Sunday, February 26, 2006

Let Her Rest in Peace

Atwar Bahjat was not only brutally killed along with two of her colleagues this week near Samarra but her funeral ended bloody as well with shootings and a car bomb that left 3 people dead and 10 wounded.
What did this woman do in order to be murdered and also be shot at as she was carried in her coffin to her resting place in the Karkh Cemetery near the western neighborhood of Abu Ghraib.
Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said two policemen were killed and five were wounded when the convoy was shot at as it headed to the cemetery. When journalists, relatives and friends were returning to Baghdad later in the day, a car bomb exploded leaving one soldier dead and five others wounded.
Luckily Al-Arabiya's team that went to the funeral returned safely to Baghdad.
Baghdad is passing these days through a very difficult period. The bombing of the Imam Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari shrine in Samarra had terrible repercussions. Many Sunni mosques were attacked and near 200 people were killed in what appeared to be sectarian violence.
Still something good happened later in the day that made me and I am sure most Iraqis happy. Sunni and Shiite religious leaders agreed on a charter of honor that prohibited the killing of Sunnis and Shiites. Political leaders also reached agreements to ease the situation.
The daytime curfew that was imposed in Baghdad and nearby provinces was lifted at 4:00 p.m. but driving will be banned in Baghdad for at least another day.
Walking through Baghdad's streets today, it was clear that children were having great time. They had no school and the city's empty streets were turned into football fields.
Police checkpoints checked the IDs of people who went out in their cars despite the curfew.
What is sad about this city is that Baghdadis haven't had a normal life since the war began almost three years ago, but I am sure Iraq's future will be bright same as its glorious past was.
Still this needs time.

Bassem Mroue
Baghdad, Iraq.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Poor Atwar and her Colleagues

It was so sad and shocking to know the first thing in the morning when I turned on the television on Al-Arabiya that their Baghdad correspondent Atwar Bahjat and two of her colleagues were killed near the Iraqi city of Samarra.
The station said the woman and her two colleagues, Adnan Khairallah and Khaled Mahmoud were stopped by two gunmen Wednesday afternoon near Samarra and shot near their car. They had tried to enter the city earlier in the day to cover a bombing that damaged a holy Shiite Muslim shrine but were prevented.
I met Atwar few times in the past three years and was always impressed by how courageous she was in chasing the news whether it had to do with violence or politics. She confidently stood in front of the camera speaking live from Baghdad's dangerous streets.
Why was she killed? I hope we will know one day when her killers are captured and brought to face justice.
The death of Atwar and her colleagues raised the number of journalists killed in Iraq since the American invasion began in March 2003 to 64 according to the Committee to Protest Journalists
Al-Arabiya kept airing Thursday footage of Atwar saying that being a journalist in Iraq could easily cost a person his or her life.
Before the war Atwar worked for Iraqi Satellite Channel and after the American invasion she joined Al-Jazeera. In December she quiet Al-Jazeera and weeks later joined Al-Arabiya.
Iraq has been the most dangerous country for journalists since the war.
I still remember on March 18, 2004 when I went late that day with my colleague Hussein to cover a rocket attack on a hotel in central Baghdad. After spending about half an hour at the scene we left the place. Few seconds later we heard heavy shooting from the areas where we were.
As we arrived at our office, we knew that two Al-Arabiya employees, who were near us at the scene earlier were shot dead by American soldiers. Ali al-Khatib, who only got married few days before the shooting, and Ali Abdul-Aziz died instantly.
Several other journalists who I met in Iraq in the past three years were killed, including Reuters' Mazen Dana, which is very sad and scary at the same time.
I thought that the situation improved following the December 15 parliamentary elections but since arriving in Baghdad this week the situation turns out to be the opposite.
More than 100 people have been killed in the past 24 hours. We don't know how Friday will be like.

Bassem Mroue
Baghdad, Iraq.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Day Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was Assassinated

It was Monday February 14, 2005 and I had some things to do before leaving to Egypt the next day on a 10-day vacation. I left home at about 11 and went to Hamra street where I bought my favorite newspaper, Al-Hayat. Then headed to my barber Ali in Makdisi street since I was in desperate need for a haircut after seven weeks in Iraq. My friend Hamza, who I was supposed to use his flat in Cairo called me and said he will ask the man who takes care of the apartment make sure it is cleaned before I arrive on Tuesday.
Not finding Ali, I decided to go back home and give it another try in the afternoon. At 12:55 as I walked in Sidani Street near Bliss street I heard a massive explosion. I asked myself immediately whether what I heard was a blast or Israeli war planes have broke the sound barrier. I picked up my telephone and called my boss who was north of Beirut but confirmed he felt something.
Things started getting clear when I saw thick black smoke billowing from downtown Beirut. At first, I thought it was inside AUB and started running toward the smoke through bliss street in the direction of Ein Mrayseh. About 10 minutes later after hearing the blast I reached the scene where I saw about a dozen cars on fire and debris all over the place. A massive crater could be seen in front of Saint George Hotel. Dozens of people gathered to watch what was going on, many of them taking pictures with their cellular telephones.
I picked up the telephone and tried to call the office to dictate an urgent but was only able to get through after trying the number several times. Then I saw an ambulance. I went toward it, looked inside from behind the glass and saw a body covered with a sheet. Three policemen stood outside the ambulance and a member of the Civil Defense was inside near the body. The Civil Defense member then jumped outside the ambulance, clearly shaken, and told the policemen: "I am scared. I need someone to go with me." A police officer answered while looking at the two policemen: "Yes we better have one of you go in the ambulance." The policemen and the civil defense member went in before the ambulance left. Hours later I knew that the body in the ambulance was that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
I frantically ran from one side to anther asking policemen who was the target. No one gave me an answer. No one said a word but I was sure they knew who.
Walking in the middle of the destruction I saw a Mercedes with three totally-burnt bodies inside it. I got through to the office after several attempts and dictated an urgent that at least four people were killed in the blast.
I don't know why when I was in the middle of fire and mangled cars I thought that the French ambassador was the target.
About half an hour after I arrived, I heard a police officer telling a colleague of his "it is the motorcade of the big man." The officer then burst into tears. I asked him "which big man," but he asked me to go away. At that point I said they must have targeted Prime Minister Hariri. I called my boss and told him that it seems Prime Minister Hariri "might have been the target."
"Ohhhhhh Nooooooooo," he answered with a sad voice.
Few minutes later I saw Robert Fisk of The Independent walking around the area. We walked toward each other and I told him it seems Prime Minister Hariri was the target. He thought the same. As the time passed more bodies were being taken away from the scene outside the Saint George Hotel.

Later I returned to the car where the three bodies were and took another close look. Then I saw a young man, who was identified as one of Prime Minister Hariri's guards, came walking toward the Mercedes. He looked inside and a second later burst into tears putting his hand on his forehead (look at the photograph). "It's Abu Tarek," he said when he looked at one of the bodies.
At this point it became clear that Prime Minister Hariri was targeted since Abu Tarek is the head of his security.
About an hour later more security forces arrived at the scene and pushed us away from the area. Several Cabinet ministers and members of parliament also arrived and one of them, Tourism Minister Farid Khazen, confirmed Prime Minister Hariri was assassinated.
At about 4 p.m. I headed to the office and stayed there working until about midnight.
From the window I could see that night that all the restaurants in downtown Beirut, where lovers were supposed to celebrate Valentines Day, were closed.
Feb. 14, 2005 ended as one of the darkest days for Lebanon in decades.

Bassem Mroue
Beirut February 13, 2006.
6:45 p.m.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Disturbances in Damascus and Beirut

I was walking in downtown Beirut with my nephew Jad on Saturday night when my cellular telephone rang. I picked up the phone and found that it was my boss. "How are you today? Can you go to Syria now?" he asked?. When I ask what is going on there he said that demonstrators have already burnt the Danish and Norwegian embassies and are marching toward the French mission.
"The situation is developing very quickly. If you want to go you have to do it as soon as possible," he said.
For days there have been demonstrations in Muslim countries protesting a caricature offensive to Islam's Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper.
I took Jad to his parents house then drove home packed quickly and took a car to Damascus. It was my first trip to Syria since Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in April 2005. Less than two hours after leaving Beirut there I was in the Syrian capital. I was surprised that crossing the border is still as simple as it was in the past.
I asked my colleagues what was going on and they said the demonstrators were not able to enter the French Embassy because of tight security. It was quiet when I arrived.
An hour later I went to the Danish Embassy in the posh Abu Rummaneh neighborhood and saw the four-story building totally burnt. Not many people were in the street apart from few policemen.
¶ After having a dish of lentils soup at my favorite restaurant in Damascus, Sit el-Sham, I went to the hotel at about 2 a.m and went to bed.
I woke up early Sunday and went to the office. As I was reading the news I saw that the building that houses the Danish Embassy in Beirut was attacked. The last thing I imagined something like that would happen in Beirut. Before I left to Syria on Saturday, my colleague Dalia told me a demonstration was planned in Beirut for Sunday morning. I told myself nothing will happen here like what is going on in Syria. I was wrong.
Hundreds of demonstrators not only attacked the building in Ashrafieh but also attacked two nearby churches and damaged many cars in the area. Some 30 people were injured and one of the demonstrators that stormed the embassy building died inside it. Assafir newspaper had a front-page photograph showing one of the demonstrators jumping from the second floor of the building after begin surrounded by fire. He was injured and rushed to hospital.
What happened in Beirut was scary and thank God it did not turn worse. A friend called me from Beirut screaming: "They have attacked two churches. They are attacking Christians."
¶ Some Lebanese newspapers said the army took positions later in the day at what used to be the green line that divided what used to be east and west Beirut. The last thing we want in this country is to go back to this dark period that killed 150,000 people and wounded some 180,000.
What appear to have helped in cooling things down during the riots is what Christian leaders, such as Lebanese Forces Secretery-General Samir Geagea said. He told LBC television that the target is the embassy and not the Christians. Leaders were scared the situation could get out of control.
Every one in Lebanon was in shock. Who were these people? Who sent them? Why did they do this? Why weren't these enough policemen to protect the building?
Hopefully we will know soon after the more than 300 detainees are questioned and after an investigation is done.
After finishing work in Damascus, I took a car and headed back to Beirut. After crossing into Lebanon it was clear that the country was not normal. Several army checkpoints asking for IDs and searching cars.
At 9:15 p.m. I arrived at my friend Donna's house where she had some friends, all of them journalists, for dinner. We stayed there until about 11:30 p.m. talking about, in addition to gossip, Iraq, Hamas, Syria and of course the riots in Lebanon.
There I knew that Interior Minister Hassan Sabei had resigned because of what happened.
These two days were not the best for me as a journalist. I arrived in Syria when the riots where over and returned to Lebanon missing the big story.
What I hope in the end is that such disturbances don't happen.

Bassem Mroue
Monday February 6, 2006.