It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when Icelanders adamantly believed that protesting was just not something they do. Sure, there were riots when Parliament voted to join NATO in 1949, but apart from that, the running narrative was that Icelanders don’t protest.
That began to change in the middle of the first decade of this century, when the Icelandic government gave the green light for the Kárahnjúkar dam project, which flooded a large swath of the Highlands, Europe’s last great wilderness. It was then that a few Icelanders began to experiment not only with protesting, but with direct action. The practice was so alien to Icelandic authorities that they began floating rumours that foreign “professional protesters” were behind most of what the protesters were doing.
One of these Kárahnjúkar protesters, most of whom were organised into a group called Saving Iceland, included Haukur Hilmarsson, then just 17-years old. Haukur did not need coaxing from foreign protesters—as his mother, Eva Hauksdóttir, told us, Haukur was born with an innate sense of justice. That passion for standing up for the oppressed would end up having him fighting for the rights of refugees in Iceland, taking an active (and iconic) role in the 2008-2009 protests, and ultimately all the way to Syria where, fighting alongside the International Freedom Brigade, he would pay for his quest for justice with his life. He was 31 years old.
But that was last March. Since then, Haukur’s remains have yet to be repatriated, despite repeated pleas from Eva and pressure placed on Icelandic authorities by her and other family and friends of Haukur. She has been stonewalled by the Icelandic government at every turn, even as Haukur’s case made international headlines.
So who was Haukur Hilmarsson? What is, or should be, his legacy? And why exactly are the whereabouts of his remains still largely unknown?
“When Haukur was a child, he was very obedient to his parents and teachers, but he always defended people who he felt had been treated unjustly,” remembers Eva. “As he grew older, he became more rebellious towards authorities; questioning the law and the police, and I was a bit surprised because he’d always been such a good child. When I asked him about this he said it’s very different being under the authority of someone who cares for you, or if you’re under the command of some impersonal state or system with no personal connection to you. I think most of what Haukur has been doing since he was a teenager can be seen in light of this distinction he made between personal authority and the state or some other impersonal authority.”
This personal philosophy was arguably formed when he was still in kindergarten, and Eva offers one telling aspect of young Haukur’s character that would be the hallmark of his actions for the rest of his life.
“When he was in kindergarten, he got a written assessment from his teacher who said that Haukur was the mediator in the class; that he was the most peaceful of all these children and always wanted to take everyone’s interests into account,” she says. “He always stood up for justice, and if someone was being harassed or bullied, he would always be the one to stand up for them. Even if he was very afraid of the bullies. I think this is important. Haukur was not fearless. He just wasn’t controlled by fear.”
Which is not to say that Haukur had a chip on his shoulder. He also had a strong sense of diplomacy, especially towards people who simply didn’t know any better. “When he grew older, he developed this attitude that when you have a conflict with someone, and they’re saying some nonsense and are misinformed, but they show that they’re willing to consider what you’re saying, then you should always let them have a chance to step out with dignity,” Eva recounts. “He wasn’t just a fighter; he was a mediator, and I think that’s an important aspect of his character.”
His willingness to confront abusive power, even when scared, showed in his participation in the Kárahnjúkar protests, when he was barely 18-years old. This was his first act of protest (that we know of) where getting arrested was a real possibility.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Eva says. “I was worried about him, but he always explained to me why he was willing to take these risks. It wasn’t because he wanted to pick a fight with the police. There were principles and visions that he was ready to take risks for.”
As a testament to his respect for legitimate authority, when he was eventually arrested for his participation in the Kárahnjúkar protests, the first thing he did was ask the police to call his mom.
The Paul Ramses incident
News stories about refugees and asylum seekers in Iceland are frequently reported now, but just ten years ago, few Icelanders had much understanding of what asylum seekers are put through. As has so often been the case, Haukur was ahead of his time in that respect, too, especially in regards to one case in particular: that of Paul Ramses Oduor, who fled Kenya in 2008 with his wife Rosemary due to political persecution he was facing in his home country. In Iceland, they had a child together, but Icelandic authorities decided that we would be deported to Italy, separating him from his wife and child. The case touched Haukur deeply, and prompted him to take direct action.
“It was not until 2008 that we became aware that there were refugees in Iceland,” Eva says. “We never really thought that there were asylum seekers who were being kept like animals for months or even years. We became aware of this when Paul Ramses’ lawyer talked about his case on TV. Haukur called me in the middle of the night, saying there was a refugee being taken away from his family to be deported, and we needed to do something about it. And I said, ‘Yes, of course, let’s talk about it in the morning’ but he said, ‘No, we must do something now.’”
That ‘something’ was Haukur, along with friend Jason Thomas Slade, running out onto the tarmac to stop the plane that was to take Paul to Italy. The action became a top news story, and prompted other activists to join the effort to bring Paul back home. Months later, Paul returned for good. His family are now Icelandic citizens, and Paul has credited Haukur and Jason with saving his life.
For Eva’s part, she felt a mother’s pride. “I was, of course, worried that he’d get hurt or arrested,” she says. “But I agreed with him that this was very important and something needed to be done. I was proud of him, even if I was worried, but most of all I understood why direct action was necessary. I agreed with him even if I haven’t done a lot of these things myself. I think direct action is very important. Something being illegal doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong.”
Hoisting the Bónus flag
When, in the wake of Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008, anti-government protests began to take off, Haukur was a part of that, too. While he participated in many ways, there is one moment in November of that year that most Icelanders remember him for: climbing onto the roof of Parliament and hoisting the flag of Bónus, a supermarket giant owned at the time by an Icelandic billionaire. The image of Haukur on the roof of Parliament standing next to the Bónus flag became emblematic of how many Icelanders regarded the government as hopelessly corrupted by business interests. It took Eva completely by surprise.
“I actually didn’t see him raise the flag,” she says. “Haukur never told me what he was up to unless I was a part of it. He was very secretive about his actions, and always said he wouldn’t tell anyone who didn’t need to know about his actions in advance. In this case, I was just at work and had no idea he was going to do this.”
At the time, Eva was working at her downtown shop, Nornabúðin. “Suddenly he came running in to the store, and went into the back area. He said: ‘I’m going to take a shower. Let me know if the police come here.’ Then he waited there for half an hour. He knew that the police could come into the shop, but they couldn’t come into my private space without a search warrant. So he wanted to buy a little time to talk to us before he was arrested, which he expected would happen.”
But the police didn’t arrest him then. They waited six days, until the night before the next demonstration, to arrest him—an event which in itself sparked protests at the police station holding him. Even so, Haukur never saw this act of protest as remarkably significant.
“Haukur just thought it was funny and symbolic,” Eva says. “He felt that demonstrations like these were important, just because it’s so easy to show people what one person can do. If one person can change the appearance of a building, then what could a thousand people do? What could ten thousand people do? He never thought of that action as one of the most significant of all the things he had done over the years. He was far more concerned with the work he did with refugees than this Bónus flag demonstration.”
Haukur remained politically active even after the anti-government protests came and went, getting involved with everything from union organising to continued advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers with the founding of No Borders Iceland, but he was largely out of the public eye. That is, until last March, when it was reported that Haukur had not only gone to Syria to join forces with the International Freedom Battalion (IFB), but had also been killed in Afrin, under heavy fire from Turkish forces.
This news blindsided Eva completely—she hadn’t heard from him in weeks, but knew that he had gone to Syria.
“The last time I talked to him was on Skype, in midsummer 2017, while he was in Greece,” she recalls. “After that, we only had email contact for a while. I did not know what he was up to. I was on summer holiday, and I wasn’t surprised at first that we weren’t talking every day. But then weeks passed. I was surprised that I wasn’t hearing from him and he wasn’t replying to my emails.” She began to worry, and started asking his friends if they heard from him. “When we hadn’t heard from him for six weeks, we found out that he had actually gone to Syria, in July 2017. He didn’t tell me about it, because he didn’t want us to worry and he thought if he told me in advance that I would stop him.”
Already beside herself with worry, the news of his death would reach her not from Icelandic authorities, but through social media.
“I only learned he was missing in action through social media, last March,” she says. “I hadn’t heard from him in weeks at that time and had started to get very worried because I knew that Afrin had been attacked. We thought that he was on his way back already—when a journalist called Haukur’s father about the news, his first reaction was to correct the reporter that Haukur was in Greece. We thought he was on his way home. I had several messages in my inbox on Facebook, from people asking what happened. I started trying to find out what they were talking about, but then a friend called telling me that there was some serious news. While he was telling me this news, I saw the post from the International Freedom Battalion, and my first reaction was denial, but only for a few seconds. Then we realised this must be true: these were his pictures, his date of birth.”
Bringing him home, or trying anyway
As a parent, Eva naturally wanted to bring his remains back to Iceland. That task would end up being a lot more complicated than initially anticipated—so complicated, in fact, that Haukur has yet to be repatriated.
“The first thing I did, of course, was to try to find out what had happened. Journalists in Syria got me in touch with the IFB, but in Turkish media there were all these reports that his body would be repatriated. I expected that his body would be sent to Iceland, and when I talked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, my question wasn’t ‘if’ I would get his body, but ‘how.’ I just wanted his death to be confirmed. I asked the Ministry to be in touch with Turkish authorities to identify his body. That hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know if the Turkish government has his body or just left it to rot.”
Eva continues: “The Icelandic government says they’re doing everything in their power, but ‘everything in their power’ obviously does not include asking the Turkish authorities what happened to the bodies of those who were killed. I really don’t know what they have done. Every time I’ve asked them, they’ve told me that this is not possible, that this is not how things are done. It’s possible they’ve asked this question, but then why not just tell me? I don’t understand why they can’t just ask them.”
A maddening process
The process that would unfold since then, which is still ongoing to this day, is one in which Icelandic authorities insist they are doing everything they can, but demonstrate an incredible amount of deference to Turkish authorities while not offering Eva much by way of pertinent information.
“They say the Turkish authorities have confirmed that Haukur is dead,” she says. “How can they confirm he’s dead if they don’t have the body? I think it’s strange. It’s been seven months now, and Turkey still hasn’t responded as to how they know that Haukur is dead. Why doesn’t the Icelandic government do something more than just email them? Why don’t they ask NATO for assistance, or the UN, or the European parliament? Why do they not ask for help if they can’t do anything more themselves? It’s Iceland’s right to know what has happened to Icelandic citizens. I don’t really see the Icelandic government doing anything significant. They’ve just been emailing embassies. What are they supposed to do? The Icelandic government is just doing a lot of things that are not likely to yield any results.”
If there is any silver lining in this, it’s the level of public support Eva has been getting.
“I think most people understand how we are feeling,” she says. “There are so many people in Iceland who have been through the experience that someone they love is missing and the body isn’t found, or know someone who has been through this. The only people who seem to not understand what we’re going through are the authorities.”
One of the more common contentions that has been raised to explain the Icelandic government’s lackadaisical attitude about Haukur’s disappearance is that, as a constant thorn in the side of Icelandic authorities, they are more than happy to be rid of him. Eva rejects this theory outright, attributing how the Icelandic government has responded to more mundane elements.
“I’ve wondered about this myself, but I don’t think this is the case. I think they are just incompetent and lack experience and understanding,” she says. “I don’t think the inaction has anything to do with him being rebellious. I think they would not behave any better if he was an unknown person. Maybe they would have tried a course of action that’s more efficient if he was related to someone in the government. I think the Icelandic government sees the Turkish government as allies, in some way, both being in NATO, and the Icelandic government has been doing some business with Turkey. I think it has more to do with that. I don’t think they hate Haukur; I think they just don’t care about him, just as they would not care about someone they had never heard of. They lack competence and the will to do something about.”
Even in her time of confusion and grief, Eva sees her situation as being symptomatic of a larger problem.
“This is not the only time that someone has gone missing and it seems that the police are not really investigating,” she says. “Of course, the Icelandic police don’t have jurisdiction in Turkey, but they do have an obligation to Haukur and me and his family as Icelandic citizens. So even though they can’t investigate this as though it had happened in Iceland, they are still obliged to get answers and do something efficient about it. The police are either not skilled for such investigations or they don’t consider them important. They do good work if it has something to do with drugs or protests, but in too many occasions where citizens are under some kind of threat, like physical assault, it seems that they are not really ambitious.”
On September 28, the Ruling Committee of Information Matters concluded that there are several documents that Eva is entitled to, but the Foreign Ministry has yet to hand them over. Rather, the Ministry has said that when they are done processing another information request that she filed, then they will take the committee’s conclusion into consideration. Further, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has three times now asked the Foreign Ministry for a progress report. The Ministry only replied early in October, saying they are just about to do something about it.
The whole process has left Eva feeling as though she is spinning her wheels.
“I don’t really feel as though I can take any steps,” she says. “What I have been trying for months is to get exact information about what they have been doing. So when I find out what they have been doing, then I can decide what I’m going to do—if I’m going to travel to Turkey to find out for myself, which I don’t think is a good idea, but maybe that’ll be the only option. Maybe I can initiate legal proceedings to get the state to acknowledge my right to information. But first I must know what they have been trying to do.”
Remember Haukur’s real legacy
Praise has certainly been heaped on Haukur’s memory since his death, from people around the world, who know him solely as yet another foreign fighter to be felled defending the Kurds against the Turks. Eva would rather not see him remembered this way.
“I really wish that people who want to fight for justice and are compassionate towards oppressed groups will find some other way than joining an armed resistance movement,” she says. “I really hope Haukur won’t be remembered for only that, because there are so many other things that he had done before. I hope that people who admire Haukur look to these things.”
Anyone who knew Haukur and has been following this story since his reported death has likely asked themselves: what would Haukur think of all this? Eva believes, if her situation and his were reversed, that Haukur would probably go much further.
“Haukur didn’t want the authorities to search for him,” she says. “He didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Of course, he doesn’t have a choice now; it’s my right to know what happened to him. Haukur thought that even if he didn’t want to have anything to do with authorities, the state is a fact that we have to contend with. Since we don’t have any other choices, we are forced to pay taxes to the state, we are forced to follow the law of the state even if we didn’t support this law or didn’t vote for the parties who created it. Because we have no choice but to respect the state. But the state also has obligations. He made this clear in many instances, especially regarding cultural and economic rights. I think that if he was in my shoes, he would be very angry at the government for not doing anything because as citizens, we don’t just have obligations, we have rights. I think if I was the one who was lost, and he was the one dealing with the government, he would have done something far more significant than just raising the Turkish flag on top of the government offices like his brother did last June, or to write some blog posts about it like I’ve done. I think he would have found some other way to get his message through.”