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18 Nov 2004 00:00
Margaret Hassan had devoted 30 years of her life to the health and welfare of the Iraqi people. She was a convert to Islam, fluent in Arabic, with an Iraqi husband.
She was a well-known, respected and accepted figure in Baghdad and vocal critic of the United States-led war on her adopted country.
Hassan’s family on Tuesday night accepted that she had probably been murdered, after analysis of a video which showed a masked gunman shooting a blindfolded woman in the head.
Over more than four weeks in which her frightened image was broadcast around the world, Hassan was revealed to be an intensely private person. Few people outside her immediate family and friends knew her well, but all who talked about her in the ensuing trauma of her captivity agreed her work was her passion.
Felicity Arbuthnot, an Irish freelance journalist, testified to the affection Hassan received on her travels around the country for the charity Care International. “She could go anywhere and didn’t need a minder â€¦’’
Niall Andrews, the Irish former MEP who visited Iraq several times and met her twice, said: “She struck me as a very powerful woman, a very strong person and a good person. She was apolitical but very opposed to the sanctions. She was a very driven woman. She was very energetic, very committed, very compassionate.’‘
Born in Dublin, Hassan (59) held joint British, Irish and Iraqi citizenship.
She first moved to Iraq in 1972 after meeting her engineer husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, in London. At first she worked for the British Council, teaching English. She became an assistant director of studies, then director of the Baghdad office.
The council closed in 1990 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but after the 1991 Gulf War she found a new job as director of Care, one of the charities which remained in Iraq during the war. It specialises in projects involving health, nutrition, water supplies and sanitation.
Hassan was a tireless opponent of the sanctions regime against Iraq, which she believed was responsible for the inadequate food and medical provisions for ordinary people.
In an interview with The Guardian in October 2002, almost exactly two years before she was kidnapped, she spoke of her concern that Iraqis were much more vulnerable to a conflict than before 1991.
She predicted accurately that the limited electricity supply would almost certainly grind to a halt and would in turn badly affect water and sanitation plants. For months after the war her team was involved in tackling just that problem, trying to restart water treatment plants and replace rusting water pipes.
“Immunity levels are very low,’’ she said at the time. “There is no cushion for the Iraqi population ... It will take at least a generation to get back what they have lost.”
Last year she warned of the humanitarian consequences of another war. “The Iraqi people do not have the resources to withstand an additional crisis.’’
Hassan’s ordeal began on October 19 when she was seized by unknown militants as she was leaving for work from home in the Khadra district of western Baghdad. A series of ever more harrowing videos, the first released hours after her capture, came out.
The videos contained specific threats that the kidnappers would kill her unless Britain withdrew troops from Baghdad and all women prisoners in Iraq were freed.
In the first video footage she looked drawn, with her hands tied behind her back. She appeared to be talking but no sound could be heard. Unlike most of the previous videos of kidnappings in Iraq, no militants or banners appeared.
In the next video on October 23, grainy footage was released on the Arab TV station al-Jazeera of Hassan pleading, “I beg of you, the British people, to help me. I don’t want to die like [Kenneth] Bigley. This might be my last hour.’’
It was the day after Britain announced a troop deployment to support the US military gathering around Fallujah. She was seen calling on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to withdraw troops from Iraq “and not bring them to Baghdad. That’s why people like Mr Bigley and myself are being caught. And maybe we will die like Mr Bigley.’‘
In the third video, on October 27, Hassan looked close to tears. She asked for British troops to be withdrawn, for Care International to close its office in Baghdad and again for Iraqi women prisoners to be freed. Care responded by closing its Iraqi offices.
On November 2, as Hassan’s sister made a plea for her release in Dublin, a final video surfaced, which al-Jazeera decided not to broadcast on humanitarian grounds.
Hassan reportedly pleaded for her life directly to the camera before fainting. It is believed a bucket of water was then thrown over her head and she was filmed wet and helpless on the ground before getting up and crying. — Â
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