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Bring back Anna Campbell's body

MARK CAMPBELL on a family's struggle to find out the truth about their daughter's death

Anna Campbell fell in action in Syria, reportedly defending Kurdish civilians evacuating from the Turkish bombardment of their city, Afrin, on March 15 2018.

A Turkish missile struck the position Anna and her comrades were holding.

The Kurdish city of Afrin was subsequently occupied by Turkish forces and their jihadist allies who put up posters instructing the female inhabitants how to dress according to Islamic sharia law.

Shocking, as Afrin had remained one of the only cities in Syria completely free from Isis or jihadist terror until Turkey’s illegal invasion and occupation by Turkish and jihadist forces.
 

Afrin is now controlled by Turkey and only the Turkish state knows exactly where the body of Anna Campbell is located.

Her family want the British government to use its good relationship with the AKP government in Turkey to find, recover and repatriate the remains of their daughter, sister, niece, aunt, so she maybe finally laid to rest in her own country.

Campbell went to join the struggle dubbed “the women’s revolution” in the north of Syria alongside the Kurds as they continued to fight successfully against the remnants of Isis in the area.

She joined the armed resistance on the front lines in Deir Ezzor after working for many months in the civil society of the social revolution that has seen Kurdish and Arabic women liberated in the Middle East.

Grassroots social ecology projects and equal representation for localities and all ethnicities, identities and religious beliefs rolled out across the territory controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to the delight of Arabs and Kurds alike across the north of Syria.

For Anna – or as she was now called by her Kurdish comrades, Helin Qerecox – this was the most exciting revolution that was happening anywhere in the world and encompassed her core beliefs.

“It was almost as if she was searching for the perfect way of expressing all the values she held closest — humanitarian, ecological, feminist and for equal political representation,” says her father Dirk Campbell.

“Those were the issues she came to dedicate her life to, and she came to the conclusion that Rojava was where she had to go,” he told The Guardian very soon after her death.

It is now nearly four months since the Campbell family were informed by the YPJ of Anna’s death at some unidentified location in Afrin, northern Syria.

They were at first told that she was part of a convoy that was hit by a Turkish air strike. Then they were told that she was in a small unit of six fighters protecting civilians somewhere between Shirawa and Afrin.

Later on the story emerged that there was a YPG fighter who had been wounded in the strike that killed Anna and made his way to a hospital beyond the conflict zone. He reported that he was one of two YPG men who were posted with Anna and another YPJ woman. The location was not divulged and no-one seems to have asked for it.

The witness disappeared before he could be further questioned.

The YPG/YPJ command could not track him down, nor could they identify the commander in charge of Anna’s unit. The situation seemed highly confused and chaotic.

Perhaps understandable, as war ravaged the area and information was very difficult to come by.

It was becoming clear that the Turkish occupying forces in Afrin were not returning the bodies of the dead as required under the Geneva Convention.

They were not even collecting them and interring them. They were simply leaving them to rot where they fell, savaged by dogs and wild animals and causing a health risk.

It was also clear that soldiers serving with the Turkish army were desecrating the bodies of the dead, mutilating them and dragging them through the streets, women fighters being particularly subjected to sexual atrocities. The Turkish army was permitting if not actually encouraging these war crimes.

On Monday May 21 members of Anna’s family met Alistair Burt, minister of state for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

They took the opportunity to ask questions about Turkey’s illegal invasion of a sovereign country and its flagrant war crimes and flouting of the Geneva Conventions.

Mr Burt said that he could not comment as there was “no independent evidence” and that all the information received from the British government on the conflict was supplied by the Turkish authorities.

Dirk Campbell asked who these Turkish authorities were, and was told “the director general for counter terrorism.”

The Turks regard all Kurds as terrorist sympathisers if not actual terrorists, including the internationals who join the protection units in Rojava.

The Turkish pretext for the invasion of Afrin is that it is a hotbed of terrorism.

Mr Campbell asked Mr Burt why, if the British government does not regard the Kurdish Syrian fighters as terrorists, it accepts this Turkish rationale.

Mr Burt’s only reply was to repeat that he did not have “independent evidence” of what was going on there — so in his mind there could, in theory, be enough PKK activists in Afrin to threaten the integrity of the Turkish state, as the Turks claim.

Burt’s only offer of help was to undertake to recover Anna’s body once the family could provide an accurate location.

On Tuesday June 19 Dirk Campbell was contacted by Anna’s military co-ordinator in Rojava to say that the witness to Anna’s death (the fourth fighter) had been found again and that she would speak to him the next day and provide the exact location of her body.

The house had been hit by an air strike, killing Anna and two other fighters instantly and burying them under rubble. It was not clear how the fourth fighter had escaped since they were all supposedly sheltering in the basement and only Anna had emerged during a lull in the bombardment when she was spotted by a drone and the house targeted and blown up.

Ten days later Dirk received a copy of a letter forwarded by Anna’s aunt, Tory Bridges, who had recently returned from Rojava as part of a women’s delegation.

The letter had been sent, not to her but to another member of the delegation, who had copied it to her. The letter stated that the house was in Mahmoudiyeh, on the north-west outskirts of Afrin, and gave a map location code which produced no result when typed into a search engine.

Further correspondence with the Rojava contact revealed that the code was the YPG/YPJ war map code which could not be explained for security reasons.

There was, however, an aerial photograph of the building attached to the letter which Bridges’s husband Sean identified on Google Earth.

Dirk Campbell sent this now precise information to the FCO on June 26 and requested that they ask the Turks to let in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only NGO that can provide the independent information about what is happening in Afrin that Mr Burt said he lacked.

Mr Burt’s assistant Shezade Cassim told Campbell he was meeting with colleagues to review the information and that Anna’s case was now his top priority.

On June 29 Mr Cassim emailed to say that his current understanding was that the ICRC are active in Syria but not in Turkish-controlled areas.

Campbell replied that he was well aware of that fact and repeated his request that Turkey be pressed to allow the ICRC into Afrin — a temporary suspension by the British government of their fawning posture towards the newly re-elected Erdogan.

The only response from the FCO so far is that they are “working on the issue.”  

For the YPJ the sacrifice that Anna Campbell made has an intensely deep meaning. Asmin Roni, Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, YPJ, International Volunteer Co-ordinator, said: “Heval Helin (Anna Campbell) is our first international women’s Sehid [martyr] in the YPJ.

“She came to Rojava because she was a revolutionary. She believed that protecting the women’s revolution is the only possible free life choice. She understood the real meaning of joining the Kurdish freedom movement. She became one with the soul of the YPJ.
With her sacrifice, she wrote her name into the history of internationalist women’s struggle for freedom.
 

“Heval Helîn joined with an immense amount to give and she lived according to this, love for freedom, for life and for humanity.

“This showed us we can really unite against the fascist dominant male system and that the paradigm of our movement is a powerful weapon for the liberation of women all over the world. Her sacrifice is the basis for a new higher level in our international struggle because she demonstrated the universality of being a revolutionary.

“She made a profound effort to eliminate all the borders that our enemy has built between us. She fought for this from the very first moment and she has succeeded.”

Anna’s aunt Victoria Bridges who travelled to Syria recently told me it was very painful for the family still not to know the exact whereabouts of Anna’s body. In addition, the family remain slightly in the dark about the way in which Anna died.

“It leaves us with a feeling of desolation and anxiety, not knowing whether Anna died fast or slowly, in pain, fear or optimism, alone or in the company of a friend. In short, we don’t know if she suffered or not and some of Anna’s siblings have been prone to imagining agonising scenarios.

“Until Anna’s body is returned we live in an unsettled limbo. I personally very much wish for her body to be repatriated. Not only will this give us the means to begin to find a peaceful resolution to our loss — a place to visit to pay our respects. But also, because by allowing the ICRC to enter Afrin safely we might pave the way for other independent observers too.

“This will make it possible to substantiate claims that pro-Turkish fighters have been perpetrating atrocities such as the rape and abduction of local women, the desecration of the dead and the looting of the homes of the Kurdish residents who have been forced from the city by the Turkish occupation.

“Anna’s death is an enormous shock to us all and we are variously still struggling with our grief. No doubt many of us will do so for a long time to come.

“There might be a glimmer in the darkness if we can come to believe that Anna did not die in vain. Locating her body could shed light on the alleged criminal activities in Afrin of the invader-occupiers. A truthful reporting to the wider world of the situation on the ground is, I believe, what Anna would have wanted.”

Mark Campbell (no relation) is co-chair of the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign.

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