Joanna Palani is a 23-year-old Denmark girl who is studying politics in college but the real story is how she came to have a $1 million bounty on her head. Why? Joanna is believed to have killed more than 100 ISIS militants while fighting in Iraq and Syria with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
Born in a refugee camp in Ramadi, Iraq, her ancestry is of Iranian-Kurdish and she has been following the Middle East conflict since the first Gulf War. Palani was only 9 years of age when she fired her first firearm and as a teenager in 2014 she put her Copenhagen college classes on hold and departed for Syria. On Facebook she wrote of how she felt inspired to “fight for women’s rights, for democracy – for the European values I learned as a Danish girl.”
She joined the ongoing uprising against the Syrian government in the wake of the Arab Spring, first fighting against the Assad regime and then against ISIS. She fought them in Kobane, a Syrian town on the border with Turkey, while fighting with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and she also helped to liberate Yazidi girls who were imprisoned as sex slaves while fighting alongside Peshmerga forces in Iraq.
Her actions came to the attention of the Danish authorities, who banned her from further travel to the region when she returned from fighting in September 2015. She was then locked up in Vestre Fængsel, Demark’s largest prison, when it was discovered that she’d flouted her ban in order to travel to Qatar. She spent 3 weeks behind bars before being released, and she’s since had her passport confiscated. 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,” she said. “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.”
“There’s a $1 million reward on my head. It is possible for me to be captured and killed in these circumstances that I find myself in here in Denmark”, Palani says. “When we were preparing to liberate houses of ISIS sex slaves, we had this saying – one fighter goes to rescue but many fighters will come back out,” she continued. “As a sniper I could be on the front line for nine days at a time. You have to be very patient. You have to focus. You cannot lose concentration for one moment.”