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Atwar Bahjat: Death of a Fighter for Truth
Published on Sunday, February 26, 2006 by the Sunday Times /UK
Atwar Bahjat: Death of a Fighter for Truth
by Hala Jaber

As one of Iraq’s most gifted journalists, Atwar Bahjat covered many funerals, capturing the grief, indignation and fury of countless mourners struggling to comprehend their country’s descent into sectarian conflict.

A TV grab taken off the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite news channel shows its reporter in Baghdad, Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat al-Samerai who was assassinated in Samarra on 22 February, transmitting her last report from an open field on the fringes of the central Iraqi city after sunset yesterday. Three Iraqi journalists working for al-Arabiya were kidnapped and killed on the outskirts of Samarra, north of Baghdad, police said. (AFP/Al-Arabiya)
Yesterday her own funeral made news when the procession through Baghdad was attacked, first by a gunman and then by a bomber. Three people died, all members of the security forces, compounding the anguish and bewilderment of Atwar’s family and friends at her killing last Wednesday.

The only solace for those of us who knew her came from our memories of a brave woman who fought a fierce battle for something she believed in: the truth.

I last saw Atwar a few weeks ago in Iraq. She was her usual smiling self, beautifully dressed in one of the colourful headscarves that she loved to wear. Her brow furrowed only when she talked about the disintegration of Iraq. Chronicling its collapse for the al-Arabiya news channel had become her mission in life.

She invited me to lunch, as she always did. As ever, I declined. Iraq has become such a dangerous place for journalists from the western media that I could not justify the risk of driving to her home. To die covering a story would be one thing. To die — or even to be kidnapped — on my way to lunch just would not be acceptable.

I first met Atwar in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. We were the only two Arab women journalists there and immediately struck up a friendship. Her contacts book was placed at my disposal.

We giggled about how the clerics ordered her to shroud herself in black and remove any sign of make-up when in Najaf’s holy shrine.

Atwar refused to accept their strictures, arguing that the colour in her scarf should not matter as long as she was decently covered. Her argument prevailed and she earned the respect of those who until then had seen her only on television.

Atwar’s was a famous face in the Arab world. Her modern Islamic attire in pale pinks, blues and greens became her hallmark and her celebrity drew viewers. She did not just report the news; her reporting went to the core of the issues that have convulsed Iraq and confronted the extremists with the results of their actions.

Not everyone liked what they saw. Death threats drove Atwar away to Qatar but she could not settle. She believed that her place was in Iraq.

She returned to a new home in a different district where she believed the risks would be lower. She convinced herself that being an Iraqi Muslim woman working for an Arab organisation conferred some immunity from danger.

I know that feeling. But the cruel fate that Atwar met last week showed that we Arabs are in just as much danger.

On Thursday morning when I logged on to the news from Iraq, Atwar’s face was staring out of the screen with details of her murder.

Nothing prepares one for such a moment — for the feelings of despair, helplessness and even guilt for being alive, combined with a terrible fear of dying in a similar way.

For the first few minutes Atwar’s smile flashed in my mind, alternating with visions of body bags, bullet-ridden bodies and beheadings — the nightmares I banish when I am back from Iraq in the safety of my home in London.

For the next hour I read every item I could find about her death, searching in vain for any clue that might explain it. I needed to make sense of it, yet all I could think was that I had declined her invitations to lunch.

The bleak facts were that Atwar had driven to her native Samarra after the destruction of its Shi’ite shrine but found her route blocked by security checkpoints. Wearing a green coat and matching headscarf, she made two live broadcasts from just outside the city.

Her third broadcast, just after 6pm, was her last and her make-up failed to conceal her strain. Not only was she tired; she was telling colleagues she was worried that she could not get into the city, night was falling and she was a long way from home.

A small, hostile crowd gathered. Then two gunmen arrived in a pick-up truck. She appealed to the crowd for help but the gunmen dispersed them by firing into the air.

Soon afterwards more shots were heard. Atwar’s body and those of her camerman and sound man were found next to their van. The green coat was ripped by two bullets in the back. She also took two to the head. She was 30 years old.

Why do journalists like Atwar continue to report from Iraq, where 64 of us have been killed in three years? It is not for money; nor is it for the adrenaline “highs” that so-called war junkies are supposedly hooked on.

For Atwar, covering Iraq had become a moral obligation. Journalists have become the eyes, ears and voices of millions of Iraqis.

Half Sunni and half Shi’ite, Atwar’s dedication to impartial reporting made her enemies on both sides of Iraq’s sectarian divide: she could never satisfy one without infuriating the other.

If only her enemies had paid more heed to the symbol of unity that she always wore around her neck — a golden locket in the shape of Iraq.

© 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.


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