Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The "Tragedy of Margaret Hassan" by Nabil Al-Tikriti

The Tragedy of Margaret Hassan

I first met Margaret Hassan in 1991 while a young
relief administrator with Catholic Relief Services in
Baghdad. At the time, Margaret had just been hired as
an office assistant for CARE Australia. Although her
initial job description was relatively humble, it
quickly became apparent to all who worked with her
that Margaret was an invaluable link between us
international aid workers and the wider Iraqi society
just beyond our white vehicles, Iraqi government
meetings, UN press conferences, and sheltered lives
within either NGO compounds or five-star hotels.

We did not know much about Margaret’s personal life,
but we did know that she had lived in Baghdad for most
or all of her adult life since meeting and marrying
her Iraqi husband, Tahsin Ali Hassan. She had “gone
native,” like hundreds of other British females
resident in the formerly UK-ruled territories of
Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Israel/Palestine. As our
rumor mill had it, as a younger woman in the 1970’s
Margaret had gained local fame for reading the English
news on Iraqi television. Although this rumor was
never confirmed, I wonder now at the bitter irony of
her now gaining fame through a very different sort of
broadcast appearance.

When our “Iraq mafia” of international relief workers
moved on to Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and other
societies on the frontlines of globalization, Margaret
stayed on. I saw Margaret once more while visiting
relatives in 2000 and then again in 2003 while
researching the effects of the US/UK invasion on
Iraq’s manuscript collections. Although several years
had passed, Margaret still remembered me, made time
for tea and my endless queries, and graciously shared
whatever information she had on Iraq under sanctions
or occupation.

In the intervening years Margaret’s stature had grown
tremendously. When the Government of Iraq made it
exceedingly difficult for foreign aid workers to stay
on in the summer of 1992, she was the natural choice
to take over as country director of CARE’s relief
program. Unlike the vast majority of international
NGOs active in Iraq following the earlier Gulf War,
CARE under Margaret Hassan continued to provide
assistance throughout the 1990s. This was long after
support of such efforts had waned in such donor
countries as the US and UK, which were simultaneously
extending and deepening Iraq’s hardship through a
malicious UN sanctions regime.

As Margaret has long worked for Iraq’s vulnerable
populations, she remained a largely unguarded soft
target in a society increasingly bereft of such soft
targets. She trusted, plausibly, that her years of
advocacy would protect her from the sort of tragedy
suffered by others who had come to Iraq for personal
gain, professional advancement, or institutional
requisites. It is a shame that certain unknown
radical elements have targeted such a vulnerable – and
ultimately sympathetic – individual. It would be an
abomination if any physical harm came to such an
innocent. To these extremists, I can only urge them
to reconsider their target acquisition. Give this one
back, unharmed.

Although aware of her sensitive position, Margaret
never hesitated to tell it like it is – which usually
implied harsh criticism of US/UK policy in the region.
What is horrifically ironic about her current
predicament is that it is precisely that policy regime
which has led her to this life-threatening situation.
Margaret did not participate in Blair’s war to turn a
profit, Blair’s war came to her. For this reason,
Mr. Blair is ethically obliged to do whatever his
power allows to obtain her freedom. So far the
kidnappers have only demanded that Mr. Blair decline
to send UK troops to reinforce US troops south of
Baghdad. Considering that the purpose of this
reinforcement is to free up US troops for a
long-anticipated assault on Falluja – a town which has
in the past year already lost over 1000 civilians in
similar assaults, Mr. Blair should not have accepted
this request anyway. Like millions of others who have
protested against the US/UK assault on Iraqi society,
I only wish that Mr. Blair would seriously reconsider
the wisdom and humanity of enabling the pending US
assault on Falluja. Innocents like Kenneth Bigley,
Margaret Hassan, and tens of thousands of Iraqis who
have found their lives imperilled by the chaos
following the collapse of the Iraqi state deserve

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