Every year several young women from Europe embark on self proclaimed missions to Syria and Iraq. Unfortunately, only a few of them manage to return home safely. Over 27,000 foreign fighters from 81 different countries have joined the conflict in Syria to overthrow the monstrous regime of Bashr Al Assad. The vast majority of these fighters fight alongside the ISIS presently.
Joanna Palani, a 23 year old student of Politics and Philosophy from Copenhagen in Denmark went to fight for the Kurds. She first fought for the People’s Protection Unit in Syria and then the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga is the army of the Kurdish Regional Government. The Peshmerga meaning “one who stands in front of death” in Kurdish, are credited with playing a role in both the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq as well as the capture of Osama Bin Laden, and are gaining significant victories over ISIS in Iraq.
Palani is the daughter and grand-daughter of fighters who were a part of the Peshmerga. She is an Iranian of Kurdish descent who was born in an United Nations refugee camp in Ramadi in 1993. Her family moved to Copenhagen when she was a toddler. According to credible sources, she speaks perfect English with an American accent. In the autumn of 2014, she left college and headed to fight in Syria. She wanted to help defeat ISIS and Assad and, as she puts it, “fight for human rights for all people.”
By November, the army of the Syrian President 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 allegedly used against their own people. ISIS had just completed their annexation of northern Iraq. Her first day on the battlefield 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 when asked by a renowned journalist.
“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. 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 required to be a good sniper. 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 over 181,000 civilians, and is now being investigated for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“ISIS fighters are very easy to kill, ma’am. ISIS fighters are very good at sacrificing their own lives, but Assad’s soldiers are very well trained and they are specialist killing machines.”
She is filled with pride about her role as a trainer for mainly young 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.”
She has also assisted in the tortuous work of helping Yazidi families smuggle out their loved ones from Islamic State territory. She 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 was assigned to a new role at the beginning of 2015—she was part of a battalion that liberated a village near Mosul and found a large group of children being held for sexual abuse by ISIS militants.
“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, she found 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.”
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.”
She believes she’s seen as a terrorist in her own country, and she lives in hiding and changes her location constantly from fear of reprisal.
“I am sorry for breaking the law but I had no choice in my mind at the time. Those I risked my life for, are now taking away my freedom. I did not expect to lose almost everything for fighting for our freedom and our safety.”