The Girl Who Ran Away to Fight ISIS
Joanna Palani was only 22 when she left her comfortable life as a college student behind in Denmark to join up as a YPG and Peshmerga fighter on the frontlines of the war in Iraq and Syria. She tells us how ISIS soldiers are "easy to kill."
Photo by Sarah Buthmann
Of the some 750 young European women embarking on adventures to Syria and Iraq, only a handful have managed to return home safely. The call of holy war to defeat the butchery of the 45-year Assad regime in Syria has inspired more than 27,000 foreign fighters from 81 different countries to join the conflict, the vast majority of whom now fight with ISIS.
Most of the women and girls who have travelled to the battle have done so at the grooming of ISIS recruiters. Joanna Palani, a 23-year-old politics and philosophy student from Copenhagen, went to fight for the Kurds; first for the People's Protection Unit in Syria (the YPG) and then the Peshmerga, the Western-trained and backed army of the Kurdish Regional Government. The Peshmerga (Kurdish for "one who stands in front of death") are credited with playing a role in both the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the capture of Osama Bin Laden, and are gaining significant if slow victories over ISIS in Iraq.
Palani, the daughter and grand-daughter of Peshmerga fighters, is an Iranian Kurd who was born in a UN refugee camp in Ramadi, Iraq in 1993, after the family were forced to flee their home during the Gulf War. They moved to Copenhagen when she was a toddler. She lived a "normal, comfortable life" with her family. Her favourite hobbies growing up were reading and target practice; after firing her first live rifle in Finland aged nine, she got obsessed.
"I love it," she says, "it is my life. It is very normal for Kurds to learn to use weapons like this." Palani speaks perfect English with an American accent, laughs frequently during sentences, and endearingly refers to me as ma'am.
In the early autumn of 2014, she left college and headed to fight in Syria for the Kurds. Palani wanted to help defeat ISIS and Assad and, as she puts it, "fight for human rights for all people."
"On the 14th of November 2014 I went to Iraq, and then I went to Rojova in Syria. I was with the YPG for six months and then I was with the Peshmerga for six months, so I was fighting for a year."
By November 2014, the army of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was battle-hardened by three long years of indiscriminate civilian killing. They hoarded a treasure chest of weapons and ammunition, including chemical weapons that they used against their own people. ISIS had just completed their genocidal annex of northern Iraq.
Palani's first night on the front line was brutal. While on night patrol with a foreign fighter from Sweden, the pair were attacked by a sniper who had seen the smoke from a cigarette and shot her comrade between the eyes. She describes how the embers from her companion's cigarette remained lit as he died, his blood soaking into her new uniform.
"I told him he shouldn't be smoking on the frontline—but he didn't take me seriously. I wasn't taking it seriously when I first came there," she admitted. "But after the first attack I did. I took it seriously indeed, ma'am.'"
In Syria she discovered she had a knack for firing at the right time and keeping quiet at the right time—two skills essential to being a good soldier, she believes. Her time fighting Assad's army was to be the most challenging of her career. They have been known to attack with chlorine gas, barrel bombs, and now vacuum bombs, all of which are prohibited by international law. The regime is responsible for the deaths of 181,000 civilians, and is now being investigated for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"ISIS fighters are very easy to kill, ma'am", she says, laughing to herself. "ISIS fighters are very good at sacrificing their own lives, but Assad's soldiers are very well trained and they are specialist killing machines."
Palani gushes with pride about her role as a trainer for mainly younger, Kurdish fighters. "The young girls are amazing—they are exhilarated after coming back from the front lines. They are very brave, more brave than I could ever have been at their age."
The YPG has also assisted in the tortuous work of helping Yazidi families smuggle out their loved ones from Islamic State territory. Palani described receiving detailed correspondence from girls in captivity attempting to organize their own escape or plead for rescue.
"Even though I am a fighter it is difficult for me to read about how a ten-year-old girl is going to die because she is bleeding from a rape," she says. The letters and creditable testimony of sexual torture began as early as October 2014. Palani was assigned to a new role at the start of 2015—she was part of a battalion that liberated a village near Mosul, she says, and found a large group of children being held for sexual abuse by ISIS militants. It was a 'holding house,' where young girls were locked up, raped, and loaned out to lower ranking fighters on the front lines.
"All the girls were under 16—some were really young. I met this girl in the hospital we had to bring them to. She was a Syrian Christian and she died holding my hand because she was 11-year-old and she was pregnant with twins. Her little face was so swollen. It just wasn't right. I remember the doctor crying and yelling at me and my first soldier."
She had to convince the doctor they were not responsible for the rape and the resulting pregnancy that eventually took the child's life. But even as her father and mother at home in Copenhagen fretted about their daughter, Palani found frontline life thrilling. "I never thought, I want to go home. Honestly, there were some times I was afraid. There were times when I wished I would survive, yes. But there wasn't one single second where I wished I was home again. I knew I was in the right place."
Her military career appeared to be flourishing. Then she came home to see her family in Copenhagen whilst on leave last year. "The Peshmerga gave me 15 days off, " she explains. "After arriving in Denmark the police sent me an email after only three days. It said my passport was no longer valid, and would be revoked if I was to attempt to leave the country. If I was to go back I could go to jail for six years."
"This put me in a bad situation—as many people were very disappointed in me. I was training some girls in weapons, so it meant I let these girls down as it was not complete."
She is furious with the Danish government for confiscating her passport under laws intended to stem the movement of ISIS fan boys to the conflict—a move that she describes as a "betrayal." She now faces a choice between giving up her passport and rejoining her battalion, or waiting it out in Copenhagen and hoping that the law will change to differentiate her from jihadi fighters. "I have to remember these things I have seen in combat and the people I have left there," she tells me as she weighs her options.
"These small girls, the sex slaves, I can't as a human being—but especially as a Kurdish girl—I can't ignore them. I can't say I'm doing good in Denmark, so never mind what they are doing to these girls in Kurdistan."
But she is equally loathe to lose the freedoms that Europe affords her—so for now, she is stuck in Copenhagen. Instead of fighting with her Peshmerga 'sisters' (whom she also complains have not been paid in seven months), she is reluctantly studying politics and philosophy in Denmark, where the government pays for her university education.
"I am a European Kurdish girl. Most of my beliefs and morals are European. I couldn't live in Kurdistan for more than one or two years—it is not very comfortable there as a woman for me. I would rather choose public justice than personal happiness. I would give my life for Europe, for democracy, for freedom and for women's rights. I feel like I have been betrayed by those who I was ready to sacrifice my life for."