I never had the good fortune to meet Atwar Bahjat. If I had, I would have told her that she was my hero.
Her brutal murder last week has robbed me of the privilege of meeting her and so I shall share my admiration with you instead. As one of the very few female Arab reporters covering a war, she was my hero. At a time when most television journalists in Iraq file stories from the rooftops of their hotels, Atwar was an Iraqi determined to report the truth of what was happening in her country from the streets themselves and among her countrymen and women and for that too she was my hero.
It took unimaginable courage for Atwar and her cameraman Khaled Mahmoud al-Falahi and soundman Adnan Khairallah to file reports from the outskirts of Samarra knowing how much hostility and anger filled the streets in the aftermath of the bombing of the Golden Shrine.
I send my deepest condolences to the families of all three journalists as well as to al-Arabiya, for which Atwar reported, and al-Jazeera, where she had worked until early this year. Both stations are sadly familiar with losing journalists to violence in Iraq but al-Arabiya is in the unenviable position of having lost more, with a t least eight killed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, some of them killed by U.S. forces and others by suspected militants.
Every death is tragic of course but if you ask me or any other journalist we will admit that we are most shaken when it is one of our own who falls. Journalists are our eyes and minds on the battlefield, telling us what too many others, be they military or insurgent, are all too eager to keep hidden.
Kidnapping and killing Atwar and her crew was of course ultimately about shutting our eyes and minds by silencing the media. It is little wonder that according to figures provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 64 journalists and 23 media workers have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, making it the deadliest conflict for the media in recent history.
And just as ordinary Iraqis account for the highest casualty figures in the war and ensuing violence, so do Iraqi journalists. In fact, along with
U.S. journalist Jill Carroll, whose fate has been reported on more extensively, there are two Iraqi journalists who are being held hostage today – Marwan
Ghazal and Reem Zaeed of Iraqi Samaria TV were abducted in Baghad on February 1.
The brutal killing of Atwar and her crew symbolized the ugly marriage of that urge to silence the media and the sectarian fractures that are convulsing Iraq .
Did her killers know that Atwar was the daughter of a Sunni father and a Shia mother? If they did, then they knew they were assassinating the only kind of coexistence that would save Iraq . If they didn’t know, then they were drinking from the dirty well of sectarianism that has sustained the unconscionable violence against Shia in Iraq and which led to the bombing of the Golden Shrine.
Up until the bombing of the shrine, Iraqi Shia had shown enormous self-restraint in refusing to be provoked into violence. Although dozens had been massacred as they prayed, attended religious festivals, waited for work or simply taught at schools, they did not follow such massacres with rampages of revenge.
Ultimately, Iraqi Shia understood that they had won in
Iraq , that their status as the majority in the country had been established and that to be dragged into such a cycle of revenge was not only self-destructive but unnecessary – despite the heartache and grief of burying dozens of loved ones lost to terrorist suicide and car bombs.
The bombing of the Golden Shrine must not change that.
The Shia militias who appear to be the primary suspects in the kidnapping and murder of Atwar and her crew must be recognized for the danger that they are not just to Iraq as a whole as it tries to create an air of national reconciliation, or to Iraqi Sunnis who lost 200 members in revenge killings after the bombing of the Golden Shrine, but primarily to Iraqi Shias themselves.
If those militias are left unchecked, they will walk Iraqi Shia into the trap of violence that the terrorists would love to throw around them.
And the same must be said of Iraq ’s Sunnis who must recognize the danger posed to them by the minority who hold the guns among them and who continue to assassinate and murder indiscriminately
How tragic to watch Muslim kill Muslim as we try to convince the world it must disassociate violence from its image of Islam. How even sadder to see huge demonstrations still marching through Muslim streets to condemn offensive cartoons published in Denmark six months ago and yet remain silent on the destruction of Shia holy sites.
Terrorists among Sunnis or Shia in Iraq will not only destroy their country but they will eventually turn their guns against their own communities. The power of the gun if not challenged early will always overstay its welcome.
Atwar Bahjat was a hero who challenged many powers. Her country needs many more like her if it is to stand up to the murderers who claimed her life. To encourage such heroes, Atwar’s achievements must be celebrated.
Al-Arabiya, entrepreneurs in the Arab world and journalism schools in the region should be encouraged to set up a scholarship programme in her honour that would fund the education of female journalists in Iraq as well as in the Arab world.
We must keep our heroes alive in our collective memories so that they can continue to inspire their replacements to step forward.