In 2017 a young woman from Lewes in Sussex with no military background travelled clandestinely to Syria to enrol in the YPJ, an all-female Kurdish militia, who, alongside their male counterparts (YPG), were embroiled in deadly conflict against ISIS forces. Six months after Anna Campbell’s death, her heartbroken father Dirk travels to the camp where she trained in the hope of understanding her thoughts and movements in the last months of her life. (Anna: The Woman who Went to Fight ISIS, Wednesday, BBC2, 9:30pm.)
Lewes always has an air of being a nonconformist sort of place. The family is large, lively and individualistic; Anna’s mother Adrienne was once arrested for picketing Boots the Chemist. Adrienne’s death from cancer, aged 48, was one catalyst for Anna’s decision, Dirk believes, combined with the leftwing radical crowd Anna fell in with at Sheffield University. She left after a year to get involved in direct action, believing that capitalism was the root of all social evils. “We had arguments about this,” Dirk says mildly.
Poignantly, he reveals that Anna, born prematurely, was slow to develop physically; he used to make his bookish child go on long walks to build up her muscles. Dirk, whose carping mother made him feel “I would never amount to anything”, aimed for a more empowering parenting style, but now faces hard questions. “Was I too uninvolved, was I too lazy, was I too trusting?” On hearing of her decision to join the Kurds, all he could say was “It’s been nice knowing you.” “I should have looked after my little sister better”, weeps a sibling.
Anna, now renamed ‘Helin’ after one of the preceding “martyrs”, was clearly loved and respected on the ground. The aim was not just to defeat ISIS but to create a new, egalitarian society. “The enemy is capitalism, the enemy is patriarchy,” a comrade explains. Anna was a true revolutionary: “She couldn’t accept any other life than a free life.” Nisrin, Anna’s commander explains, “We do our best not to send the international women to fight,” but it was hard to restrain someone who dyed her blonde hair black to look more Kurdish.
Finding a diary among her possessions is like having another conversation with her, the one father and daughter couldn’t have when she was alive. “I happily lied to Dad yesterday,” she wrote. As her life moved towards its endgame, the YPG, YPJ and their international allies found themselves fighting Turkish forces, Turkey having decided that the Kurds’ territorial claims threatened its own sovereignty. Meeting the warm-hearted Kurdish people and roaming a cemetery with thousands of war graves allows Dirk to put his daughter’s death into a wider perspective. “She wanted to be the person she became.”
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