29 January 2005
George Bush believes in good and evil. So does his spiritual twin, Osama bin Laden. I've never been so sure about evil. But good I can believe in. The first book my mother gave me to read on my own was The Diary of Anne Frank, the German-Jewish girl whose life in hiding in occupied Amsterdam - until the family's betrayal to the Nazis - was such an inspiration to future generations. She believed that all people were basically good. Whether Anne still believed this as she lay dying of typhus in Belsen concentration camp we shall never know.
And if I am truly honest, I have to admit that in the past 30 years of covering wars in Ireland, Yugoslavia and the Middle East, I have met some terrible men, killers and rapists and torturers and executioners, some of whom clearly enjoyed their handiwork. All the more reason, therefore - at this time of Iraq's fearful elections - to acknowledge one fine Iraqi man, in this case, the husband of Margaret Hassan who was, if the videotape was not a fake, so cruelly done to death by her kidnappers last year.
Tahseen Hassan still lives with Margaret, in his heart and in his mind, and the moment I entered his Baghdad home I could see why. Her common sense and good taste and beauty are everywhere. The Qom silk rugs on the sofa, the furniture, the pictures were all of her choosing. "You see, Margaret for me is still here because I lived with her in this home and she bought this house, and I still see her sitting just over there," Tahseen says. He points to a chair at the side of the living room and I turn towards it as if indeed Margaret will be sitting there. Tahseen takes me round the room. "This portrait of Margaret was painted from the photograph in the hall. It is a good picture. And there she is when she went to New York to oppose the invasion. She didn't please the British or Americans. She went to the United Nations." I had forgotten Margaret's campaign in America, but there she is smiling knowingly into the camera atop a building, the familiar, World Trade Center-less Manhattan skyline behind her.
That was so typical of Margaret. She hated Saddam's repression - his goons would interrogate Tahseen about her innocent work - and she loathed the lethal sanctions which killed so many tens of thousands of Iraqis. She regarded the Bush-Blair invasion - quite rightly - as both brutal and illegal. What would she have thought of tomorrow's elections? We cannot speak for the dead, but she would have understood the violence they predicate and the divisions they would sow between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Tahseen is very composed - he agrees with me that expressions of sorrow can sound very trite - but he admits that he endured appalling days after his wife was kidnapped. "I would come home and sit here and weep," he says. "I would sit here sometimes and go out of my mind crying and sobbing. I don't think insurgents did this, I don't think Iraqi people did this.
"And till now, I can't be sure it's Margaret who was killed. I said I couldn't see the videotape that was released - not because she's my wife, but because I can't bear to see anyone assassinated. It seems that the person in the video was masked. My brother-in-law went to Qatar and saw the tape. He phoned me and said: 'I'm sure it's Margaret.' I don't know how. You see, living with someone for over three decades, I can't believe that Margaret has gone, just like this. I can't believe she's dead. I might be wrong. I appealed to whoever took her - please give me my wife, alive or dead. If she is dead, put her in the ground. If she is alive, give her back to me."
I find it impossible at such moments to speak to people who grieve for their loved ones - even more impossible when the man I am talking to cannot be given the evidence of his worst nightmare. So I sit and listen to the voice of good and try to forget the throat cuttings and the shots in the head and the pulped victims of suicide bombers and the civilians done down by the Americans and the vile abuses of Abu Ghraib and tomorrow's violent elections. Why must it be, I ask myself, that virtue shines so clearly only in those who have suffered?
Tahseen is comforted by the presence of his nephew Rami who brings us tea, but there is a great quietness in the house and Tahseen talks very softly, as if anxious not to arouse any ghosts. "They just wanted to kill her, to shut her up," he says at one stage. "If this thing happened, if Margaret was killed, who is behind it? Who gets the benefit of killing this woman?
"She devoted her life to the Iraqis. She was a very kind woman. One day she came home here in tears and I asked her why. She said: 'I saw a child with bare feet in the street begging. I can't believe it - this is one of the richest countries in the world.' [The aid agency] Care were concerned for her safety and they offered to give her one of those armoured cars. And she just said: 'What about my colleagues? Do they get armoured cars too?' She was a very easy target. She was all over Iraq - Fallujah, Amara, Basra..."
Margaret Hassan's last project was the opening of a rehabilitation clinic for war wounded in Baghdad near the old UN building. "The ministry of health asked her to do it. She furnished all the patients with wheelchairs, beds, air-conditioners. She had to visit every day." Tahseen talks about Margaret in both the past and the present tense, keeping her alive and then, I suspect, gently letting her go. He recalls their life together in a chronology; how she married him in London - he was the Iraqi Airways station manager at Heathrow - and moved to Baghdad in 1972. He was fired from his job - because he had married Margaret, a foreigner - but was employed by Alitalia. She had read the English-language news on Iraqi television and worked at the British Council until it closed after Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait - so did Alitalia's Baghdad office - but then Margaret went to Care and saved Iraqi lives, including child leukaemia victims whose medicines were paid for by The Independent readers and distributed by Margaret and her colleagues.
He cannot remember the date of Margaret Hassan's kidnap. He doesn't talk about the videotapes of her agony, the tears, the appeals, the tape he has not seen of the partly masked woman being shot in the head. On the day of her kidnapping, he walked to the gate to say goodbye to her, just as he walks me to the gate to say goodbye. "There is no body, no corpse, they don't care," he says. "They could throw the body in the street. But you know, I hold on to something. I call my hope of her being alive my 'little bit of string'."
The kidnappers took Margaret Hassan's mobile phone and it is still recorded in Tahseen's own phone notebook: 07901-916561. Call the number and a recorded voice says: "You are not allowed to make this call." Disconnected. Like good people torn apart.
I would dearly love to believe in Tahseen's "little bit of string". He believes in good and does not speak of evil, which - on this weekend of all weekends in Iraq - might be the most powerful example for his country.