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.”