Joanna Palani a few kilometers from the frontline. Her decision to actively fight ISIS was a long process, but when Palani first came to Iraq, she immediately joined a military training camp in Syria.
A few moments earlier, ISIS was shooting at Joanna and the other Kurdish soldiers. Now the group is moving on as if nothing happened. In Kurdish Iraq, war has become everyday life – and Joanna is part of it.
During the Iran-Iraq war, a couple fled Kurdish Iran, giving birth to a baby girl in a refugee camp in Iraq. Three years later, they made a home in Scandinavia, raising their child in the Danish countryside. That little girl—Joanna Palani—grew up to become a fiercely independent, politically idealistic woman. Some two decades since her parents’ departure from their homeland, Joanna, a high school student, left the safety of home to join in the Kurdish fight against ISIS.
Earlier this year, Danish photographer Asger Ladefoged and journalist Allan Sorensen, both on staff at the newspaper Berlingske, traveled to Rojava, Syria in search of Joanna. Though they were unable to track her down, Sorensen received upon his arrival home a Facebook friend request from none other than the young Kurdish fighter. After initial contact was made, the 22-year-old Joanna agreed to a rendezvous in Erbil, Iraq, where she gave her permission for the pair to follow her for eight days as she made her way into battle.
Joanna has since childhood valued her autonomy and opposed religious fundamentalism and the oppression of women. During her school days, in the summer of 2012, she went into training in Kurdish Iran, keeping her injuries hidden from classmates by evading gym class and other scenarios in which her legs and feet would be exposed. When she left for the Kurdish army, she didn’t inform her family her whereabouts until months had elapsed.
In Syria and Iraq, where she has fought, Joanna longs to see a new generation of women who are entitled to and free to express themselves in the public forum. Her mother worries about her daughter, of course, and has tried to convince her to come home, but Joanna’s tenacity and will has kept her in the line of fire. She’s seen a girl of sixteen, close to her own age, killed by fighters for the Islamic State.
During his short time with Joanna, Ladefoged bonded with her over intimate conversations about her history and her wishes for the future. Although she is in many ways what he calls a “‘regular’ Dane,” her courage and principles have led her down an irregular path. Although she is an atheist, she admits to praying to God as the bullets have flown past her head in combat. She suffers from nightmares, and at times can be heard yelling the word “Shoot!” in her sleep.
Since June, explains the photographer, Joanna has been living back in Denmark, though she hopes to return to the front lines. Since her return, the Danish government has seized Joanna’s passport and forbidden her to leave the country under foreign fighter laws pending trial on January 19th. Her future remains uncertain.
Joanna Palani left Denmark to fight against ISIS. She couldn’t concentrate to complete high school. Her thoughts were with the Kurdish people: “I’ve always had more struggles in life than my friends in Denmark.”
In case any ISIS fighters are attacking at night, the fields at the frontline are lit up by huge spotlights.
Around 1000 Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers are holding the frontline of south of Erbil against ISIS. Joanna Palani is currently the only female fighter present.
ISIS is holding their positions in the next village. Joanna picks up movements from a car and shoots. Moments after, they return the fire. ISIS mostly attack close combat when it’s cloudy and rainy so the coalition’s airplanes can’t spot them and drop bombs.
“I want to pass on the opportunity my family got when they escaped to Denmark to the Kurdish people in the Middle East,” Joanna Palani says.
Joanna Palani stands for her rights. She believes that the fight against ISIS not only is a fight for the Kurdish ground but also a fight for democracy, women’s rights, and that very same freedom she connects with her upbringing in Denmark.
Joanna Palani is guarding the frontline south of Erbil. “For some people, it might seem extreme to travel down here to fight, but for me, it’s necessary. It’s a must. It feels good to save lives.”
Young kids from the village Joanna and rest of the soldiers leave from before heading to the frontline want to have their pictures taken with her.
After six months of fighting in Syria, Joanna Palani left the frontline and retreated to the Kurdish capital of Iraq, Erbil. She needed a break from the frontline and time to decompress.
“If I’ll survive this war, I’m going to get tons of babies once I’m back in Denmark,” Joanna Palani Says. Only 36 of the 64 soldiers Joanna did her military training with in Syria are still alive.
All images © Asger Ladefoged