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Courage under fire

Iraqi journalists risk their lives to tell Baghdad's story

Posted: Thursday, November 01, 2007

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.

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So I wish millions could have watched the International Women's Media Foundation present its 2007 Courage in Journalism award this week to six Iraqi women journalists who have risked their lives in the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. (Brave Mexican, Ethiopian and Zimbabwean women journalists also were 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.

Sahar is a woman of immense dignity and composure, her English excellent and soft-spoken but with a quiet passion underneath. When I worked with her in Baghdad in June, I couldn't comprehend how she persevered.

During this conflict she lost her son, who was caught in a 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.

Earlier this year she had to go to the morgue to find her nephew. Women are often sent to the morgue rather than men, because the men are in more danger. She, the boy's mother, and an aunt had to search bare-handed 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. Yasser Salihee, a member of the Baghdad bureau (then run by Knight Ridder) was killed in 2005.

I asked Sahar 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 - that Ali is like John."

Along with the rest of the McClatchy bureau's Baghdad staff, Sahar 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. Both 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 Sahar how she deals with fear. "Every day could be my last," she said. "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 Sahar didn't say is that the courage of Iraqi journalists - female and male - is crucial to American correspondents who depend on them to get to places where Americans can no longer 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."

Sahar wants to stay in Iraq, but other Iraqi journalists working with Americans are finding the danger is too great. It is shocking so few have been able to get asylum. America owes the brave journalists who have helped us every assistance. The International Women's Media Foundation should be congratulated for giving their courage the attention it deserves. (You can read more about all six Iraqi women and the other honorees on the Internet at http://www.iwmf.org/courage/awardees.php.)

• Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.



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