Who killed Rosanna?: A London pathologist believes the Kurdish smuggler who murdered her son-in-law did not murder her daughter

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The Independent Online
FOR THE past three years, Marigold Curling, a consultant pathologist at St Bartholomew's hospital, has been looking for the person - or persons - who killed her daughter Rosanna in the Kurdish mountains of northern Iraq. She has made seven trips to the region, met everyone her daughter met, and retraced all her steps. She has confronted the man accused of killing her and been in court to see him convicted.

In the past year, she has also had to bear her husband's death in a car crash and the Government's efforts to close Bart's. That battle has been partially won: sections of Bart's have been reprieved. The other battle also goes on: last week, even while wishing she could close her files and find some peace of mind, Dr Curling wrote to tell the Kurdish justice minister she was convinced that Hashem Ciftci, the smuggler jailed for 26 years for killing Rosanna, her husband, Nick della Casa, and his brother-in-law, Charlie Maxwell, shot the two men but not her daughter.

'After killing Nick and Charlie, Ciftci would have wanted to make sure Rosanna could not testify against him,' she admits. 'But I believe he didn't do it. The judge said he was convicted because there was no one else in the area. But that surely cannot be taken as proof of murder] And there was someone else in the area' - the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK, who were holed up in the Iraqi mountains all winter, and Turkish commandos who were hunting them.

Ciftci has always admitted killing Nick della Casa and Charlie Maxwell, who left England in March 1991 to make a documentary about the Kurds of Iraq for the BBC. But he has consistently denied shooting Rosanna, even when offered his life in exchange for a confession. He seems to feel some admiration for Rosanna, who navigated by the stars and cooked wild grasses when they were all lost in mountains so inhospitable that even the Kurds give them a wide berth.

Although not a journalist, Rosanna had worked with Nick in Tibet and Afghanistan, and was confident as they set out for Iraq: Nick had not only survived 18 months as a captive of Mozambique's Renamo rebels, but also had the courage after his release to return to make an award-winning documentary about them.

Charlie, a barrister by training, had spent 12 years as an officer in the Black Watch and planned only to accompany the couple across the border into Iraq before returning to England with the first films.

Rosanna and Nick were married for less than six months. On 29 March, as Iraqi tanks fought their way back into northern Iraq after the Kurds' short-lived rebellion against Saddam Hussein, Rosanna saw her husband die. They were 30, eight years younger than Charlie Maxwell.

The three had arrived in south-eastern Turkey a week earlier, and were told that their BBC fixer would find them a guide in the town of Yuksekova to take them across the embattled Kurdish region into northern Iraq, 'liberated' from Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait and accessible only illegally.

In the right hands, the journey would have been difficult but not impossible. But the trio fell into the wrong hands - those of a young man who offered to guide them to Iraq, at a price. The man was Ciftci.

Rosanna's diary, found after her death, records that she was initially delighted with Ciftci, a slight, soft-spoken Kurd. But they could not communicate directly with him and Ciftci did not disclose that he was a draft-dodger on the run from the Turkish army and lived by smuggling.

Siamand Banaa, the Kurdish official who eventually tracked him down, said: 'He carried heroin from Iran and pornographic films from Turkey. He did arms, sheep, tobacco - everything you can mention. The three should never have been left in his care.'

Ciftci led the party towards the border on 23 March, leaving the main road whenever he saw a checkpoint. For more than four days they travelled across icy waters and over jagged peaks, sleeping rough and eating little. Villagers thought they were PKK guerrillas and reported them to police.

On the fifth day, Ciftci turned west to seek help from a relative in the village of Harki, the last village on the Turkish side of the border. The tired and dispirited travellers could not have been brought to a more useless place: the route across the border from Harki led to a wilderness cut off from the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan by a river swollen by snow and rain. The Iraqi army had destroyed all bridges in the area.

Ciftci's friend, Obeidullah, says he told Ciftci: 'You are leading them nowhere.' To which Ciftci replied: 'Mind your own business]'

Obeidullah nevertheless led Ciftci across the border on the following morning - 28 March. The four continued alone and soon found their progress blocked exactly as Obeidullah had warned. They had no choice but to follow the curve of the river and soon found themselves travelling north again - back to Turkey. On 29 March they stopped for lunch at a place called Stouni, another stony outcrop that was once inhabited. It was Good Friday. They had covered 10 miles in 24 hours. The only witness to what happened next is Ciftci, who says there was an argument - conducted in sign language - over money. He decided he had had enough and picked up his gun to leave. Nick grabbed the barrel. Ciftci slipped and, feeling at a disadvantage, fired.

'There was a moment of silence,' he told an interrogator later. 'I looked at the other man and shot him, too. After the first shot, he was still on his feet. With the second, he fell.'

And Rosanna, whose body was discovered four miles away? Ciftci first said that he 'took pity' on her as she hid behind a rock. Then he said he fired at her, but missed. Then he claimed that he wanted to kill her, but his gun jammed. But he has always maintained that he returned next morning to shoot her, but could not find her. Obeidullah, who went with him, corroborates his story and was acquitted by the court.

Dr Curling cannot see why Ciftci should admit two murders and deny a third. She believes that Rosanna suffered the cruellest ill-luck - and ran into another killer as she fled. 'Rosanna would have gone in the opposite direction to Ciftci after Nick and Charlie were killed,' she says. 'That would have taken her back to Turkey.'

In England, two months passed without news. And then, in mid-May, a deserter from the PKK walked into a Kurd safe haven carrying Charlie Maxwell's boarding card and a page from his passport. He reported finding two bodies.

The Royal Marines recovered the remains and the Curlings were informed that one of the victims was a woman. They met the plane that carried the coffins home in the belief that one held Rosanna. A week later, they were told they had been misinformed: both victims were men.

Dr Curling was deeply distressed, imagining Rosanna alive and in torment. She appealed to Massoud Barzani, Iraq's Kurdish leader. Barzani alerted Siamand Banaa, a veteran of his Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Banaa soon found Rosanna's tape recorder and Nick's cigarette lighter in Obeidullah's house, and learned that Ciftci had been the party's guide. He learned, too, that Ciftci had taken refuge in Iran.

Peshmerga guerrillas sent to Iran found Ciftci in a refugee camp 15 miles from the border and brought him back to Iraq. 'He looked like a lizard,' says Banaa. 'There was no emotion. I was very tempted to use unsavoury methods, but the most I did was to leave him without food or water for 24 hours.

'We tried everything short of torture. Massoud did something he has never done before. He sat down with a criminal and said: 'Listen, my boy, I am your only chance. If you tell me the truth, I will spare your life.' Everyone knows Massoud. Ciftci would have believed him. But he still insisted he did not kill her.'

Rosanna's fate remained a mystery until November, when a group of peshmergas remembered seeing the body of a tall blonde woman four miles away from Stouni many months before. The woman had been shot and was lying, covered in blood, beside a river. They had rolled the body into the river, thinking it was one of the PKK's female fighters, and forgot about it until Barzani appealed for information.

Dr Curling accepts that the body was Rosanna's and says it strengthens her belief that Ciftci did not kill her. She says Ciftci could not have followed Rosanna to the river, killed her and, as he apparently did, returned to Harki by nightfall on 29 March.

Nor does she believe that Rosanna could have walked four miles if she had been wounded in Stouni. The slippery shingle path from Stouni is so taxing that it defeated a Scotland Yard detective sent to the region to investigate. (A second, younger detective completed the course and found one of Rosanna's boots close to the river. Why, her mother asks, would she take off a boot if she was already mortally wounded?)

Although it is too late for Rosanna's father, Dr Curling is determined to discover the truth, and believes she can - if Turkey co-operates.

Banaa, who initially suspected the PKK, no longer does. Now Turkey has to be eliminated.

A private investigator who spent six weeks in the area believes Turkish agents followed Ciftci all the way from Yuksekova in the belief that he would lead them to PKK hideouts in Iraq.

Local people told him that Turkish commandos were conducting a pincer operation against the PKK on the day of the killings and advanced into Iraq along both sides of the river where Rosanna died.

He believes that Rosanna may have heard voices across the river and run down to call for help. Was she mistaken for PKK and shot?

Late last year, Turkey finally admitted what it has always denied: that its troops were inside Iraq on 29 March.

'It is essential that the Turks are pressed to do what President Ozal promised John Major he would do two years ago - order a police investigation,' says Dr Curling. 'So far there is not even a police report. The Turkish military must be asked to look at their records again - not only the records of the regular army, but also the gendarmes and special forces. Their help would remove a lot of doubts.'

(Photograph omitted)

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