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11 September 2006

Absent friends

Arguments over the war in Iraq have ignored the plight of the people themselves. As she says farewel

By Lindsey Hilsum

Nostalgia plays tricks with your mind, so sometimes I find myself missing the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. Not the inedible food or the unreliable lifts, but the hope we had in those days that somehow, eventually, things would get better in Iraq. I was there before, during and after the invasion. My guide was Mohammed Fatnan, our government minder in the dying months of the Saddam regime. Because of him and other Iraqis I knew, I could not wholeheartedly join the anti-war camp. I did not believe Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the outside world, and I feared the impact of America’s refusal to deal through the United Nations, but I knew that if I had been an Iraqi like Mohammed, I would have been desperate for change, even if it meant war.

From the beginning, the debate in this country has been about British politics and prejudice, largely ignoring Iraqis, as if they were bit players in their own tragedy. The pro-war lobby – including the Euston Manifesto Group, heavily influenced by the Kurds, who have a different agenda from other Iraqis – refuses to acknowledge the disaster war has created. Even as Sunni insurgents slaughter Shias, and Shia ministry of interior thugs terrorise Sunnis, they claim that democracy is nascent. To them, anyone who states the obvious – that Iraq is a violent mess where life for ordinary people is worse than before – must be a covert apologist for Saddam. As Winston Churchill said during the Second World War: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

Their refusal to acknowledge the truth is as sickening as the cynical reasoning of the anti-war lobby, which opposed the war because its members hate America, not because they thought it would harm Iraqis. Most Iraqis I know agreed with Mohammed that there was no other way to get rid of Saddam, and that, however rough it was, war would in the long run bring a better life. They have been proved wrong, but the anti-war mob infantilises Iraqis, allowing them no responsibility for their own fate. They blame the US for all killings in Iraq, as if the murderous bands who detonate car bombs in Baghdad and Baquba were not responsible for their own actions.

Mohammed’s is the story of Iraq, of promises made and broken, of people who had faith in the future, whose lives were destroyed by the ignorant, ahistorical intervention of outsiders and the venal sectarianism of their own society.

Mohammed was good at being a bad government minder. His job was to listen to any conversations we might have and to report back, but whenever I got chatting to anyone he would wander off, saying that he needed to use the toilet or check something with the driver. He was supposed to spy on our activities and tell the police, but for six months before the fall of Saddam he somehow never got around to it, always telling his bosses that he had left his papers at home, or that he would do it next week.

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In the long hours we spent at the ministry of information, waiting for filming permits and press conferences, Moham med would frequently disappear, but I knew where to find him. He was invariably in the communications department courting Umeima, a plump young woman with long, dark hair who operated the switchboard. It was a difficult relationship. He was a devout Shia from the holy city of Karbala, his faith proclaimed by his closely cut black beard; she was a Sunni from Saddam’s home town, Tikrit. However much Mohammed begged, she would not broach the subject of marriage with her father. Maybe she knew the answer would be no, or maybe she wasn’t sure Mohammed was right for her – he told me that if they married, he would insist that she wear a headscarf. She was not convinced.

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Mohammed had studied Spanish and English, and he longed to travel and think freely; dictatorship was stifling him and he could see no other way forward but an American invasion. After the war, he told me he had participated in the ill-fated 1991 uprising against Saddam. Not being the kind of man to carry a gun – Mohammed was one of the gentlest people I have ever met – he armed himself with paint thinner mixed with egg white and defaced portraits of Saddam in Karbala, the city south of Baghdad where his family comes from. When the army came to crush the rebellion, he escaped to the desert with his family. Ever self-deprecating, he laughed as he recounted his meagre role in the failed uprising. Mohammed was no revolutionary. He wanted to settle down and have children, to be normal, but that is something Iraq does not allow.

“Stop shooting”

Through the three weeks of the US invasion, Mohammed did everything to protect our news crew from Saddam’s secret police, warning us when they were coming to confiscate our camera and shielding us from those who wanted to monitor our reports. The day the Americans came into town, his round face was a picture of delight – at last, he could see a future. But his disillusionment started early.

The following day, we were standing with a group of US marines in front of a palace they had seized. They were shooting over the street towards a mosque from where they said insurgents had attacked them earlier in the day. There was no return fire, but they continued none the less; they had placed no barriers or warning signs, but if a car approached the road they would shoot straight into it.

Suddenly Mohammed stiffened. The marines had shot at a pale blue Passat that had gone behind the mosque. He could hear something – faint sounds of crying. He approached the marines, who were still taking pot-shots. “I’m going to walk over there and see what happened,” he said, daring them to keep firing. I will never forget watching his flak-jacketed figure disappear behind the mosque, nor the moment he reappeared, carrying a crumpled bundle in his arms. As he ran towards us we could see dark hair dangling, and a spotted orange dress. Mohammed had rescued a five-year-old girl who had been shot in the head by the marines.

Suddenly everyone was shouting; we rushed into the palace compound with the little girl while Mohammed and other members of our team went back to find the rest of the injured. As the marine medics started to patch up the child, they told us not to film. “You stop shooting, and we’ll stop filming,” we said. “Anyway, you’d have no chance to save her if it hadn’t been for Mohammed.”

Two people were killed outside the palace that day. Three, including the little girl, whose name was Zahra, were saved thanks to Mohammed. She had a serious head injury, but medical treatment in Kuwait enabled her to survive. In the months that followed, Mohammed continued to visit Zahra and her family, and to help them get the medicine that she needed, which was not available in postwar Iraq. I think we all saw her recovery as a symbol of hope, even as Iraq descended into anarchy.

Cruel chaos

One day after the invasion we spent a morning when we should have been looking for stories searching for Umeima instead. Carrying gifts, we went from house to house, but it seemed she and her parents had left town. For Mohammed, that dream was dead. Yet he was excited about living in the new Iraq. Our colleague Paul Eedle helped him get a trip to Belgium to do a two-week journalism course. Mohammed told me in wonder how he had visited the European Union and the Belgian parliament and seen how debate and voting worked. Making contact with Europeans was not so successful. He had tried to talk to people on the streets, but found them wary of a dark, bearded Arab.

Back home, he took me to the market to buy an all-encompassing black abaya, so that we could go round Karbala together. We planned to write a book about the city, telling the story of Iraq through the events of his beloved home town.

On Christmas Eve 2004 I received a phone call from a mutual friend living in Baghdad. “It’s about Mohammed,” he said. “He was on his way from Baghdad to Karbala but his taxi was ambushed near Yusufiyah. We think he’s been kidnapped.”

And that was it. Mohammed was a Shia; he was kidnapped in a disputed area where Sunni insurgents had been operating. His family and friends made inquiries through the tribal network, but never found out what had happened. One passenger in the taxi managed to run away. The driver and Mohammed simply vanished.

It is 18 months since we heard any news. He disappeared on 20 December 2004, less than a week before he was due to marry a young woman he had met just a few months earlier – the trip home to Karbala had been to make the final arrangements. The following month I went to Iraq to cover the par liamentary election; his friends Karim, Yusuf, Khalid and Ali had their photograph taken holding up fingers stained with purple ink to show that they had cast their ballots. “We voted thinking of Mohammed,” they said. “He really believed in these elections.”

Other friends have been killed – the devoted aid worker Margaret Hassan; Marla Ruzicka, who campaigned for compensation for Iraqis injured by US army actions; the distinguished political scientist Gailan Ramiz, accidentally blown up by a US bomb. Forty per cent of Iraqi professionals have fled the country, according to one US estimate; hundreds of thousands have been “ethnically cleansed” from the areas where they lived. Those I know who remain would love to leave if only they had the money and the opportunity. Every day brings more car bombs and sectarian battles, reported by brave Iraqi and foreign journalists, many of whom have also lost their lives. Fifty dead Iraqis makes a headline; ten dead is a paragraph, or a few lines on the television news.

Here in Britain, the pro- and anti-war lobbies continue their arguments, tired and shrill. Everyone wants to prove that they were right. I was not right. I was swayed by Mohammed, who wanted the war, and was destroyed in its wake.

Covering Iraq is beyond my danger threshold, and I have not visited Baghdad since October last year. I feel guilty, not because of my fear, but as if I’m being unfaithful. Journalists always move on, but Iraq is an unfinished affair. I miss Mohammed. I miss our arguments about religion and the place of women, his jokes about the regime and other journalists he had worked with. I want to talk to him about what’s happening in Iraq now. But I never will, because Mohammed is gone, a casualty of a war that brought to Iraq a cruel chaos, not the freedom he craved.

Lindsey Hilsum has recently been appointed Channel 4’s first China correspondent and will shortly be writing columns for the NS from Beijing