Women risk everything to tell world Iraq's story

October 30, 2007|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Americans' perceptions of Iraq are molded by scenes of horrendous violence; few get to see the bravery and humanity of Iraqis living under hellish conditions. So I wish millions could have watched the International Women's Media Foundation present its 2007 Courage in Journalism award last week to six Iraqi women journalists who have risked their lives in the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. (Brave Mexican, Ethiopian and Zimbabwean journalists were also honored.)

But the ceremonies could not be televised or photographed, because if the Iraqi women's faces were seen back home, they or their families could be targeted by terrorists for having worked with Americans. The husband, 5-year-old daughter and mother-in-law of one of the women, Ban Adil Sarhan, were shot dead for just that reason, and she is now living in America; another of the awardees is in hiding, and all are under threat.

I know all six because I work with the McClatchy bureau when I visit Baghdad (the McClatchy-Tribune wire distributes my column). So let me tell you a bit about Sahar Issa, who accepted the award for the group.

Ms. Issa is a woman of immense dignity and composure, her English excellent and soft-spoken with a quiet passion underneath. When I met her in Baghdad in June, I couldn't comprehend how she persevered. During this conflict, she lost her son, who was caught in cross-fire while riding his moped on the street. She also lost her brother. She struggles to care for her family in 110-degree heat with two hours of electricity a day and little water, waking at night to fan her children. Each day when they go to school, she worries they might not return.

This year, she had to go to the morgue to find her nephew. She, the boy's mother and an aunt had to search barehanded through body parts to bring home the remains. And yet she decided during this war to work as a journalist, a profession that exposes her and her Iraqi colleagues to even greater peril, especially if they work with Americans. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 121 Iraq journalists have been killed on duty since 2003.

I asked Ms. Issa this week why she took the risk. "It means so much to me," she replied quickly. "Not a lot of people in America know Iraqi society. It makes wrongdoing [against us] easier. We have to speak out ... to demonstrate to people who may affect decisions [about our lives] that we are human beings."

Along with the rest of the McClatchy bureau's Iraqi staff, Ms. Issa writes the Inside Iraq blog (www.mcclatchydc.com/iraq). The feedback convinced her that Americans know little about Iraq. They don't know, for example, that Iraq once led the Arab world in women's education, before wars, international sanctions and the American occupation set women back. She and her mother are university graduates. Those gains, she says, are now being reversed by religious parties.

She also wants Americans to understand that sectarian strife in Iraq is not really over religion but over political power.

To correct such misconceptions, she is committed to journalism. "No one will do it for us," she says. Is she frightened? "I am scared silly. I am at tremendous risk." Her kids are proud of her, but when she left for America, her son said, "Mother, don't be photographed."

At the award ceremony in Washington, CNN's Zain Verjee asked Ms. Issa how she deals with fear. "I try not to dwell on it. Living in fear has become quite commonplace in Iraq, and not just for journalists. We go out to visit relatives, to school or the store, not knowing whether we'll come back. I've been in situations on the way to work where I thought I had said my last prayer."

What Ms. Issa didn't say is that the courage of Iraqi journalists is crucial to American correspondents who depend on them to get to places where Americans no longer can go. "They are the backbone of the bureau, my eyes and ears when I can't get out," says Leila Fadel, the Lebanese-American McClatchy bureau chief in Baghdad, and no mean example of courage herself. "They are our guide to the streets of Baghdad, and so often they never get recognized for what they do."

Ms. Issa wants to stay in Iraq, but other Iraqi journalists working with Americans are finding the danger is too great. It is shocking that so few have been able to get asylum. America owes the brave journalists who have helped us, and the IWMF should be congratulated for giving their courage the attention it deserves.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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