Twenty-three-year-old Joanna Palani may be young and beautiful. But above all, she's one extremely brave young woman.
In 2014, the Danish-Kurdish woman decided to leave her university studies in Denmark to join the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Now, in an interview with Broadly, a Vice-affiliated website and channel “devoted to representing the multiplicity of women's experiences,” Palani talks about her time on the front lines. She also delved into the reasons she went to fight.
Palani explains that fighting ISIS and fighting Syrian government forces were completely different:
“ISIS fighters are very easy to kill. 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 also stresses that she feels the fight against the terror group is part of the larger issue of human rights. It was hammered home for her because of something she experienced firsthand.
In one of the most harrowing, horrifying episodes she lived through, she watched a 11-year-old girl, who had become pregnant as a victim of ISIS sexual abuse, die right in front of her.
“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 [sic] 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.”
Palani, who was born in Iraq and grew up largely in Copenhagen, first went to Syria where she fought alongside the Kurdish YPG forces for six months. After winning the battle there, she then joined the Peshmerga in Kurdistan for another six months.
When she returned home, her passport was seized by the Danish government.
While she longs to return to the fight, she admits that it's anything but fun. She tells a story about a Swedish fighter on her team who was shot because he tried to smoke a cigarette while on the battlefield:
“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.”
Palani also says that she wasn't the only female warrior fighting ISIS, and that the young women whom she trained continue to inspire her:
“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.”
For now, Palani has to stay in Europe and leave the fight to others. She's returned to her studies, but she's frustrated that she can't return to help:
“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.”
Palani knows that if she chooses to jump back into the fray, she could face up to six years in a Danish prison.