A Reporter Pays Iraq’s Final Price

By Anthony Borden, executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, which undertakes reporting and training programs for local journalists in Iraq (THE WASHINGTON POST, 30/06/07):

We do not know why Sahar went that last time to Mosul. But we do know why she was killed. A democrat, a journalist and a woman — it’s a lethal combination in Iraq.

Sahar Hussein Ali al-Haydari, 44, was fearless in writing about attempts by extremists to establish an Iraqi Islamic emirate based around her home town of Mosul. She was harsh on efforts to foment sectarian conflict: The last article we received was a Romeo and Juliet tale of a girl stoned to death for converting from Yezidism (a Kurdish sect) to Islam because she fell in love with a Muslim boy. She wrote, too, about restrictions placed on women by religiously driven insurgents.

«Murder has long become a daily companion for the inhabitants of this northern city,» she noted last fall after several female teachers at Mosul schools were assassinated.

As a result of these efforts, Sahar was on an al-Qaeda target list, and she was afraid. She had been afraid for a long time, in fact, and with reason: Last year she was shot and wounded, and several times she escaped abduction. Some months ago, she moved her husband and four children to Damascus, where we were able to offer her a new job, and she seemed happy.

But the more these plans progressed, the more active she became as a reporter — continuing her work for the Voices of Iraq news agency and Iraqi media, and generating print and radio content for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting — and «pitching stories like crazy,» according to our editor. She was a woman obsessed — or perhaps hugely conflicted.

The decision to embark on a life of exile is a very difficult one — to depart for safety but at the loss of country, community, professional attachment. This is particularly true for local journalists, whose territories are their livelihoods.

This is the Iraqi dilemma: Stay and work to build a new country, and you may die; or depart and save yourself, and the result can be the death of Iraq by a thousand departures. Sahar had no hero complex — she was a mother of four, and I know that she cried when she had to be separated from her family — but she was deeply committed, and this was her personal struggle.

The event, as far as we know now, was chillingly mundane and ruthlessly efficient. Visiting the nearby town of Irbil on an errand related to her work, Sahar decided to drive to Mosul for the day. Was it just to see friends and family? Perhaps to tend to some final logistical matters? Or was she pursuing a story?

It took only those few hours for extremists to discover she was there and to come for her in the morning. A group of assassins confronted her outside her home in the early hours and gunned her down. A statement to the local media claiming responsibility on behalf of the extremist group Ansar al-Sunna stated that she was cooperating with the Iraqi police and the occupying forces and was «writing false reports about the mujaheddin to distort the truth.» When her cellphone rang after the deed, one of her killers said into the receiver, «She has gone to hell.»

Sahar was the 106th journalist killed in Iraq since 2003 and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the 84th Iraqi media professional. At least two other Iraqi journalists have been killed since. Given these numbers, and the many thousands of other deaths in Iraq, how do we commemorate one more? Journalists are a cornerstone of democracy, we like to think, but so are police officers, educators, health professionals, laborers; everyone is at risk in Iraq today.

But Sahar also was part of another trend: attacks on female reporters. In recent days, four prominent Muslim female journalists have been killed outside their homes — two in Afghanistan and, in Iraq, Sahar in Mosul and a reporter in Basra. Recently, Islamic radicals demonstrated in Gaza, calling for the beheading of female Palestinian TV presenters who refuse to wear the Muslim headdress, the hijab.

The incidents show the courage and professionalism of women in these societies, who often are particularly tenacious because they are new to their work and not corrupted by involvement in old institutions. They are at risk precisely because they are strong and independent (and often without headscarves). They challenge everything that Islamists oppose.

«Our psychological state is unbalanced because we live and think in fear and worry and always think about our destiny and that of our family members, relatives and friends,» Haidari told the U.K. Press Gazette this year. «But I have never thought about quitting, as journalism is my life, and I really love it.»

As an organization working to strengthen journalism in Iraq, we face our own grave moral dilemma: to continue working while possibly putting colleagues at further risk, or to cease activity in Iraq and abandon good people striving to make a difference despite the risks.

We will create a Sahar Journalists Assistance Fund to help her family and the families of three other slain Iraqi journalists we had trained, and journalists at risk in all the areas where we work, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. We will review our safety and security policy. We will use media to create memory.

But four children in Damascus suffer that void, and Iraq suffers yet one more departure.