In the battle against ISIS, the day starts at 5:00 a.m. Out on the frontline, Joanna Palani grabs her sniper rifle and AK gun and reports to her position. She also carries her army pack and a pair of grenades in case things turn nasty. But Palani’s life isn’t just a story of war.
Indeed, Palani’s situation wasn’t always one of spending up to nine days on end in her position, hidden under a blanket and a headscarf. And she didn’t always have to take a bag with her for hygiene purposes, unsure of the next time she’d get to use a shower. What’s truly amazing, then, is that she’s paying the price for doing what she believed was right.
Furthermore, while Palani doesn’t like to talk about the number of ISIS extremists she’s killed, propaganda released by her unit suggests that it could be up to 100. She was a deadly sniper, but she was also a liberator, too. And it seems that she was very good at it. Now, however, she’s facing problems from all sides.
Way before her days as a crack shot, though, Palani was born to a family of Iranian Kurds and spent her early life in a refugee encampment in Iraq during the aftermath of the first Gulf War. However, you’d be wrong in thinking that she’s a typical member of the local forces struggling against ISIS. At the age of three, in fact, Palani and her loved ones left the refugee camp behind and emigrated to Denmark. And when the war in Syria began, she was actually in college.
By looking at Palani’s Facebook page, moreover, you could be forgiven for thinking that she was a normal 23-year-old woman. Indeed, her profile is filled with selfies, pictures of cats and snaps of the food she’s been eating. But some of the photos aren’t quite what you’d expect from your average Danish millennial. In some of them, Palani stands proudly in her battle fatigues, surrounded by the men and women with whom she’s been fighting.
It’s also worth noting that Palani had yet to enter her twenties when she quit college. Up till then, she’d been reading politics, philosophy and biology in Copenhagen. But when the Arab Spring began, something changed for her. “Millions of people were fighting for democracy,” she told the Daily Mail in February 2017. “I wanted to be part of it.”
However, this wouldn’t be the first time that Palani had picked up a rifle. In fact, she had already done so when she was just nine years old while on a family vacation to Finland. “I wasn’t any good,” she explained to the Daily Mail. “But I liked it a lot. I loved it, in fact. I liked the power in the weapon, and the fact that the power was not even within the weapon, but in the person behind the weapon. I wanted to get better.”
Now you might think that Palani’s fellow Danes would be proud of her for returning to fight for her homeland. After all, during the Iranian revolution and the first Gulf War, many members of her Kurdish family were killed. But, unfortunately, things just haven’t worked out that way. Indeed, it isn’t just ISIS that seems to have a grudge against Palani.
That’s partly because, during her time on the front lines, Palani did more than just kill the enemy. In fact, her unit freed a number of children who were being held by ISIS as concubines. What’s more, she told the Daily Mail that her squad had a saying for situations like this: “One fighter goes to rescue, but many fighters will come back out.”
They weren’t just freeing young women from oppression, either. Palani, for one, believed that they were showing others that their fight was important. What’s more, many of the women and girls that Palani’s unit liberated would actually join up and fight against ISIS, too. And that’s one of the reasons that she broke a travel ban imposed on her by the Danish authorities.
Yes, in 2015 the Danish government invoked laws designed to stop radicalized young men and women from leaving the country to commit terrorist attacks. This also meant, however, that Palani ought to have stayed on Danish soil – despite the fact that she had actually been fighting against those terrorists.
In addition, Palani had previously almost given her life to the cause. During her most recent campaign in Syria, for example, an ISIS fighter once had her in his crosshairs. However, a member of Palani’s unit handed her a cup of tea as the shot was fired. The bullet struck Palani’s comrade, whose fall broke through the floor of the derelict building that Palani had been hiding in. And the subsequent fall left her with a cracked skull – though thankfully that was it.
What’s more, Palani had hurtled almost ten feet down in the incident. As a result, you’d think that such a close shave might be enough to send her back to the safety of Denmark. This, though, could not be further from the truth. “I took up a gun again after four days,” she told the Daily Mail. So it seems that for fighters like Palani, simply soldiering on is the most normal thing in the world.
The order banning Palani from travel, meanwhile, also did little to stop her from fighting on. In June 2016, in fact, she boarded a flight to northern Iraq. From there, she traveled seven hours overnight on foot to Syria, where she was picked up and taken back to the front lines. And on arrival, she joined the other women whom she had previously trained to fight.
It seems that it was something Palani felt she simply had to do. And this, moreover, was in spite of the massive bounty that ISIS has on her life. Right now, that stands at $1 million – certainly making Palani a high-profile target. Still, this young woman didn’t go out to fight for glory or notoriety. Rather, according to a post on her Facebook profile, it was “to fight for women’s rights, for democracy – for the European values I learned as a Danish girl.”
However, Palani now faces the possibility of jail as a result of her flaunting of the travel ban. And with the ISIS bounty still looming over her, she lives in fear in the country she loves so much. Indeed, Palani never stays in one place for more than three days. She also wears clothes that are donated to her, and she no longer trusts the security forces in Denmark. Consequently, she may well feel more like a terrorist than a freedom fighter.
There’s still a spirit of defiance in Palani, though, even in the face of the difficulties that beset her now. She can’t travel, she has lost her passport, and the ISIS threat to her life means that she likely feels ill at ease in Denmark. But would she change anything?
Far from it. In fact, Palani doesn’t even want thanks. “I am not looking for sympathy. I want people to understand that I don’t want a thank you note,” she explained to the Daily Mail. Instead, she wants recognition for the men and women who fought and died beside her – people who died fighting on the same battlefields as Danish soldiers.
So it’s fair to say that Palani isn’t your typical twenty-something Western woman. She took a stand for what she believed in and took up arms in a conflict that seems so far away to many of us. And for her part in it she faces jail, murder and homelessness.
But none of that seems to have has swayed her belief that she did the right thing – or that she’d do exactly the same again if given the opportunity. Speaking to the Daily Mail, she said, “It was all worth it. A look from a little girl after we have helped liberate her and her family from ISIS, those are the experiences that make it all worthwhile.”