Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat- It was a dark ominous night, preceded by a mad few hours. A mausoleum had been destroyed and mosques were burnt but no one could predict what the flames will engulf next. Evening conversations recounted stories that had more to do to with the history of Rwanda than Iraq.
Dozens if not hundreds of people killed. Whatever your sense of wrong and danger, a single phone call is enough to make the situation personal; an al Arabiya correspondent was reporting missing with her colleagues. Our instinctive reaction was to plead for assistance from all those with influence in Iraq and enlist the help of the security forces, different politburos and tribal elders. Despite assurances that the area she was last seen it had been examined for any clues, a sixth sense gained from years of experience, told us that that in a lawless country, the security forces were in need of security themselves.
Around midnight, another call, more bad news. An Egyptian ship disappeared from radar screens in the Red Sea. “Is it a boat? No, a huge ferry carrying more than 1000 people”. We did not report on either story, because of our niggling doubts. We purposefully were slow to release information to the public, in respect for the feelings of the friends and families of those concerned. In these painful situations, we cannot broadcast news on television before we the victims’ families and loved ones are told, even if we have grown used to stories of death, oppression and destruction.
Even the smallest doubt was enough to convince us to refrain from reporting the catastrophe because a mistake would haunt us forever. But both stories did not appear to be very dubious: our colleague was in a dangerous area and the sole witness who fled the scene confirmed she had been attacked and gave evidence to the police. The second story reached us with a host of detail; the ferry embarked on its journey at 3:40 from the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on its way to Port Tawfik, in the Suez. More than one source said the ferry had been out in the sea for over 20 hours without a trace. The Egyptian government pleaded with the media so as not to broadcast any news about the incident. A few minutes, which seemed like eternity passed before the captain’s voice was heard via his satellite phone. He reassured our colleague in Cairo and indicated the ferry and all passengers were safe and about to complete their journey.
At the break of dawn, our colleagues were still reporting missing in Samarra, where chaos had taken hold. People were being murdered and security had become non-existent. We were told is was no longer possible to search the scene of the crime as it was too dangerous. In the morning, our worst fears were confirmed. The three Al Arabiya employees were murdered- treacherously!
A horrific crime executed by sick minds. Hours of deep sadness followed, in spite of the many dead and innocent victims in Iraq that have transformed news bulletins into a survey of the dead. Violence erupted in Iraq and some hastily described it as a civil war. At Al Arabiya, we did not wish to decide the nature of this war, so we chose not to comment. We did not want to get ahead of ourselves and push people towards believing that the war had started.
Despite the curfew in the Iraqi capital, colleagues decided to give their dead colleague a proper funeral. She had voluntarily agreed to there, thinking that, the fact that she was originally from Samarra would provide her immunity, contrary to the rest of her colleagues who declined to travel to the central Iraqi city. News coverage operates according to a set of rules whereby no journalist goes to an area/location where his/her life would be in danger. Despite the obvious danger, sometimes/in certain instances, it is difficult to explain the lure/temptation of journalistic work; it is similar to the moths’ attraction to light/fire.
Despite the curfew, family friends and colleagues gathered and decided to walk behind the funeral procession, as a last goodbye in one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhood, Abu Ghraib, to the al Kirkh cemetery, because the departed requested to be buried there. The mourners proceeded slowly along a road that usually does not need more than an hour.
Fate willed that the coverage of the funeral procession would make surreal television. It drew people together around the television screen. They watched as her colleagues cried out for help, in the name of security, defense, Iraqi tribes, religion and Arab values, in the hope the gunfire would not strike at the convoy, as they paid their last respect to the dead. Despite his pleas, the shooting continued and the funeral was transformed into a confrontation between pleas and guns live on air. One of the leaders of the neighborhoods, Sheikh Harith al Dari, immediately contacted al Arabiya and announced his residence was being attacked by security forces that wanted to harm him. At the time, also reporting from the scene indicated the funeral procession was being attacked and mourners were being shot at. The two versions of events left us perplexed. On the one hand, Sheikh Harith al Dari insisted his residence was being targeted and his life was on danger, while on the other hand, our colleague was adamant the procession was coming under heavy fire. The situation appeared increasingly complex and dangerous. The reality, however, was very simple. The gunmen did not wish to harm the convoy and neither did the security forces seek to attack the Sheikhs’ house and murder him.
An advisor from the Iraqi Defense Ministry later revealed that the sheikh’s guards saw the procession slowly making its away, preceded by the security forces. Believing they were being attacked, they greeted mourners with a hail of gunfire. For their part, the security forces mistakenly believed it was a raid by armed groups and fired in the air. They scattered to the nearby groups in self-defense and not to target the sheikh’s residence.
This strange story typifies the reality of life in Iraqi today, a life filled with distrust and misgivings, fear and the readiness to shoot before making a phone call to discover the truth. The story ended with dignity as the sheikh sent his sons, putting their lives at risk, to accompany the funeral procession until the cemetery. Security guards also risked their lives and surrounded the convoy. This episode shows the needs for Iraqis to listen to each other and rid themselves of rumors, worries and exaggeration. We know that death is a fact; the end can come in an accident on a highway, or in a kitchen fire or as a result of a chronic illness. Despite it being a fact of life, the tragic death our colleague Atwar Bahjat is particularly heartbreaking.
Abdul Rahman al Rashed is the General Manager of al Arabiya. Since the US-led invasion of Iraqi in March 2003, al Arabiya has lost 11 journalists killed in action.