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Remembering Atwar Bahjat


A few weeks ago I learned that a journalist who was one of my colleagues was kidnapped, then, five days later, released unharmed with his driver in Baghdad.

I was shocked, then relieved. I somehow managed to find some humor in the not-so-humorous event.

Prior to his Iraq trip, my colleague, a young British reporter, had asked me if he “could use my name” as a reference should he be kidnapped. Despite the fact that I was unsure how my name — little known in Arabic press that dominated Iraq — would be of any help, I agreed.

I thought, if such an incident really occurred — where I would receive a telephone call from the kidnappers — I could try to persuade them in Arabic, that this journalist doesn’t deserve such a fate. In fact no journalist does, especially those coming to Iraq to truthfully depict and convey its tragic fate to the world. I thought I could appeal to them in the name of Palestine, being a Palestinian, or, if nothing else worked, I would offer to be swapped with the young journalist, being a US citizen.

I never received that fateful telephone call, however. My colleague, whose life seemed nearing its end on more than one occasion during the five-day ordeal, never communicated my name to the kidnappers. What good would’ve that done anyway? I still wonder. The dark humor in this however, is that he apologized, and promised to “drop my name” in the event of another kidnapping.

This is what has become the fate of journalists in occupied Iraq: Victimized by all parties involved — a frustrated military trying to hide facts, desperate militants seeking ransom or attention or both, and shadowy agents of chaos whose only mission is to fuel the fire and exacerbate the confusion, using whatever means necessary.

According to Reporters Without Borders, a total of 82 journalists and media assistants have been killed since the start of US war on Iraq and the subsequent invasion and occupation in March 2003. Seven of those were killed this year alone. One of the seven is Al-Arabiya correspondent, Atwar Bahjat, a young Iraqi journalist and most certainly one of the best.

Her body, riddled with bullets was found along with those of two other Iraqi journalists Adnan Khairullah and Khalid Mahmoud — near Samarra. The three were kidnapped shortly after Atwar concluded her last live report, conveying the drama that followed the insidious bombing of the revered Al-Askari Shiite shrine in the city on Feb. 22.

The daughter of a Sunni father and a Shiite mother, Atwar negotiated her way as a journalist and as an Iraqi to win the respect and the admiration of many. Throughout her career, however short, she managed to redefine the role of Arab women in the field of journalism, introducing a new breed.

Rightly, a great deal has been said about Atwar Bahjat by friends, colleagues and outsiders.

But the ingrained memory I have of Atwar is our constant battle over chairs in the Al-Jazeera newsroom. Let me explain.

Before moving to Al-Arabiya television, Atwar worked for Al-Jazeera, first as a reporter in Iraq, then as a newsroom journalist in the station’s headquarters in Doha, following the pro-US Iraqi government’s decision to shut down the station’s offices in her country.

Atwar was clearly unhappy with that arrangement. Her strength lied in her ability to convey the overlooked emotions of ordinary Iraqis, be it from hospital morgues, streets or other places. Something seemed to be missing in her life.

Before I decided to leave Al-Jazeera myself, in July last year, I spent a few months in the station’s newsroom. It was there where my path crossed with Atwar’s. One of the few Al-Jazeera women wearing a head scarf, Atwar’s presence insistently broke the ominous, redundant routine of the newsroom. Tireless in her pursuit to locate exclusive interviews, her distinguishably loud, yet warm Iraqi accent always echoed throughout. “Yes, my dear, my eyes, stay on the line for a minute, anything for you,” this was Atwar’s trademark; her kindness was indeed unmatched.

Though we both did different jobs, I managed to pass on to her many press releases, names and contacts of anti-war American activists and intellectuals, whom I felt were underrepresented in the station’s news reporting. Things worked well, until a chair crisis ensued in Al-Jazeera’s old newsroom, which left her and myself battling, almost daily over a haggard chair, missing one of its three wheels. She insisted that it was hers and of course, I always conceded. Last time I saw her a few days before I left the country. She stood in Al-Jazeera’s parking lot, as I was leaving, waiting for a taxi on a rare rainy afternoon in Doha. She peeked into my car and exchanged a few endearing words with my children, who were instantly mesmerized with Atwar’s colorful and chic attire.

I try, without avail to replace her happy image on that day with the dreadful one — that of a lifeless body riddled with bullets.

“Whether you are a Sunni or a Shiite, Arab or Kurd, there is no difference between Iraqis, united in fear for this nation,” she said in her last report, hours before she was murdered. Surely, those who wanted to perpetuate this sense of fear and jeopardize the nation’s unity believed that her voice must be silenced, and it was.

I don’t know what other lesson is to be learned from her death aside from the fact that it’s another episode in this senseless war and occupation. How many other precious lives will be lost this way, before we take a collective moral stand to declare: Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, enough is enough.

-Ramzy Baroud teaches mass communication at Curtin University of Technology and is the author of forthcoming The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle, now available at Amazon. He is also the editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com

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