07/16/2008, 00.00
IRAQ
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Being a woman, journalist, and Christian in a Baghdad returning to life

by Layla Yousif Rahema
Under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists trying to force them to convert, with the additional risks of the journalistic profession, in exile from one country to another: the Calvary of two Iraqi women from the fall of Saddam to the present.

Rome (AsiaNews) - One day, Mariam* found her photo on the website of a fundamentalist Shiite group. Her life, and that of her family, would never be the same. Mariam, aged 30, is an Iraqi journalist, well known in the country for conducting the political news broadcasts on Al Sharqiya, the television channel connected to the Baath party of the former rais Saddam Hussein. In addition to being a woman and a journalist, two categories long under fire from extremists in Baghdad, she is also a journalist. For her and her sister Rita, aged 28 and also a journalist working for international and American news agencies, the last year has turned into the hell that is the daily experience of most of their fellow Iraqis still in the country: the obligation of wearing the veil in order to avoid offending the Muslims, intimidation, the kidnapping and killing of their friends and colleagues. But in spite of this, all may not yet be lost.

In Rome for a course on "Catholic information for and in the Middle East" at AsiaNews, the two young women recount their experience: the difficulties of daily life, which gradually seems to be returning to a semblance of normality; the desire to contribute to bringing their country back to life; the Christian hope that gives them the strength to continue forward, and the burning desire to make the world understand the situation in Iraq.

The television channel Al Sharqiya (editor's note: financed half by Saudi Arabia and half by London) had to move to Dubai after the fall of Saddam: it faced too much danger from the terrorists who had targeted it for its pro-Baath positions. So in 2003, Mariam and Rita also moved to the Emirates, but life is not easy there either. "In Dubai, as in the rest of the world", Rita says, "they do not want Iraqis working there. Because of our common origin, Arabic hospitality, and the fact that it is a rich country, you might expect a different kind of welcome and assistance. But that's not the way it is. They hire you for a short time, and if they do not renew your contract you are forced to leave again soon. Dubai is also a very expensive city, and if you have no one to help you financially you can't do it". After the rais was hanged, in December of 2005, the owner of the television station "invited" the employees to dress in mourning garments. A photo of her dressed that way was immediately spread over the internet, and for the vicious Shiite militias it was the unmistakable proof of her complicity with the hated dictator. She began to receive anonymous phone calls "suggesting" that she quit her job, that she no longer appear in public, because "it will be better for you and your family". "I was afraid, I couldn't live with the idea of endangering the lives of my loved ones, and so, in part because of more pressure from my director, I decided to quit. Rita and I were forced to return to Baghdad, we had no choice".

They returned to their home city in 2007, but the place has changed profoundly. "For two years", Mariam recounts, "groups of men dressed in black, religious militias, have been going around talking with our priests and our fathers to impose Islamic rules on them. So all of a sudden, we could no longer call ourselves Christians. We immediately had to begin wearing the veil, our churches are open only for a few hours on Sunday, and many have been closed entirely".

Mariam, who is easily recognised because of the time she spent at the television station Al Sharqiya, has lived almost as if she were buried alive, terrified of going out, and unable to work. "In our city, where we used to go to school, visit friends, pray, the daily reality has become that of senseless murder - cars forced to stop, the passengers taken away to be shot for no apparent reason - of explosions and violence. In the mosques, lists are put up with the names of men who must be killed because they are thought to be accomplices of the Americans. One of our cousins appeared on this list, and had to flee to the north.

Meanwhile, all around us life goes on, people go to the market, to the university, but still you have the excruciating certainty that sooner or later it will be your turn".

Mariam and Rita inherited their passion for their work from their father, who was also a journalist. "But he did not have our problems, not even after the war, because his specialty was art; but if you deal with political information in Iraq, you're automatically a target for one group or another".  As soon as she returned to Baghdad last year, Mariam saw three of her colleagues killed in the span of a few months. They were two men and one woman, killed only because they were broadcasters, for no other reason. " f you want to provide unbiased information", Rita maintains, "you must leave Iraq; it is true that Iraqis are more free than we were under Saddam, but for journalists nothing has changed: if you want to work, you can't speak or write against the authorities, that's the way it works. Even in the more peaceful Kurdistan, the situation is no different: the semiautonomous government does not want bad publicity, and the control over the local press is strong".

"This year, there has been significant improvement in security inside the city", the young women confirm, "there are fewer car bombs, fewer attacks and kidnappings. Of course we will not stop wearing the veil, otherwise they would threaten us to make us convert to Islam, but now the churches can be opened for one more day of the week, in addition to Sunday. But always for two or three hours, no more". In Dora, the historic Christian neighbourhood in the capital, the situation is still very dangerous for the small community now reduced to the barest glimmer. The two journalists recount how the war has destroyed even the most simple relationships, the basic relationships. "Next door neighbours can help each other without distinguishing between Sunni, Shiite, or Christian", Mariam says, "but it is practically impossible to go visit a Muslim friend who lives in another neighbourhood, and the same thing is true for him". "This experience of contact with other colleagues and other Christians in Italy makes us feel less isolated, and therefore less fragile. We realise today that we are a part of something greater, and seeing the solidarity and understanding of the people from another country gives us strength. When you are over there, under the bombs and the mortar fire, sometimes it seems like there is nothing outside of your own desperation. But prayer, our faith and the solidarity of the world and of our friends abroad are an indispensable support for us who want to remain there, hoping that in part thanks to our sacrifice, Iraq will one day come back to life".

 

* For reasons of safety, the names used here are fictitious.

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