Every day is one's last in the new Iraq, until the sun sets and rises and it starts over again, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti
Sometime in 1997, on a day that now seems suddenly distant, I got a call from Atwar Bahjat. She introduced herself as a young poet and journalist, saying that friends had told her to seek my advice on how to write newspaper stories. I met her in my office in Al-Jumhuriya, a newspaper that doesn't exist anymore. It was closed down when the Information Ministry was disbanded in the first weeks of the occupation.
Atwar was a calm and good listener. I read some of her poetry and news stories, and a friendship was born, one that was suddenly interrupted with her tragic death.
As I think of Atwar today, I recall how upset she was that the information minister had turned down her request to work for the Arabic service of the Chinese radio. Had she gone to China, would she still be among us? The question haunted me as I saw her picture on the front page of various papers. Once a news reporter, now she's news. Why was Atwar killed? Who killed her? And who killed journalist Saad Al-Janabi on the day following her murder? No one has the answer to these questions. In Iraq, 44 local journalists and over 20 foreign reporters have been killed since the occupation started.
Accusations were made against many groups. But let me tell you that some journalists were killed with US fire, a few of them in cold blood. Let me recall here what Eason Jordan, former CNN news executive, said at the Davos forum in 2005. He said that during his visit to Baghdad, he sensed that US forces were killing journalists on purpose. The statement caused such a stir in the US that Jordan was forced to retract it and resign. The US administration is still denying purposefully killing journalists, although available evidence tells another story.
"In Iraq today, you can say anything but the truth. Corruption is rampant and ordinary Iraqis lack the most basic services," says Iraqi journalist Saleh Al-Shibani. "Atwar was a daring journalist and a brave Iraqi. Perhaps her assassination, which shocked the world, would make the Iraqi government think of restoring peace and security," he adds.
"Those who killed Atwar are people who don't want the truth to come out," says journalist Abdel-Amir Al-Majar. "Where has the fourth person who was with the Al-Arabiya crew gone? How did he manage to escape? And why is the news so conflicting about the crew's abduction and murder? During the funeral, more killing took place, and once again the truth was lost amid conflicting reports. The only truth we know is that journalists are a main target."
Amal Husein, a news reporter, is shocked by Talibani's suggestion that journalists should carry guns for self-defence. "When it became clear that former military people and academics were becoming targets, Talibani gave them a safe haven in Suleimaniya. He is interested solely in partial solutions. Iraqi officials are not expected to resolve problems. Should I decide to buy a gun, I would have to wait for months to get a license. Without a licence, the gun would be confiscated and I might be detained for carrying it. This is a solution that cannot be implemented, just as all other government promises."
Perhaps Atwar thought it was enough to be objective in her reports. Perhaps she thought she was safe because her father was Sunni and mother Shia. She was just as comfortable in Fallujah as in Najaf. But she was not safe. No one in Iraq is.
How could I work as a journalist under such circumstances? Foreigners often ask me that question, and here is what I say. In Iraq, we all live by accident. We live because we have been missed by "friendly fire" and booby-trapped cars and unidentified gunmen. I leave the office to go home without bodyguards. But everyday, before I leave to work, I say a prayer and get myself ready for all eventualities.
Before I started my weekly newspaper, Al-Qalaah, I was working for an international network that offered me protection while on the job and trained me to stay safe. Despite the protection, two of my colleagues were killed. Now I go to the office without protection. The government is not offering protection to anyone in the street. So how would you expect it to offer protection to someone such as myself, or any of my colleagues?
The government and the occupying forces are only interested in protecting the Green Zone and top officials. Every official has the right to a team of bodyguards at the government's expense. Members of the now disbanded National Assembly used to receive $3,000 in security allowances to pay bodyguards of their choosing -- normally relatives, for no one trusts anyone anymore. Who will pay me to hire a team of bodyguards?
Right now, there are at least two Iraqi organisations that get international donations to protect journalists. These organisations only hold training courses when the donors are in town. Otherwise, their only purpose seems to be offering some people the chance to travel abroad and make money. The Journalists' Syndicate remains ineffective, due to divisions among journalists. Everyone is competing to become chief. Everyone wants to attend international conferences. And yet no one is safe. A few months ago, a member of the Journalists' Syndicate board, Mohamed Haroun, was assassinated.
In my newspaper, I have a team of young journalists who refused to work in publications that take no particular stand on the occupation. Perhaps we're taking a risk by being pro-Iraq. Perhaps we are taking a risk by reporting the sad facts and the terrible reality. The following numbers are all official: since the occupation started, 182 academics have been assassinated and hundreds fled Iraq after having been abducted and forced to pay ransom. Some 278 teachers have been assassinated. Most military leaders of the "disbanded" Iraqi army, as well as many pilots, have been assassinated. In the past six months, 26 doctors have been assassinated. Dozens of lawyers, engineers, and professionals have been killed.
The world will never know the true number of Iraqi victims. The authorities are reluctant to mention the number of murdered journalists. According to international organisations, Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world. You wonder how I keep working in Iraq? You wonder how the Iraqis go on living? Just keep us in your prayers. May Atwar and all the martyrs of Iraq rest in peace.