobani
has been called the city that stopped Isis, and the
town's spirit of resistance is more than a little infectious.
Kabat takes us next to the very center of town
to show us the victory monument the people of Rajava

(26:14):
chose to make to celebrate their struggle. It sits at
a roundabout in the center of town. In the middle
is a tall white statue of a winged woman raising
her arm in defiance as she beckons an unseen enemy
forward in the universal gesture of come at me, motherfucker.
At the winged woman's feet are two very Realisis tanks,
both blown apart in heavy combat. It's she's saying that

(26:46):
it's not like the other statue she's seen in her country,
most of which celebrate a single powerful man, generally Bashar
al Assad or his father. It's also not like any
of the bright posters of Ajalon that we've seen in
most of the government buildings, and rose Java wasn't the flipping.
At the time all this happened late July two, nineteen,

(27:07):
the long term survival lords for a Java were pretty low,
and they haven't exactly gotten higher in the months since.
There's only so much that revolutionary pluck and a defiant
spirit can do against hell fire missiles, F twenty two
bombers and all the heavy artillery that a major nation
state like Turkey can bring to bear. Even so, as
the months have passed and brought more stories of violence, disease,

(27:29):
and the inexorable march of authoritarian governments worldwide, I still
find myself inspired when I think back to that statue
of a winged woman beckoning death forward and promising to
at least give it the fight. Oh billet chaw bill
schau chau chau chau partijan game, don't be mory. The

(28:06):
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