How did private school girl from Sussex die fighting ISIS in Syria?

How did private school girl from Sussex die fighting ISIS in Syria?

Four young women in dusty, sweat-soaked fatigues hold AK-47 rifles high above their heads beneath the fierce Middle Eastern sun.

They are in training, desperate to join the Kurdish defence force and its famous female fighting units which are attempting to drive back the forces of Isis that swept across Syria and Iraq.

As Dirk Campbell watches the figures moving across the screen in the militia group’s shaky footage, one young fighter stands out.

She is noticeably taller than the others, with paler skin and short blonde hair. She is also unmistakably his daughter, Anna.

Dirk, seeing the footage for the first time, is visibly moved – for these precious images are some of the last ever taken of Anna in the weeks before she died.

Killed by an air strike at the age of 26 in March last year, while trying to evacuate civilians from the besieged northern city of Afrin, Anna Campbell is the only British woman to have died alongside Kurdish forces in Syria.

For Dirk, still torn with confusion and grief, Anna’s decision to fight alongside strangers, for a cause far removed from her privileged life in the Sussex countryside, made little sense.

Anna Campbell pictured at 12-years-old in 2003 at St Mary’s Hall for a school photo

But he has now made the decision to retrace his daughter’s steps for a poignant BBC documentary in a bid to understand why she made the secret 2,500-mile journey that would cost Anna her life

‘I want to experience what it was like for Anna,’ Dirk explains.

‘How was the world seen through her eyes? I want to know what her world was like. It’s what I think about a lot. She knew that her life was in danger. And I want to know that my daughter did not die for nothing.’

Anna was always driven by the power of her convictions, a bright and well-educated young woman who would have excelled at anything. She was born six weeks prematurely into a wealthy, if unconventional, family from Lewes, East Sussex.

Dirk is a film composer whose work includes the music for Hollywood blockbusters such as Aladdin, and Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, plus TV shows Indian Summers and The Virgin Queen.

As a young man, he’d been a minor star with the progressive rock band Egg.

Her mother, Adrienne, was well known as an anti-war activist who took Anna on her first protest march against the invasion of Iraq when Anna was just 11.

Educated at the £10,000-a-year St Mary’s Hall girls’ school in Brighton, she achieved A-grades in her GCSEs and all of the children – Anna has five sisters and a brother – were encouraged to think independently.

‘Anna had Adrienne’s bravery and Adrienne’s idealism,’ Dirk says. Sadly, Adrienne died of breast cancer in 2012, aged 52, and Anna, then 21, was devastated.

She had already dropped out of her degree, studying English at Sheffield, where she had fallen in with radical Left-wing activists. But her mother’s death drove her further down that path.

Undated photo provided by The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) a Syrian Kurdish militia, shows Anna Campbell, 26, a British citizen who was a fighter with the Kurdish female militia

She wrote letters to prisoners, fought against the badger cull and, full of compassion for the dispossessed, helped establish the first home for female refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’.

Dirk could only watch helplessly as she drifted into a life he could not understand. ‘As she grew older she didn’t really express her feelings any more,’ he says.

‘I think they were too powerful and she got the message, at least from me, that powerful feelings were in some way unacceptable, or the expression of them was unacceptable.’

It was in the spring of 2017, when the war in Syria was entering a bloody new phase, that Anna found a new cause.

THE Kurdish YPG, the People’s Protection Units, was once described as the ‘most effective’ force fighting Isis in Syria. The militia was working with the US, whose air strikes had bombed the jihadist group from much of Syria’s northern territory, where it borders Turkey.

But Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Erdogan, used the chaos to push against the Kurdish forces on their borders, who they feared wanted to establish an independent Kurdish democracy in the region of Rojava in Syria’s north and east.

Anna, touched deeply by the Kurds’ plight, was recruited by activists online and signed up to the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) – a female-only affiliate of the YPG. She told her family, but made them promise not to tell a soul.

And perhaps for good reason. Her actions put her in a legal grey area. In agreeing to join the YPJ she risked arrest on terrorism offences – several other Britons have been arrested, but not charged, on their return to UK soil.

Family collect photo of Anna Campbell, 6, and father Dirk in 1997 at their Stoneywood Cottage

Why didn’t her father step in? With hindsight, of course, he regrets not doing so. But at the time, says Dirk, he felt powerless to stop her.

‘She just said to me, “Dad, you know I’m going to Rojava?” I didn’t question her about it, because I knew from experience that if I did – unless it was wholly supportive – it would be seen as an attempt by me to undermine her decisions.

‘Mentally, I had to let go of her.

‘My conscious choice with my children was to encourage them and accept them in whatever they chose to be or to do.’

But he had no idea she was planning to fight on the front line – something that, he says, would have horrified him.

‘I would have said please don’t do it. And I think that’s what she knew I would have said, which is why she didn’t tell me.’

In fact, the family knew little about her movements until Dirk travelled to the Rojava region with the BBC film crew.

Visiting the Internationalists Academy of the YPJ, which is where the young women from foreign countries receive their initial training, he is given something precious – a diary Anna kept while training and fighting. Reading it is clearly moving.

He discovers that Anna flew to Iraq and crossed the Tigris River in a small boat at night, arriving in Syria on May 17, 2017 and that, two months later, her ‘military education’ began.

‘Two women came and showed us how to take apart the AK-47,’ Anna writes in one diary entry.

‘One-by-one, the students took a turn firing at a stack of rocks. When it was my turn I walked over and took a deep breath and fired two shots. Sounds of appreciation erupted behind me.

‘It turned out I’d hit the 60-metre target both times. I was pretty chuffed with myself and in the mini-bus on the way back Amara said that I should become a sniper. I could easily stay here and help with the building up and the movement of the academy, but my aim is to fight, and I will do so.’

Dirk Campbell holding a portrait of his daughter Anna, with International YPJ soldiers

Over the months, Anna stayed in regular touch with her family through text messages and the occasional call.

Dirk recalls that she gave them a false sense of security, always reassuring them she was OK.

‘Every time she would say: “Hiya, everything’s fine. I’m just growing vegetables, sitting at a lookout post. I’m not in any fighting. It’s all a bit boring, really.’’

‘We thought she wasn’t actually in any danger, and that she was coming back in a few months.’

In the documentary, Dirk learns Anna had begged to join the battle in Afrin, the last Isis stronghold that was being heavily bombarded by all sides in the war.

He is baffled. Then, he is shown videos taken by the militia which gives him at least a fleeting understanding of what was in her mind.

Smiling broadly at the camera, and with a determined set to her face, Anna says: ‘I never thought that I could be someone who could participate in a revolution here. I want to know that it’s real.

‘Yeah, I feel like this is really important and amazing. And I’m going to learn a lot, and I don’t regret it for a second.’

Dirk is visibly shaken. ‘I think if I had known that she was facing lethal fire I would not have been able to sleep.

‘I would have tried to get there, to be with her. Perhaps I could have stopped her.’

The videos and diary have, however, helped. ‘Now that I’ve started reading it, seen her handwriting on the page, the lovely thing for me is that we’re having a conversation, although it’s just a one-way conversation, but I’m listening to her talk in a way that she didn’t feel she could talk to me.’

In one particularly poignant entry, Anna writes: ‘Part of me is terrified that I’ll never go back.

‘I think I have a lot of introspection and reading to do before I become a fighter.’

She was so entrenched that she was even given a new Kurdish name, Helin Qerecox.

By January 2018, the entries show Anna was becoming desperate to join the fighting on the front line.

‘I want to be a part of the fighting,’ she writes. ‘I want to feel my own strength, to defend myself and my friends. I watch and read all the news every day, see the martyrs’ photos and the funerals.

‘Maybe that’s why I want to go to Afrin so much, so I can feel closer to the struggle.’

Her commander, Nisran Abdollah, told Dirk that she reluctantly agreed to let Anna go. But she said the plan had been to keep Anna there for just three days.

It led to a very excited entry in Anna’s diary.

‘I happily and easily lied to dad yesterday on the phone, saying that I was pretty sure friends wouldn’t let me go,’ she writes.

Activist Anna Campbell was among protesters detained by the Police on September 7, 2013 during an anti-fascism protest in London

‘I’m ready to fight for this land and even die for it if necessary, although I’d rather not.’ Her words were sadly prophetic.

Eighteen days later, Anna was in a building in Mahmudiya, a small settlement on the north-western edge of Afrin with three other Kurdish fighters when it was targeted by the Turkish air force.

She had just stepped out of a concrete pipe that she was using as an air-raid shelter when an F-16 fighter jet, which had hit a neighbouring building, dropped a second bomb.

Anna died still clutching her battered AK-47 in her hand and wearing a pair of old trainers.

Her death was announced with regret and sadness in the House of Commons. She was called inspirational and hailed, by some, as a hero.

Now her father has, in her memory, taken up the baton to promote the Kurdish cause.

He is still fighting with the Turkish government to repatriate her body and is vehemently opposed to new Home Office legislation which doesn’t differentiate between terrorists and people fighting for British allies.

‘I’m distraught beyond measure – my heart has been torn out of my body,’ Dirk says.

‘But I’m full of pride that Anna went way beyond what her mother had achieved.

‘I have to accept, and we all have to accept, that it was her choice, very much her choice.

‘There was no doubt in her mind that she wanted to be the person she became.’

But those words are still, for him, rather hollow.

‘I feel a lot of guilt, a lot of grief. I obviously feel her loss all the time, every day. I’m never going to see my daughter again.’

l Anna: The Woman Who Went To Fight Isis is on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Wednesday, July 3.


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