Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraq's Pure Soul

IWPR's executive director describes the respect and affection people had for Ammar Al Shahbander.
By Anthony Borden
  • Ammar Al Shahbander with Tony Borden in a picture from 2012. (Photo: IWPR)
    Ammar Al Shahbander with Tony Borden in a picture from 2012. (Photo: IWPR)

Hope is a scarce commodity in Iraq. It was further diminished last week when Ammar Al Shahbander, one of the country’s few dreamers, fell victim to one more act of senseless violence.

Born in Iraq in 1973, Ammar left the country in 1977 with his father, an opposition politician in Saddam Hussein’s era. They fled first to Kuwait, then Iran, Syria and finally Sweden.

By 2002, Ammar was a sociology student at London’s Westminster University and fluent in four languages. He and his circle of friends shared a dream. With the United States invasion the following year, these young students foresaw a new Iraq, united by a common democratic vision and not splintered by religion, ethnicity or corruption. It was a vision they were determined to turn into reality.

Some months after the fall of Saddam, my colleague Duncan Furey and I met Ammar for the first time in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris. We were on a trip to establish a team for the London-based charity we work for, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), which strengthens local media and civil society groups in countries in crisis and transition.

There was clearly a lot to be done.

In a white T-shirt and jeans, Ammar looked very much a kid. We soon noticed his confident and inviting smile that seemed to embrace everyone he met.

As we sipped tea in the lobby and discussed how bewildered we were by Iraqi society, we marvelled at this young man’s ability to work a room. Ammar knew everyone, and everyone knew Ammar.

There was our man. We knew we should hire him immediately.

Having already established the Baghdad office of the Iraq Foundation, Ammar joined IWPR and set to work, steadily building up a team that peaked at 150 local staff, with himself as Chief of Mission. Over an extended period, the programming he developed was marked by great creativity – a ground-breaking television series on human rights, a weekly women’s radio show, an advertising agency run by women, numerous radio programmes and publications encouraging people to vote, a major initiative for media policy and legal reform, and countless training and mentoring activities for Iraqi reporters and civil society groups.

Ammar had an impact on an entire generation of journalists in the country. This would be a remarkable roll call of accomplishment in any country, let alone Iraq.

The initial calm after the war did not last long, and the country sank into a decade of terrible conflict that left hundreds of thousands of dead, immense physical destruction, industrial-scale corruption, and more displacement and flight. Recently there was a crisis of government legitimacy, and then the emergence of Islamic State, promising only more violence.

Few outside Iraq would think the outlook is positive.

Ammar endured through it all, constantly travelling across the country – one day in the Kurdish north, the next in western Iraq, then back in the capital.

As violence in Baghdad spiked, many international NGOs withdrew to the north. But Ammar – with a talented and dedicated team – persevered, managing complex projects, meeting officials, civic leaders, editors and others, writing endless reports and proposals, and always offering information and advice to anyone who came calling.

I have worked with many colleagues within war zones, and strains are inevitable. Ammar was not immune from them, but we often felt that only in this kind of environment could he steal the freedom he craved. Throughout, he retained his positive demeanour, warm manner and that winning, sometimes mischievous smile.

He was also developing a formidable expertise and intellect. Ministers and ambassadors, journalists and academics all had huge respect for Ammar, and his briefings were always informative and inspiring.

In one instance, acting US Ambassador Robert Ford spent several hours with Ammar and a number of trainees, hearing about IWPR’s work and discussing developments in Iraq. As they departed, Ambassador Ford remarked to his State Department colleague Vitessa Del Prete, “Best day in Iraq, ever.” Ammar had that effect on many people.

Without doubt, the initial dream faded. The vision of quick progress under Ahmed Chalabi never materialised. Bad leadership and poor decisions were rife, among Americans and Iraqis alike. The violence never abated and the deaths mounted.

Three reporters involved with IWPR lost their lives, including Sahar al-Haidari, assassinated in Mosul for writing about the risks of Islamic extremism.

We came to love our colleague and friend Ammar, but in truth there were times he also drove us nuts. Deadlines were just not his thing. He might disappear for days on end, only to re-emerge to say he had been caught out by a sandstorm or a worn-out telephone battery.

Yet his judgement of people, of politics, and of Iraq was always unerring, and he never let you down in the end.

At one point some years ago, he was tempted to run for political office. It would have been an obvious progression. But after much soul-searching, he declined. Jumping into formal politics would only have limited his ability to contribute, and it would definitely have constrained his free spirit.

Despite his growing family, he was determined to stay in Iraq. This was not easy, especially for his wife, Angela. They tried relocating to Baghdad, but it did not work. So he travelled back and forth from London regularly. Only last summer, Ammar and Angela celebrated the birth of their fourth child. He spent a very long time every day talking to them all via Skype.

In the end, Ammar stayed with IWPR and remained working on the ground because despite everything, he never did lose that dream.

Ammar believed passionately in working at grassroots level to make social and political change happen from the ground up. With his background in sociology, he was constantly thinking about how Iraq could be knitted together, how different groups could work across dividing lines, and above all how women and youth could be encouraged to participate.

He helped keep alive the flame of hope and possibility for countless Iraqis, especially young people.

Most recently, he was seized by the plight of the Yezidi minority suffering at the hands of Islamic State (including horrible stories of abuse against women), and he worked to mobilise Iraqi and international support to assist them.

We urged him to be careful, and he had a closetful of flak jackets and other safety equipment. His father – living back in Baghdad – and his wife also begged him to limit his movements. But Ammar was smart and incredibly well connected, and knew how to handle himself. He always had done.

Despite feeling under the weather, he could not refuse an invitation last Saturday afternoon to go to a concert by an Eagles cover band, of all things: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” In one of the last photographs ever taken of him, smiling in the audience, I know he is thinking about more than just the moment. For if Iraq cannot play music, it cannot move forward. And if he is not willing to turn up, who will?

It would be his last Tweet.

After a pleasant meal with friends at a nearby restaurant, he was walking down the street. The car bomb blast killed him instantly. A small piece of shrapnel embedded itself in his heart. Sixteen other people died in the attack, and another IWPR colleague was wounded but survived.

The reaction of all of his good friends – whether in Baghdad or Irbil, London or Malmo, Washington or New York and beyond – was the same: “No – not Ammar.”

The great survivor, the wise youngster, the rascal and the pro – Ammar was always there and always would be. No one could believe it. His tight group of Iraqi friends from London – the original young dreamers – are especially bereft. I still have difficulty accepting the fact, and will for some time.

“Ammar was very special,” Angela said in her agony. “But in Iraq, no one’s life is special.”

And yet, that may not be wholly true after all.

It is hard to really appreciate what you have until it is gone. This has never been more true than for Ammar. The day after his death, a Sunday, was World Press Freedom Day. For his many friends including me, May 3 can never again be a celebration, only a commemoration.

Ammar’s funeral on the Monday (delayed so that Angela, with her parents and all the children, could travel from London) and the official mourning in Baghdad, attracted enormous support from leading politicians and religious figures, journalists and activists. Hundreds of people attended, including former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. There has been broad coverage in the Iraq media which he did so much to help build. “Brother”, “hero” and “patriot”, his friends reminisced – “the pure soul of Iraq”.

“When I said I lost Ammar,” one of his close Iraqi colleagues wrote to me, “I mean I lost myself.”

A man of Iraq, Ammar was buried in Wadi al-Salaam, the vast cemetery in the holy city of Najaf. Friends who viewed the body said he was smiling.

In the worst of environments, Ammar gave hope. Will that hope be extinguished? Or is it just possible that his passing may inspire those he touched to recommit to that dream?

Anthony Borden is Executive Director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.