Part of me died when I saw this cruel killing
By HALA JABER
-- -EVEN by the stupefying standards of
Iraq’s unspeakable violence, the murder of Atwar Bahjat, one of
the country’s top television journalists, was an act of
Nobody but her killers knew just how much she had suffered until
a film showing her death on February 22 at the hands of two
musclebound men in military uniforms emerged last week. Her
family’s worst fears of what might have happened have been far
exceeded by the reality.
Bahjat was abducted after making three live broadcasts from the
edge of her native city of Samarra on the day its golden-domed
Shi’ite mosque was blown up, allegedly by Sunni terrorists.
Roadblocks prevented her from entering the city and her anxiety
was obvious to everyone who saw her final report. Night was
falling and tensions were high.
Two men drove up in a pick-up truck, asking for her. She
appealed to a small crowd that had gathered around her crew but
nobody was willing to help her. It was reported at the time that
she had been shot dead with her cameraman and sound man.
We now know that it was not that swift for Bahjat. First she was
stripped to the waist, a humiliation for any woman but
particularly so for a pious Muslim who concealed her hair, arms
and legs from men other than her father and brother.
Then her arms were bound behind her back. A golden locket in the
shape of Iraq that became her glittering trademark in front of
the television cameras must have been removed at some point — it
is nowhere to be seen in the grainy film, which was made by
someone who pointed a mobile phone at her as she lay on a patch
of earth in mortal terror.
By the time filming begins, the condemned woman has been
blindfolded with a white bandage.
It is stained with blood that trickles from a wound on the left
side of her head. She is moaning, although whether from the pain
of what has already been done to her or from the fear of what is
about to be inflicted is unclear.
Just as Bahjat bore witness to countless atrocities that she
covered for her television station, Al-Arabiya, during Iraq’s
descent into sectarian conflict, so the recording of her
execution embodies the depths of the country’s depravity after
three years of war.
A large man dressed in military fatigues, boots and cap
approaches from behind and covers her mouth with his left hand.
In his right hand, he clutches a large knife with a black handle
and an 8in blade. He proceeds to cut her throat from the middle,
slicing from side to side.
Her cries — “Ah, ah, ah” — can be heard above the “Allahu akbar”
(God is greatest) intoned by the holder of the mobile phone.
Even then, there is no quick release for Bahjat. Her executioner
suddenly stands up, his job only half done. A second man in a
dark T-shirt and camouflage trousers places his right khaki boot
on her abdomen and pushes down hard eight times, forcing a rush
of blood from her wounds as she moves her head from right to
Only now does the executioner return to finish the task. He
hacks off her head and drops it to the ground, then picks it up
again and perches it on her bare chest so that it faces the
film-maker in a grotesque parody of one of her pieces to camera.
The voice of one of the Arab world’s most highly regarded and
outspoken journalists has been silenced. She was 30.
As a friend of Bahjat who had worked with her on a variety of
tough assignments, I found it hard enough to bear the news of
her murder. When I saw it replayed, it was as if part of me had
died with her. How much more gruelling it must have been for a
close family friend who watched the film this weekend and cried
when he heard her voice.
The friend, who cannot be identified, knew nothing of her
beheading but had been guarding other horrifying details of
Bahjat’s ordeal. She had nine drill holes in her right arm and
10 in her left, he said. The drill had also been applied to her
legs, her navel and her right eye. One can only hope that these
mutilations were made after her death.
There is a wider significance to the appalling footage and the
accompanying details. The film appears to show for the first
time an Iraqi death squad in action.
The death squads have proliferated in recent months, spreading
terror on both sides of the sectarian divide. The clothes worn
by Bahjat’s killers are bound to be scrutinised for clues to
Bahjat, with her professionalism and impartiality as a half-Shi’ite,
half-Sunni, would have been the first to warn against any hasty
conclusions, however. The uniforms seem to be those of the Iraqi
National Guard but that does not mean she was murdered by
guardsmen. The fatigues could have been stolen for disguise.
A source linked to the Sunni insurgency who supplied the film to
The Sunday Times in London claimed it had come from a mobile
phone found on the body of a Shi’ite Badr Brigade member killed
during fighting in Baghdad.
But there is no evidence the Iranian-backed Badr militia was
responsible. Indeed, there are conflicting indications. The
drill is said to be a popular tool of torture with the Badr
Brigade. But beheading is a hallmark of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by
the Sunni Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
According to a report that was circulating after Bahjat’s
murder, she had enraged the Shi’ite militias during her coverage
of the bombing of the Samarra shrine by filming the interior
minister, Bayan Jabr, ordering police to release two Iranians
they had arrested.
There is no confirmation of this and the Badr Brigade, with
which she maintained good relations, protected her family after
her funeral came under attack in Baghdad from a bomber and then
from a gunman. Three people died that day.
Bahjat’s reporting of terrorist attacks and denunciations of
violence to a wide audience across the Middle East made her
plenty of enemies among both Shi’ite and Sunni gunmen. Death
threats from Sunnis drove her away to Qatar for a spell but she
believed her place was in Iraq and she returned to frontline
reporting despite the risks.
We may never know who killed Bahjat or why. But the manner of
her death testifies to the breakdown of law, order and justice
that she so bravely highlighted and illustrates the importance
of a cause she espoused with passion.
Bahjat advocated the unity of Iraq and saw her golden locket as
a symbol of her belief. She put it with her customary on-air
eloquence on the last day of her life: “Whether you are a Sunni,
a Shi’ite or a Kurd, there is no difference between Iraqis
united in fear for this nation.”
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