Advertisement

‘I Have Seen Death’

Times Staff Writer

As the light faded from the wintry sky over Samarra that day, Atwar Bahjat looked into the camera with a somber face and implored her country to stay calm.

“Whether you are Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurd, there is no difference between Iraqis,” said Bahjat, one of the most respected war correspondents in the Arab world. "[We are] united in fear for this nation.”

There was every reason to be afraid. They were coming for her already.

The gunmen arrived in a pickup truck, hunting for Bahjat and her crew from satellite news channel Al Arabiya. “Where’s the announcer?” they yelled, according to witnesses. They seized Bahjat, her cameraman and her engineer.

Advertisement

Their bodies were discovered the next morning laced with bullets, dumped in the dirt on the outskirts of Samarra.

Bahjat had rushed to her hometown that day to cover the bombing of one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred shrines. From the first minutes, Iraqis understood that the provocation was severe: The attack intensified the low-level battles between the two major Islamic sects, shoving the nation to the edge of all-out civil war.

Something fundamental died in Samarra that February day, and in her way, Bahjat epitomized it. The 30-year-old journalist represented a hope that is fast fading.

*

Advertisement

Atwar Bahjat seemed to embody some other, alternate Iraq.

She was a poet, a journalist and a feminist. She had written a book tracing her adventures as a war reporter and had begun work on a second book, examining the role of women in Iraq. She didn’t fit into either side of the mounting religious clash -- her mother was Shiite, her father Sunni.

She had the talent and connections to get out of Iraq, but she chose to stay because she was determined to see her country knit into a coherent nation.

She wore a gold pendant in the shape of Iraq as a symbol of her indignation over efforts to thwart that unity, and she argued with editors against identifying people as Sunni or Shiite in her broadcasts, friends and colleagues said. The hatred was hot enough already, she told them. She wanted to calm things down, not stoke the anger.

Advertisement

To many Iraqis, Bahjat was a heroine. She’d gone from delivering propaganda through heavily censored state television to reporting on the U.S. occupation for Al Jazeera satellite channel. She stayed with Al Jazeera for months after the Iraqi government outlawed it. This winter, she moved on to Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite giant and the most popular news channel in Iraq.

I met Bahjat a year and a half ago, in the simmering, violent summer of 2004. I was writing a story about Al Jazeera, tracing the journalists’ work as they struggled to prove themselves in the crucible of Iraq. I asked to shadow one of their correspondents. I wound up with Bahjat.

An Egyptian diplomat had been freed by his kidnappers that day, and Bahjat had been assigned to cover the story. By the time I arrived at the Egyptian Embassy, she was already inside with her crew -- and dozens of other sweating, jostling, cranky journalists, mostly Arabs looking for a scoop.

Bahjat worked the crowd like a moth, lighting on one group and then flitting away again. She laughed heartily instead of giggling, looked men in the eye and held their gaze. She wore bright, smart clothes: flared jeans, a matching blue head scarf, lipstick and eye shadow.

Advertisement

“Come on,” she said with a little wink, and pulled me into a back room. While the other journalists elbowed one another for camera positions outside, she had arranged a private interview with the ambassador.

Bahjat spoke that day about her struggles to keep a professional distance from the spasms that were shaking her country. She told me she couldn’t forget the carnage she’d seen. Tastes of mortality had given her a new reverence before God, she said, and had inspired her to adopt the Muslim head scarf.

“When I go to hospitals and see children dying, I fight myself to be objective,” she said. “I’ve been affected mentally and psychologically, but if you’re not neutral around here, you can lose your job.”

The job hadn’t come easily. Bahjat had begged her bosses at Al Jazeera for a chance to cover the war. They were leery of allowing a woman into combat, but she kept trying, taking on the political beat and covering it relentlessly to prove her skill. In the end, her bosses relented.

Advertisement

“She was very strong. People in Jazeera always told her, ‘If you ever feel uncomfortable, come back,’ ” said Ali Taleb, a cousin of Bahjat who worked for her as a bodyguard during her days at the channel. “But she never did.”

Death had just begun to nudge against her that summer of 2004. She had driven over a roadside bomb on her way to work one day, and though her car was ruined, she stepped out in one piece. She had covered the fighting in the holy city of Najaf, had reported with bullets and mortar rounds flying overhead.

“I have seen death now,” she told me. “I have been touched by it.” But she said it lightly, by way of explanation.

It was a time when insurgents hadn’t yet started kidnapping Americans and Europeans. The U.S. ambassador wasn’t referring to the invasion of Iraq as the opening of a “Pandora’s box” of ethnic and sectarian tensions. U.S. officials accused journalists of ignoring all the good news and progress. Since then, thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed.

Advertisement

Today, after three years of war, the clatter of city life has given way to the scrape of machine-gun fire, the deep boom of car bombs and the dull thud of mortar rounds. Baghdad, with its tightly packed neighborhoods, date palm groves and lazy river vistas, has been swallowed by endless reels of razor wire and blank-faced concrete barriers.

I hadn’t seen Bahjat in person for a year and a half. Like the rest of the country, she seemed to have grown more haggard. There was a heaviness, a fatigue, in her face that wasn’t there when we met. Before, she had sparkled; by the time she died, she looked exhausted.

She had been receiving death threats for months, her family said after she was killed. She’d moved her widowed mother and younger sister to a new house in a safer neighborhood. She had resisted pressure to marry, throwing herself into her work.

When the threats got too intense, she took her mother to Jordan for a month. She thought about staying away. She had been offered a job outside Iraq with Al Jazeera. But she couldn’t bring herself to leave.

Advertisement

“She believed fate had decided for her to stay in Iraq,” said Bahjat’s 25-year-old sister, Itha. “She would always say, ‘It’s better to stay in one’s country.’ ”

*

Like many Iraqi reporters, Bahjat found herself pitched into a vastly different landscape after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The heavy rules of Saddam Hussein melted away. Newspapers appeared like weeds; satellite channels cropped up one after another. Reporters found themselves scrambling for footing in a deadly free-for-all.

Sixty-six journalists have been killed in Iraq since the invasion, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of those, 47 were Iraqi. They have been shot by U.S. forces, gunned down by their countrymen and killed in bombings. They are covering the story of their lifetime, but it demands that they flirt with death.

Advertisement

“If I give up my position, if I am weak, who will be the substitute?” Jawad Hattab, 50, Al Arabiya’s Baghdad bureau chief, said as photocopied pictures of Bahjat looked down from the wall behind him. “Every day we are exposed to many, many threats, killing or bombing or threats against our families. But Iraq deserves this from us.”

Even after the shrine was bombed, Bahjat thought she was safe in Samarra. It was her hometown. She called her sister and told her not to worry; she was among family, she said. Security force checkpoints blocked her path into the city, so Bahjat and the crew set up their equipment on a roadside in the farmlands on the edge of town.

She wore a turtleneck and tied her head scarf in the jaunty, sideways knot that had become her trademark. As always, the Iraq pendant dangled visibly from her neck.

“Iraq is swinging on your chest,” teased Amna Dhabi, a colleague at Al Arabiya, when Bahjat called after the live shot.

Advertisement

“Yes, Iraq is swinging between insurgents and these Iraqi politicians,” Bahjat said wryly. “It needs a warm chest to lie upon.”

That was the last time Al Arabiya heard from her.

*

Even Bahjat’s burial had a death toll.

Advertisement

It had taken two days to get her bullet-torn body back into Baghdad from Samarra. Sectarian killings and mosque vandalism had swept the country after the shrine attack. Baghdad and surrounding provinces were placed under a strict curfew.

Bahjat’s friends were deeply offended. They considered her a martyr. Her body should have been laid in the earth before the sun went down on the day of her death, they said. Instead, hours and days drained away in wrangling with authorities while gunmen and militias had the run of the streets.

When her body arrived, it was placed in a plain wooden box, which was strapped on a flatbed truck. The men among her family and colleagues gathered protectively around the casket.

The wind pushed back their hair as the truck began to roll. They had fastened a black banner to its grill -- a promise from other reporters to continue Bahjat’s work.

Advertisement

The truck cut through streets that looked like ice in the glare of the sun, lined by ragged palm trees. Mourners drove behind in a rough column. They were headed into the badlands west of Baghdad, for the Sunni cemetery in Abu Ghraib.

The column of cars was passing through the town of Hassuwa when the cracks of gunfire erupted: sniping between followers of one of Iraq’s most important Sunni clerics and the Shiite policemen who were escorting Bahjat’s funeral convoy.

Those first bullets drew more bullets, and soon the air was crackling. The fight was charged with sectarian overtones: Police are widely seen by Sunnis as militiamen whose loyalty lies with the Shiites.

The mourners left the coffin on the side of the road, scrambling from their cars and fleeing for cover behind the walls of an old cement factory. The violence was captured in excruciating detail by Al Arabiya cameramen.

Advertisement

Dogs yelped in fear. From the minarets of the town’s mosques, the town muezzins called for jihad. A convoy of U.S. military Humvees rolled by midway through the battle. The soldiers kept going, leaving the Iraqis to fight among themselves.

“Please call the interior minister and tell him that our convoy with Atwar Bahjat has been attacked,” Iraqi journalist Fatah Sheik barked into his cellphone, crouching close to the ground. “Can’t you hear the shooting? Please tell the minister.”

The gunfight lasted more than two hours, until the police escorts ran out of ammunition and the shooting slowed, then stopped.

At least two men died. The Sunni cleric who runs the neighborhood sent along a message of apology. It was a misunderstanding, he said. He invited the mourners to stop by his house for coffee.

Advertisement

The procession pressed on toward the graveyard, where the coffin was laid on the ground. Bahjat’s friends had covered it with the Iraqi flag and placed orange flowers on top. Because Bahjat died a single woman, her family had draped a bride’s veil over the head of the coffin.

They prayed over her body, repeated once again that there is no god but God.

At the lip of her grave, the men began to argue. Nobody should see her body, they said, not even the gravediggers who lowered it into the earth. The men shoved and yelled. At last, somebody produced a bedsheet to block the view. It was blue and yellow and green, its patchwork pattern absurdly childish and light.

Bahjat’s mother tossed fistfuls of candy into the grave.

Advertisement

“Atwar, my love!” she cried before the cameras. “Can you hear me?”

As the cars turned back toward Baghdad, a plume of black smoke arched into the sky. It was a homemade bomb that had been laid along the road to strike the mourners as they left the cemetery.

They were lucky. They had turned the other way.


Advertisement