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Remembering Erik ‘Kosta’ Scurfield

Today we remember the martyr Konstandinos Erik “Kosta” Scurfield, also known as Sehid Kemal. Kosta was the first British citizen to be martyred in the Rojava struggle. Through his efforts of leadership and internationalism, Kosta created a powerful and resilient movement against oppression and a legacy which is still growing today. Kosta was 25 years old when he fell martyr liberating the village of Xizēla, near Tel Hamis from the fascist forces of Isis. Kosta was born in 1989 in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, and grew up in Royston, near Barnsley. His father, Chris works as an archaeologist. His mother, Vasiliki is a teacher-trainer. Two years after Kosta, his sister was born, then a brother came four years after that before his youngest sibling, another brother, followed in 1999. 

Vasiliki and Chris don’t remember the Kosta the way that his comrades describe. They didn’t know that Kosta. Instead they remember the three-year-old who, after his mother taught him to prepare cereal, got up at 6am every morning to make his baby sister breakfast. They remember the five-year-old who couldn’t bear to leave an injured jackdaw to die in the road so brought it home to care for it. Better than that, they remember the wide-eyed school leaver who dreamed of becoming an actor and spent the summer after his drama BTech at clown school.

“He even got a bit-part on Hollyoaks,” Vasiliki beams, turning to Chris. “He was on TV, wasn’t he?” Chris smiles and nods. “When Kosta set his mind on something, he wouldn’t give up until he made it happen. He was stubborn like that, especially as he got older.”

Growing up, Kosta was rarely cowed by authority. Vasiliki remembers neighbours complaining that her son had been hedge- hopping through their gardens with his best friend, Matt. Mary Hemmings, a pensioner, and neighbour of the family, remembered him after his death. “I spoke with the father three or four weeks ago, asking about Kosta. I was very fond of him,” she said. “I’ve known them all since they were children. Kosta initially wanted to be an actor and went to college in Nottingham.”

She said he had signed up with the marines when he was 21. She said: “I didn’t know he’d gone to Syria, though I’m not surprised. He’s always been the conscientious type.” Hemmings described him as “a lovely, handsome young man with the looks of a film star”. She said: “That’s why I thought it would be good for him to go into acting. He had a wonderful personality – a friendly person and a very handsome young man. He was a very strong-willed man. He knew what he was about.” 

He was a boy who got things done. In Barnsley, for example, he hired an allotment where he grew tomatoes and kept chickens. Mrs Scurfield said that even as a child, Kosta was keen to help those less fortunate than himself. He fundraised for charities and, aged 14 he travelled to Malealea, near Lesotho, South Africa, to help build a reservoir and plant trees.

By 19, Kosta had grown into 6ft 4in of towering brawn. He took up boxing and weightlifting. His world view was evolving, too. “He didn’t tolerate apathy or people who weren’t aware of what was going on in the world,” Vasiliki remembers. “He’d get this silly grin on his face when you said something stupid or you wanted to challenge him.” 

After sixth form, Kosta completed a circus training programme, before embarking on a two-year acting course at Clarendon College in Nottingham. Megan Thorpe, who studied acting alongside him at Clarendon college in Nottingham for two years, said after Kosta fell that he “had a wonderfully positive outlook on life; he was a really, really good guy. He really was an amazing, talented actor and a really exceptional person. After college, he joined the marines and we lost touch a bit, but he got in touch a couple of months ago to meet up.”

A spokesman for Clarendon college said he had been a student between 2008-2010, “Our staff remember him fondly, he was an excellent student and a popular, well-liked young man. Our deepest sympathies are with his family and friends at this difficult time.”

Shortly after his 20th birthday, Kosta announced that he was planning to walk to Greece to do national service (his Greek roots made him eligible). “He left with barely any money,” Chris recalls. “I was furious. What if he got into trouble?”

Their frustration at their self-searching son was compounded when they received a collect call from Venice begging for cash because he’d given his last pennies to a beggar. “We couldn’t help because of the recession,” says Chris. “To say I was pissed off is a bit of an understatement.” Still, Kosta found his own way and spent six months with Greece’s Hellenic Army. “He found it so boring and wanted to come home,” Vasiliki tells us. “They kept giving him sentry duty and wouldn’t let him box.”

Chris laughs, “They tried to stick him in a tank but he didn’t fit – he was too tall.”

The boy they knew had come home a man. He had no more interest in acting, Kosta knew how he would change the world. Vasiliki admits she was sceptical when he signed up to the Royal Marines in 2010. ‘I wondered how you go from acting to a career in the military,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think it suited his character. I thought he would struggle with the discipline. I didn’t think Kosta was suited to the military; his gentleness, his interest in the arts – he liked poetry and nurturing.

But he was a thorough researcher. He spoke to Royal Marines on social media and was impressed by their intelligence and the code which governs them.

However, I think he saw training in the Marines as a way to pursue aid work further down the line.’ 

And there was no debating with Kosta. “It caught his imagination,” says Chris. “He researched what he wanted to do and which company he wanted to be in and off he went.” 

In 45 Commando, Kosta excelled, specialising in battlefield medicine. One former colleague we spoke to, Patrick, described him as a “colossus of a young Marine, ruthless, but with a heart of gold”.

“I remember doing a close-quarters battle package with him. We were using Simunition [training ammunition] but it still frigging stings when you get shot. I also remember feeling apprehensive because  he was playing the enemy that day…I was right to – I still have the marks to prove it.”

Royal Marines who served with him in Britain described him as a “one-man army” who “found his true calling with the Green Berets”. 

But Kosta knew that he had a higher calling in life. A brief look at his Facebook profile from the time makes clear the immense political motivation that drove him. One of his profile pictures display him next to a portrait of Malcolm X. Another, made shortly before he left for Syria depicts George Byron, the English poet and lord who gave up everything, eventually including his life to participate in the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire.

When the fascist Isis forces began  sweeping across Iraq and Syria, Kosta was training with 45 Commando in Arbroath, Scotland. Mrs Scurfield said Kosta told her he had asked his commanding officer if they were going to intervene and help fight Isis in Syria, but he was told ‘no’. She said: ‘He became very frustrated that we [the government] were standing by as innocent people were being killed. I can understand his frustrations, 100 per cent. 

When he was told no, he couldn’t comprehend it. He grew up on a diet of ‘Let’s save the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’ or ‘Let’s save all the women in Afghanistan from the Taliban.’ There was a constant feed of propaganda from the British government over why we went to those wars, so when he was told, ‘Oh no, we’re not going to Syria’, he was frustrated. He’s always been the kind of kid who never expected other people to do things for him: if something you want is not happening, get off your bottom and do something about it.”

Kosta told his mother he was going to war on Christmas Day 2013, while driving to a family get together. “Mum, I want to go to Syria and help,” he told her. “The Kurds are dying and our government’s doing nothing.”

At first, Vasiliki thought he was joking. “I said, ‘Yeah, if you’ve got no shoes and no coat and some Englishman tells you he cares, what are you going to say? Oh, thanks for that.” That silly grin she knew so well was already creeping across Scurfield’s face. “Mum,” he replied, “I’d give them my shoes and coat.’” 

After the NATO coalition began to launch some air strikes against Isis in August 2014, Kosta again asked his commander if the British military would be going to fight them. Kosta was again told no. He resigned his commission in September. Through Facebook, he contacted a YPG recruiter and, within weeks, was on a plane to Iraq. Mrs Scurfield said she discovered Kosta had crossed in to Syria and sent a Facebook message to her son in a blind panic. He didn’t want me to worry,’ she said. ‘He had spoken of his desire to go there and I tried to persuade him to stay in the UK. I wanted him to remain safe, but he said his talents were in soldiering and battlefield first aid.’ She continued: ‘His intention was to go for five months. He was hoping I wouldn’t find out and he would return safely. I learned about it by accident and sent him a Facebook message. He replied and said he was safe and had arrived at his destination. I felt an awful resignation. You have little control when children are brought up to be free-thinking, critical citizens who stand up for what they believe in.’

My son was determined. When he made up his mind there was nothing I could do to change it.’ 

As one friend and former British soldier put it, “He wasn’t just bored and looking for something to do, he thought it was his duty to humanity. He knew people needed him. And he knew the danger he was putting himself in.”

After Kosta arrived in Iraq and made contact with his Kurdish comrades, as well as several internationalists from the US and Australia, they travelled together to the besieged Yezidi city of Sinjar, abandoned by the Iraqi army and betrayed by Barzani’s peshmerga, where Isis was attempting to genocide the Yezidi people. One of Kosta’s American comrades recalled their experiences there after returning home; “We were under constant fire for a month. We were sleeping through gunfire in bombed-out buildings, 50 metres from the Isis line, moving in tunnels, running for cover every time a mortar fell.

Isis attacks usually came at night. Dressed all in black, they would swarm over walls, illuminating the dark with gunfire. We were heavily outnumbered but managed to hold them back each time, aiming at their muzzle flashes. We knew that if they pushed hard enough we’d be overrun, so we agreed to not let anyone get captured; that we would die fighting together, no matter what.”

Weeks passed and no one was captured. “Day to day, we held our line. Kosta built a makeshift gym to keep us fit and cooked most of our meals. I have this image of him laughing while chopping frozen chickens on an Isis helmet, bombs going off in the distance. He could even make tinned meat taste good.” The Polish-American fighter recalled when Kosta saved his life after the injury that sent him home.  “Rounds were flying everywhere when a bullet went through my thigh,” he says. “While I was fighting to stay conscious, Kosta and an American named Cudi stemmed the bleeding, loaded me on to a makeshift stretcher and carried me 300 metres under constant fire to an evacuation vehicle. If it hadn’t been for them, I would not be here today.”

He remembers the last conversation he had with Kosta before he blacked out. “He was joking, asking me how it felt to be shot and if I was happy that I could go home,” he adds, his voice beginning to tremble. “The last thing I saw before I passed out was Kosta sprinting back to the frontline. I had no idea that would be the last time I saw my friend.”

Kosta spent months on the frontlines with his comrades in the YPG as they crossed into Syria to push back the Isis fascists from Kobane and Qamislo. By all accounts, Kosta was a leader on the front and a formidable fighter, as well as an indispensable battlefield medic, saving many more lives. It was near Qamislo that Kosta was to fall martyr. A fellow English fighter recalled a conversation they had the day before he fell, about an ex US army fighter who did not understand the gravity of the struggle they were a part of and was refusing to learn, ‘“Why the fuck is that American guy even here, man?” He said as he sat by the roadside cleaning his M16. He looked shattered after fighting all through the night,’ recalls the fighter. “But he seemed well.”

The friends discussed the war and other Westerners who, like them, had joined the YPG to help drive Isis out of Syria and Iraq. “He hated this one gung-ho American in my unit who had no real understanding of what we were trying to achieve with the YPG,” says the fighter. “He had no time for people who didn’t believe in the cause.”

The conversation lasted a few minutes before the his unit moved out. “I waved him goodbye and left him cleaning his gun,” remembers the fighter. “That was the last I saw of him. He was killed the next day.”

Kosta’s mission for that day was to shuttle injured fighters and refugees to safety from Xizêla, a small village on the outskirts of Tel Hamis, which, until recently, Isis had overrun. 

Kosta was in an armoured truck with two Kurdish comrades and an Iranian Christian comrade as well as a fellow western fighter. They drove carefully through the fading light, guided by muffled radio communications sent by their comrades waiting for them about a mile behind the town. As the sun fell, the cold crept in.

The attack came, as they usually do, without warning. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) streaked into sight and slammed into the ground next to the vehicle, tearing a hole the size of a grapefruit into its side. Shrieks of “Takbir!” and “Allahu Akbar!” rang out as a swarm of Isis fighters opened fire from behind a nearby wall. Muzzles flashed and automatic-weapon fire ripped over Kosta and his comrades’ heads.

The Iranian comrade shot back from the machine-gun turret mounted on the back of the truck and the driver put his foot down. The quiet evening had come alive with the thunder of war.

They reached the Kurdish line in minutes. A support crew helped unload the wounded and the team turned back to rejoin their comrades. They’d soon return to refill and deliver supplies, again and again, back and forth. During one run, the Iranian comrade was shot in the hand, so he could no longer operate the turret gun. Typically, Kosta was first to volunteer to take his place.

“Kosta was under the most horrendous fire,” the English fighter said. “Bullets were flying everywhere, mortars were going off, RPGs whizzing in every direction. Yet, each time they stopped to resupply,it was Kosta thanking everyone for their help and spurring them on.”

At one point, Kosta turned to the other Westerner helping to resupply and exhaled, “Fuck me, this is unbelievable, the fire that’s going down; I’m going to get shot here.” They would be the last words he’d say in his native tongue.

“It happened during the final run,” says the English fighter. “Kosta was in the rear of the vehicle ring both his machine gun and numerous RPGs and, all of a sudden, a missile struck the front of the vehicle.”

For the first time since battle erupted, Kosta’s gun fell silent. The driver managed to limp the truck back to safety where YPG fighters rushed to help. “They pulled out three Kurds,” says the English fighter. “One was bleeding from his ears, another was unconscious and the driver had a bad head wound. When they pulled Kosta out it was too late; he’d been hit by shrapnel. One of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met had already gone.”

Kosta’s family broke the news to the public in the following statement; “We are devastated to confirm the death of our son Konstandinos Erik Scurfield in Syria, where he went to support the forces opposing Islamic state. His flame might have burned briefly, but it burned brightly with love, courage, conviction and honour and we are very proud of him.”

The family received details of Kosta’s passing before the Foreign Office. Representatives of the YPG gave the family an official letter of thanks, setting out where Kosta was martyred. Mrs Scurfield said: ‘Initially, the Home Office gave us the number of a repatriation company in Iraq and left to it. They wanted a minimum of $12,000 (£7,967).’

But the Kurds of northern Syria and Iraq took charge and helped fast track the return of Kosta’s body within 10 days. Kosta’s father and uncle then flew to Syria to collect the body, which he received during a ceremony attended by hundreds of members of the YPG.

At Manchester airport, Kosta’s mother was waiting to identify his body. Over 250 mourners from the community also gathered at the airport to pay their respects. Kosta’s funeral was held on March 26 at the Greek Orthodox Church in Nottingham, where he was given a hero’s send-off. Hundreds of people filed past Kosta’s coffin, which was draped in the Union Jack, a YPG flag, and decked in flowers and pictures. There were shouts of ‘martyr’ and ‘hero’ from the crowd, many of whom carried his picture.  

Messages flooded in from those who had known Kosta. A former US soldier who fought alongside Scurfield for several months, said: “Words cannot describe how honoured I have been to fight at your side Sehid Kemal. We were together from his first day here and you couldn’t ask for a more disciplined warrior. Kosta volunteered for every attack and guard-duty opportunity. He wanted nothing more than to bring the fight to the enemy. I’m going to carry on your legacy brother, I will never forget you. I love you man. Save me a place up there, big guy.”

Another westerner who fought alongside Kosta said, “Words cannot describe how I feel right now. Hands down one of the greatest people I have ever met in my life. I cannot even begin to describe the character of this man. You will be avenged my brother.”

At a ceremony held at Kosta’s graveside on the two year anniversary of his death, his father thanked the Kurdish community for their continued support: “It means such a lot to us. The Kurds are brave and deeply honourable people and I wish the British would support them more. They deserve our full recognition as they stand against Isis.”

Houlia Mola, from the Nottingham Kurdish Solidarity Campaign, said: “Kosta gave his life defending humanity from fundamentalism and also trying to build a new reality in the Middle East with the Kurds. He is a hero in the eyes of the Kurds and all people believing in freedom and democracy.”

Kosta’s father has been a continued supporter of the Kurdish community and their struggles here and abroad and has been a figure of support for the families of other English martyrs. 

Grieving Mrs Scurfield cracked with emotion as she described her feelings shortly after Kosta’s death.

‘It’s sinking in slowly. I’m never far from grief. It’s very difficult,’ she said.

‘There are no words for this kind of loss. It’s like having chronic and acute agony at the same time – and even that doesn’t describe it. The fact that life goes on is a destruction and a salvation. ‘

‘It’s been tough on my family – it’s been a lot to take in. I’m thankful that there are other ways people can die, but Kosta made his death count.’

‘I am aware people will say that he asked for it by going out there. But if I think, “I wish he hadn’t gone”, that means I wish he wasn’t true to himself. I’m proud because he faced fear. They did tell me they would put up a statue of him.  For the Kurds, he was completely unrelated to them, but he cared enough to go there and contribute. They are the biggest ethnic group without a country and for the first time I think they didn’t feel abandoned. I’d like to think Kosta gave them some hope.’ 

Kosta’s final post on Facebook before travelling to Iraq was a quote, the last words of Sophie Scholl, the antifascist German student who was beheaded by the Nazis in 1943 for distributing anti-war leaflets with her brother at university, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

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