Remembering a valiant journalist: Atwar Bahjat
By Ramzy Baroud
Journal Contributing Writer
Mar 17, 2006, 12:44
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
the 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
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 the 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
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
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 lay 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 incessantly 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 us 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. The last time I saw her was 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
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
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