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`I Have Seen Death'

Journalist and unity advocate Atwar Bahjat felt called to witness Iraq's agony. She expected to be safe in her hometown, Samarra.

March 15, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — 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.

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.


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.

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.

"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.

"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.

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