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Expert comment: Anna Campbell - a futile death?

Revd Tony Bradley, Tutor in Social Economy, reflects on the death of British volunteer Anna Campbell, who was killed while fighting alongside the female Kurdish armed unit YPJ in Syria.

Anna Campbell’s happy, smiling face beams out to us from the front pages of many national newspapers today - because she is dead.  Ms Campbell, reputedly, was killed on March 15th, in a Turkish air strike on so-called terrorist units in the city of Afrin, part of what is known as Kurdish-held territory, on the Northern Syrian-Turkish border. The open smile and image of the young woman in the photograph is indistinguishable from that of many thousand others. It reminds me of my elder daughter Rebecca, just one year older than Anna - but Rebecca is alive.

What price commitment?

Anna had left Britain in order to fight alongside other women, who she called her ‘brave friends’, within the Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ), who are part of the wider YPG, badged by the Turkish Government as enemies of the people. Her devastated father has described her as ‘incredibly principled, brave, determined, committed’. He says her death has left him ‘in pieces’. My heart goes out to him. 

At the same time, he comments that she was fully aware that she was placing her life at risk, in joining the Kurdish women's resistance, adding that ‘she was determined to live in a way that made a difference to the world and to act on that and do whatever it took’. Apparently, her fellow resistance fighters urged her not to travel to Afrin, one of the centres of the Rojava women's communes, but she was adamant. In a video, posted under the Kurdish war name of Helen Qerecox, she said: “I know how hard this will be, but I’m ready [to die].”

Defending human rights or terrorism?

Her actions raise so many questions in a conflict that is not simple, but incredibly complex. Why was she willing to die in what is one of the most conflicted and hellish parts of the planet, for people she didn’t know, in a struggle that wasn’t her own? Had she simply bought the propaganda of a terrorist movement, dressed-up as a ‘fight against patriarchy and fascism’? Was Anna really aware of what Rojava represented?

It appears that she had a very clear-sighted view of the Rojavan struggle, at least from the standpoint of idealism. Whilst many people do regard the YPG as a terrorist group, fighting the Turkish and Syrian authorities, others consider the YPJ to be a most noble experiment in women taking power, to develop a new kind of grass-roots politics and a socially liberating economic order, in the midst of the chaos of Northern Syria. In this respect Rojava is being lauded as a global template for resistance and solidarity economics, on behalf of all people, but led by women. 

Indeed, I first came across Rojava through the documentary Accidental Anarchist, made for Sundance by Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who - shocked by misinformation in respect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq - founded Independent Diplomats. Ross had visited Rojava and had ‘seen the future’. Of course, we may ask how often has that been said?

Fundamentally flawed?

But, others view the women's communes very differently.  Rather than seeing Rojava as our generation’s Spanish Civil War (or The Uprising as Catalan’s remember it), many commentators regard it as a fundamentally futile and flawed mission. Neither Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor Bashar al-Assad would ever allow the Rojavan Kurdish experiment to succeed, or so the argument runs, and with some justification. Idealism is not sufficient, we need to be more pragmatic. Indeed, if we are so committed to the struggle against patriarchy, why not mount such women-led economic experiments in our own patch, which could, equally, be an act of solidarity with the YPG. It makes sense. And, yet…

Anna’s death is, clearly, a deep tragedy. But, in the days leading up to Holy Week and Easter, I am reminded of John15 v13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.”  On Monday evening a vigil was held for Anna on a small bridge in her home town of Lewes, West Sussex. Her sister, Rose, paid this tribute: “She was very clear-headed, grounded, confident, fearless, noble and honest. She looked after us.” In the end, she gave up her life for her beliefs. Who of us are willing to do the same?

Published on 29/05/2019