Remembering Anna Campbell

Today we remember the martyr Anna Campbell, also known as Sehid Hêlîn Qerecox. 

Today, in the month of international women’s day, when the police are in our streets brutally attacking protesting nurses and those who dare to gather to remember a woman killed by one of their own, it becomes difficult to find leadership and inspiration in such a dark time. In these situations we must look to our martyrs, those who have gone before us to light our paths and offer the ultimate sacrifice for us. No greater example can be found of this than Anna Campbell. 

Anna was a leading feminist, ecological activist, migrant activist, a hunt saboteur, and animal rights activist. She was an anarchist who stood alongside oppressed people all across the UK and further. She was a plumber, she ran a cafe and a bar. She was a lesbian. She was a poet and an artist. And she gave her life defending the people of Rojava and the revolution they had built from genocide at the hands of the fascist Turkish/Isis invaders. 

Anna was born in 1991 in Lewes, East Sussex. Her mother, Adrienne was a microbiologist, working on cancer treatments, who went on to become a publisher and writer for the economist, among other prominent publications. Anna’s father, Dirk is a musician, an expert in African and Middle Eastern music and instruments due to a childhood spent in Egypt, he was a founding member of the progressive rock band, “Egg,” and composed the soundtracks to many popular films and television programs. To her father,  Anna seemed to have always been a revolutionary, “We were shocked when she told us she was going there,” says Dirk, a silver-haired man with a warm smile. “But we weren’t surprised.”

Anna was 11 when Dirk realised there was something different about her. “It seems a small thing, but I remember when she was at school she protected a bumblebee from being tormented by other kids,” he says. “She did it with such strength of will that they ridiculed her. But she didn’t care. She was absolutely single-minded when it came to what she believed in.” Militant resistance was in Anna’s family already, although she took it to new levels of commitment, as Dirk described, “Her mother Adrienne and I were once arrested for staging a sit-in in Boots after they moved the HQ to a Swiss tax haven. Most of her early interest in activism came from Adrienne,” Dirk says. “I remember in 2011, they went to a demonstration at the Houses of Parliament to commemorate the first Suffragette protest. They stormed the Houses of Parliament in Edwardian clothes.”

“People have called Anna a hero and a martyr,” her sister Sara says. “But what’s really difficult for the public to fathom is that she was also this big walking bundle of love: idealist, activist, dedicated bookworm, lover of insects, storyteller, creator of everlasting childhoods”

While she had always taken action wherever she saw the opportunity to fight injustice, Anna became fully organised and entrenched in political resistance in the student movement of 2010, as she headed to university. “The coalition had just started and the government began introducing cuts and increasing fees,” recalls one friend. “It was a big thing and there were student occupations all over the country.”

She was soon reading less of her beloved English classics in favour of books about anarchism, feminism and ecology. She became vegan and dropped out of university after her first year because, as Dirk puts it, “she was much more interested in doing what she was passionate about”.

That same year, 2012, Adrienne died of breast cancer four years after being diagnosed. Anna, then 21, threw herself deeper into the life she had chosen. She started training as a plumber, and was increasingly drawn to anti-fascist, animal and human rights protests across Europe. She displayed her commitment proudly, getting the letters ACAB tattooed on her ribcage. Anna was on the frontlines of the traveller site at Dale Farm, helping to defend families from bailiffs. “She was one of the first people to go into the Jungle in Calais to protect refugees from the gendarmes,” says Dirk. “She wrote letters to prisoners. She gave blood, was a hunt saboteur, protested the Dale Farm eviction and would always rope me into playing the Highland bagpipes at prison demos.”

Anna was part of the Empty Cages Collective, a group that fights for the abolition of prisons and against imprisonment as a business model. She actively participated in many anti-prison campaigns such as Community Action on Prison Expansion, Smash IPP and Bristol Anarchist Black Cross. Anna believed in the abolition of prisons as part of a larger problem that is the system of oppression in which we live. A colleague of Anna’s said that she was integrally involved with environmental campaigns and hunt sabbing. He also told a story about when Campbell set off fireworks outside Horfield Prison on bonfire night so the prisoners could see them.

Activists from Bristol Defendant Solidarity described her commitment in a statement after she fell martyr, “You could always rely on Anna to get things done and to be there at the heart of our organising and our struggle. She also recognised the efforts of others which helped to support and build revolutionary community. Whether it was writing, postering, leafletting, making banners, attending court, listening to defendant’s fears and needs, organising demos or fundraisers, providing practical support to those facing trial or in prison and so much more, Anna was always there. In the face of it all, Anna often seemed to have plenty of energy and a cheery and good humoured approach to doing all she could to work for revolutionary change. We always knew, and are now seeing the extent of how her involvement with BDS was just one small part of her efforts.

We think Anna’s strength and determination came from her love for all things free, for the people around her and in the struggle to make things better fighting oppression. She was determined. She read so much of the struggles of revolutionaries before her and she knew that she was on the right path in life. Her solid commitment and motivation was always and continues to be an inspiration to us all.

Let’s carry on where she left off. Rest In Power, Anna.”

Anna became “a key organiser” within the Industrial Workers of the World union. A spokesperson said: “Anna was a dedicated feminist, social justice and environmental campaigner, known to members for her activism around the student occupation movement, ecological and community outreach projects in Bristol and Sheffield. Rest in Power Fellow Worker.”

In 2015, Anna was beaten unconscious at an anti-fascist march. “She told me a woman had been dragged into the crowd by some fascists and no one was helping her,” recalls sister Rose, 24. “So Anna covered her face and ran in head first after this woman. The fascists beat her to the ground with sticks until a policeman dragged her off.”

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

When she heard about the political experiment in Rojava this seemed to her to be the way the world should be.  The social organisation at all levels, the equality. She wanted to help protect that.” After much careful research, Anna’s mind was made up. She told none of her friends what her plans were. She only told her family, and made them promise not to tell a soul.

“I should have got on the internet and looked up everything that was going on. I just didn’t know enough about it. All I knew was that it was a war zone. Perhaps I could have stopped her.”

Dirk pauses for a moment. “But, at the same time, I was really proud of her. I don’t think I had any right to stop her. She was a 26-year-old woman. I had to trust her.”

“She wanted to create a better world and she would do everything in her power to do that. She was determined to live in a way that made a difference to the world and she was determined to act on that and do whatever it took. She was prepared to put her life on the line. There aren’t many people who do that.”

“Of course, I was seriously worried,” says Dirk. “Then, the day that she flew out, the Turks bombed a YPJ position and killed 12 women. I panicked.” 

Anna arrived in Rojava just at the moment when Turkey, with the complicity of the US, launched an attack on an international base of the YPG / YPJ on the mountain of Qereçox. Key members of the self-defense militias were lost their life during the Turkish bombing. For this reason, Anna was offered the name of Hêlîn, in honor of one of the comrades who fell in the Turkish attack. Hêlîn means “nest” in Kurdish. Later, she would decide to choose the surname Qereçox, the same one used by all the YPG internationalist fighters who had crossed the border with her in those days. 

Anna came with the intention of joining the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) and fighting against the Islamic State. She was always very clear about her objectives and never gave up, despite the many difficulties and contradictions that an internationalist woman faces within the YPJ. Anna had an outgoing, positive and open personality; a great facility to establish relations of friendship and trust with all the people with whom she was. All those who knew her can assert that her passion for life, her enthusiasm, were contagious. She was intensely interested in the political theory of and read several books from the movement and its leaders. During the perwerde (education) Anna always tried to listen and participate, seeking to open the intellectual and political curiosity of the comrades with whom she shared the education of new fighters. She made a huge effort to learn Kurmancî. All the people who knew her were surprised by the speed with which she learned the language.

After several months of perwerde, she was finally assigned to the front of Deir ez-Zor. She fought on the front with will and tenacity. Without fear. Despite the long hours of waiting, she never allowed herself to be beaten by laziness and did sports every day, read and sought discussion and reflection with her comrades. Anna’s strong will was one of her great virtues. She always sought to improve, learn, fight against the part of her personality influenced by the late stages of capitalism.

Over the months, Anna stayed in regular touch with her family, sending texts, WhatsApp voice messages and the odd call when she could. “The thing is, whenever Anna called, she gave us a false sense of security,” says Dirk. “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.”

Then, on the 20th ofJanuary, Turkey launched its’ blitzkreig invasion. With their proxy Isis forces having been defeated, they rearmed, reformed and retrained them along the Syrian border, before sending them into the peaceful canton of Afrin, which had had a peaceful revolution and had been untouched by the civil war. Backed by constant air strikes and drone strikes with limitless supplies of tanks and heavy artillery, the jihadist fascists began to burn through the people’s  valiant defences, leaving trails of atrocities in their wake. Anna had no hesitation to answer the call to defend the people of Afrin. In fact, Anna’s commanders did not want to send her to Afrin. They saw the scale of death and destruction, several internationalists had already fallen martyr there. They considered Anna too valuable to risk on such a volatile front line. But Anna knew that she had come to defend the revolution and its peoples from all enemies, no matter how overwhelming. 

She gave her commanders an ultimatum: “Either I will go home and abandon the life as a revolutionary or you send me to Afrin. But I would never leave the revolution, so I will go to Afrin”.

Anna faced even more difficulty reaching Afrin. In order to defend their brothers and sisters and comrades in Afrin, fighters from the other cantons of Northern Syria had to be escorted by Russian military police through regime territory in Northern Aleppo. The Russians refused to transport any foreign fighters. With her fair skin and blonde hair, Anna faced great difficulty passing the Russians. She was undaunted however, and with the help of her comrades, Anna’s hair was quickly turned black and her skin darkened. Then she was in Afrin, on the frontlines against the fascist Turkish empire. By the time Anna arrived, the Turkish advance was becoming unstoppable, and it was all the noble fighters could do to hold off the advance long enough to allow civilians to flee. 

“It was like nothing I’d ever seen,” another English YPJ fighter described the last days of the Afrin invasion as the fascists encircled the city. “The bombing was really heavy, especially just before the city fell. They hit the hospital; people were fleeing. It was chaos. Hundreds died.”

It was in this unstoppable deluge that Hêlîn fell martyr, in defense of the city of Afrin. She gave her life in the struggle for freedom. Much has been speculated about the circumstances of her death, but an eyewitness confirmed that she died when the noqta (position) she was defending was bombarded by the Turkish artillery. Shortly after, the entire city fell.

The YPJ said at the time: “Our British comrade Hêlîn Qereçox (Anna Campbell) has become the symbol of all women after resisting against fascism in Afrin to create a free world. We promise to fulfill Şehîd (martyr) Hêlîn’s struggle and honour her memory in our fight for freedom.”

Her commander, Nesrin Abdullah said, “Anna’s martyrdom is a great loss to us because with her international soul, her revolutionary spirit, which demonstrated the power of women, she expressed her will in all her actions.

“On behalf of the Women’s Defence Units YPJ, we express our deepest condolences to (her) family and we promise to follow the path she took up. We will represent her in the entirety of our struggles.”

The Kurdish news outlet ANF, which Anna worked alongside closely released several articles about her after she fell martyr. An excerpt from one follows, “Hêlîn was proud to be part of the YPJ, a women’s militia that fights for the freedom of all women in the world. She believed in this principle. And precisely because of this, when the invasion of Afrin began, she insisted tirelessly on participating in the defense of the canton. She did not differentiate between the fascism of the Islamic State and the fascism of the Erdogan government. She knew that it was the same patriarchal, state-nationalist and capitalist mentality that drives both forces in the destruction of the project of the Northern Syrian Federation.

Hêlîn knew the risks of fighting with the YPJ against fascism in the Middle East, and assumed them with the conviction that what she did was the right thing to do. For this reason, all the comments of opinionated people in social networks and media talk shows who have declared her death as “futile” or her personality as “naive” are degrading. Regrettable is the paternalistic patriarchal mentality of journalists and males in social networks, who openly declare that the British government should take more care that its young citizens do not join revolutionary militias. These males basically say that young, white, European women are beings who cannot make responsible decisions and who need a patriarchal authority (be it a father, a boyfriend or a State), that is in charge of protecting them from dangerous and unconscious actions.

It is shameful to see how these comments have never been expressed in relation to any of the other seven British martyrs or other male internationalist martyrs of the YPG. These comments reflect that, although many people say that equality between women and men is a fact in Europe, the system continues to think that women should be under the tutelage of a paternalistic authority.

What the media does not mention is the involvement of the British State in the invasion of the Afrin Canton by the Turkish State and the jihadist militias. It is located precisely in Bristol, the city where Hêlîn lived, one of the centers where the weapons with which the Turkish army ended her life are developed and manufactured, as well as the lives of hundreds of other combatants and civilians. What the media does not mention is that the British government, with its complicit silence during the Afrin massacre, encouraged by the economic and geopolitical benefits, maintains intact the system of conquest, exploitation and misery of the Middle East, a system against which fought Hêlîn and the same one that ended her life. Her path in search of freedom for all peoples will be for many a guide in the struggle against the system of exploitation and domination that condemns us all, without exception, to a life of misery.”

A few months after Anna fell martyr, during the Turkish fascist leader Erdogan’s state visit at the invitation of our government, some of Anna’s friends and comrades from Bristol occupied the Filton Airbus factory, which manufactured parts for the British-Turkish jets which killed Anna and so many others. One of the occupiers explained: “The Bristol arms industry wants to pretend that the people it kills don’t have stories. So we have brought them the face of our friend, and the heroes who inspired her. The women of the YPJ have been critical in liberating the world from ISIS, and have been repaid with betrayal. We are here to shout their names from the rooftops. Anna Campbell, Sara Merdîn, Serhildan,  Arîn Mîrkan, Barîn Kobanê, we honour you and we miss you.”

Speaking to Bristol Post, Anna’s sister Sophie Campbel said, “She was a very passionate and heartfelt person. She was so determined. She had a deep empathy for people who were in need”.

A tribute to Anna from her colleagues appeared on a chalk board at café Kino this week reading: “Rest in power Anna Campbell. Our compassionate and courageous friend. We miss you greatly.” Almost every street in Bristol was daubed with graffiti and chalk messages in support of Anna. Tributes went out across Europe. A street in the Basque city of Bilbao was renamed in her honour. 

Demonstrations were and still are held across the UK and Europe, with thousands of people in the streets demanding the return of Anna’s body and for the fascist occupiers to return Afrin to its surviving people. 

As of writing this, Anna’s body is still lost somewhere in Afrin, alongside thousands of others, with more of the remaining civilian population disappearing or being massacred every day. But Anna lives on. Anna lives on in the movements across the world which she built, supported and inspired. Anna lives on in every city and countryside in this nation. Anna lives on in the unbroken resistance of the people of Northern Syria as they prepare and strengthen their resolve to face their fascist oppressors once more. 

Anna lives on in the tireless dedication that her father, and all others who knew her, has given to her movement since she fell, “I would be betraying Anna’s memory if I didn’t do everything in my power to bring the Kurds’ plight to the attention of the world, says Dirk, “Something must be done. And it needs to be done now, before anyone else’s children are killed.”

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