Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A Free Life in Iraq
Last Saturday night, in Baghdad, my friend Ammar al-Shahbander went to hear a concert sponsored by a local civic group. It was the kind of request - a fun way to support life going on in Iraq - that he didn’t tend to refuse. (Photo: Ammar Al Shahbander)
Tonight, PEN American Center, the writers’ organization, will honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. I’ll be there to celebrate them both, but I’ll also be remembering my Iraqi friend Ammar al-Shahbander.
Ammar was born in Iraq in 1973, but when he was young his parents fled to Tehran, Damascus, and finally Sweden, where he became a citizen and went to college. After college, he moved to London and worked for a small news network that focussed on Iraq. We met in December of 2002, at a conference of various Iraqi opposition groups in London, just a few months before the American invasion. Ammar had strong views about the coming war: he believed that it would be a good and necessary thing, that it would free his countrymen from their long imprisonment under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and that the Iraqi best equipped to lead the country into a democratic future was a banker named Ahmed Chalabi. This was the thinking – passionate and wishful – of an exile offered a glimpse of the promised land.
The war came, and Ammar reëntered his homeland alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces sweeping down from the north. We caught up with each other in Baghdad in the scorching summer of 2003. One night, Ammar, another Iraqi exile I’d met in London named Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and I met for dinner at an outdoor restaurant on the east bank of the Tigris that specialized in grilled river fish. Mustafa was working on a new television and radio network; Ammar was running the Baghdad office of the Iraq Foundation, which was working to restore the southern marshes that had been drained by Saddam in his war against the Iraqi Shia population. It was already unsafe to be driving around Baghdad at night, and it would soon be suicidal. Under American occupation, the city had descended into chaos, with kidnappings common, gunfire a constant background noise, and the insurgency in its early stages. It was not what my friends from London, or I, had expected.
Ammar, round-faced and prematurely bald, fixed me with his slightly conspiratorial smile and gleaming dark eyes – from which the scales had fallen. “We were living in a dream,” he said. “Our idea of Iraq was the opposite of reality.” He had expected Iraqis to seize the chance to build a new society. Instead, he said, they were too beaten-down by the years of terror and sanctions and war to do anything more than go on surviving. “When you tell them they have such a great opportunity to express their opinion, they don’t give a damn.” Ammar had become critical of Chalabi and his followers from exile, who had requisitioned upscale houses in Baghdad and behaved as if power should be handed over to them. Many of the former exiles were too cloistered and arrogant to see how much their countrymen resented them and the Americans they’d ridden in with.
As we drove home just before the curfew through dark and nearly deserted streets, Mustafa said, “I think about death every day.” In the back seat, Ammar added quietly, “I’m saying a sentence over and over to my wife: ‘Never afraid of Saddam – beaten by the mentality of the Iraqi people.’ ”
Ammar’s disillusionment came at a cost – it took courage for him to let go of his naïve dreams and face the reality of occupied Iraq. Nor did he exclude himself from judgment. The easy thing to do would have been to return to the safety and comfort of London with his wife, Angela. Or, like so many exiles, he could have shifted gears and decided to exploit the mess as a profiteering politician or businessman – there were offers. Or, again, he could have parlayed his education and Iraqi credentials to secure a plum position at the World Bank or PricewaterhouseCoopers. But Ammar actually believed in Iraq. He was a patriot who remained, in a practical way, an idealist. He didn’t give up on the idea that Iraq could become more democratic, more free – that Iraqis deserved what the rest of us take for granted. Getting there would be far harder and more dangerous than he had imagined. But Ammar went to work.
In 2004, he became a program manager for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Baghdad. (I’m on the board of the organization.) IWPR. trains journalists in conflict-torn countries, and Ammar was so good at this work that he quickly became the chief of its Iraq operations. He and his colleagues trained many of the Iraqis who became journalists in post-Saddam Iraq – in camera work, in reporting and editing, even in how to improve one’s chances of staying alive in a war zone. During the worst years of the fighting, between 2005 and 2007, when most other non-profit organizations headed for the relative safety of Kurdistan, Ammar and IWPR. stayed in Baghdad, continuing to work in a secure house outside the American-protected Green Zone.
Travelling back and forth between London, where his growing family lived near Wembley Stadium, and Iraq, Ammar relished the independence of working for an organization that gave him access to all of Iraq’s players and factions – the political parties, the Minister of the Interior, the journalists, the Sadrists, the Americans – while remaining his own man, beholden to no one. He created a series of documentaries for local television on controversial human-rights issues, such as the death penalty, with reportage and panel discussions. He helped to establish a women’s-only advertising agency that continues to run today. He trained Iraqi policemen in using the media to reach out to local communities. He hated Iraq’s violent divisions of sect and ethnicity – Ammar was a spiritual but profoundly secular person – and he refused to be identified by them.
After falling out of touch for several years, Ammar and I spoke by phone a couple of weeks ago. He wanted me to know about his latest project – IWPR.’s work on the plight of Yazidi and other refugees amid the terror of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. He had travelled to the Iraqi-Turkish border to visit a remote, miserable camp, and interviewed traumatized Yazidi women who had escaped Islamic State slavery. In an email to his colleague Duncan Furey from the camp, he told the story of one fifteen-year-old girl who had been sold repeatedly by ISIS militants, raped multiple times, and tortured, before escaping and walking for three nights to the Kurdish lines. Ammar was trying to get the Iraqi government and foreign embassies to provide aid: “Seriously I can’t fall asleep at night after seeing these girls and as you know I’m a hardened bastard who has seen it all!”
Last Saturday night, in Baghdad, Ammar was feeling under the weather, but a friend had asked him to go hear an Eagles cover band at a concert sponsored by a local civic group. It was the kind of request – a fun way to support life going on in Iraq – that Ammar didn’t tend to refuse. He tweeted a picture of the concert: “#Baghdad summer..2Guitars playing Hotel California #Iraq #no2isis.” Afterward, Ammar and his colleague Emad al-Sharaa went to a café in a lively commercial district, not far from the restaurant where Ammar and I had eaten grilled fish a dozen years ago. As they were leaving the café, a car bomb exploded out on the street. Shrapnel entered Ammar’s heart and killed him instantly. His colleague was seriously injured and taken to the hospital. Nearby, another bomb went off around the same time. The death toll on this night in Baghdad was seventeen. ISIS claimed credit. Ammar was forty-one years old.
The next day, Sunday, was World Press Freedom Day. On Monday, Ammar was buried in the holy city of Najaf, in the presence of his parents, his brothers, hundreds of Iraqi leaders and ordinary citizens, and Ammar’s wife and their four children, the youngest three months old, who had come from London.
Ammar al-Shahbander gave his life to two causes that are never for the faint of heart and that have recently lost support – Iraq’s future, and the freedom to think and write. Tonight, as PEN honors other journalists living and dead, I will be saluting Ammar, too.
George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he writes about foreign affairs, American politics, and books. He is a member of IWPR's International Board.
This article was published here in The New Yorker on May 5, 2015.
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