The Sunday Times May 07, 2006
Part of me died when I saw this cruel killing
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 exceptional cruelty.
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 left.
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 their identity.
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 a
nd 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.”