Kidnapped

The heroine who offered hope for Iraq

By Robert Fisk

20 October 2004

Margaret? Margaret Hassan kidnapped? She who said to me that soon, very soon, "there will be more than one lost generation" in Iraq?

Is there no end to the kidnappers' targets? Margaret Hassan was abducted at 7.30 yesterday morning on her way to work running Care International's Iraq operation. Soon afterwards, Arabic al-Jazeera television showed her sitting in a room looking calm, if concerned. It also showed close-ups of her identification papers and said an unnamed Iraqi group claimed it had kidnapped her.

Margaret was the enemy of United Nations sanctions on Iraq. She is the symbol of all those who believe that Iraq - a real, free, unoccupied Iraq - has a future; and all we can be told is that she, too, has joined the legion of the unpersons, the "disappeared", the list of those who, because of their language or the colour of their eyes or their nationality, have slipped into Iraq's dark hole.

The ultimate disgrace yesterday was to hear British diplomats who supported those deadly sanctions weeping their crocodile tears for "Margaret".

Tony Blair rushed to say Britain will do all that it can to secure her release. "There is really a limit at this stage what I can say to you, but obviously we will do whatever we can," he said, while standing beside the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, in London.

"It shows the kind of people we are up against that they are prepared to kidnap somebody like this. We do not know which group it is."

But Mr Blair, remember, fully supported the sanctions which Margaret loathed. And, of course, he supported George Bush's invasion that led to the chaos that has engulfed Iraq.

Kidnappers have killed at least 35 foreign nationals in Iraq since the invasion. Iraqis seen as co-operating with the occupation forces or the US-backed Iraqi interim government have also been targeted for kidnapping. This week two Macedonian contractors who had been abducted were beheaded. And two weeks ago the same fate befell the British contractor Ken Bigley. And now Margaret has been taken. Margaret, who above all is a humanitarian.

I first met her when The Independent exposed the use by the Americans and British of depleted uranium munitions in the 1991 Gulf War, and the explosion of cancers and leukaemia that afflicted Iraqi children in the years that followed. Readers of The Independent donated £250,000 for medicines and Care - for which Margaret worked - undertook to distribute the vaccines around the hospitals of Iraq. Margaret and her Dublin colleague Judy Morgan found the trucks to take these vital medicines across Iraq to try to save the small creatures in the children's "wards of death".

I watched Margaret cajole the truck drivers, plead with the hospitals, bargain with the air-conditioning moguls to deliver vincristine and other fluids to the children's hospitals in the October heat.

For 30 years Margaret has devoted herself to Iraq. She started working for Care International soon after it began operations there in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War. She has a staff of 60 Iraqis who run nutrition, health and water programmes the length and breadth of the country. She is married to an Iraqi and, though Irish-born, she carries British and Iraqi nationality.

She "considers herself an Iraqi national", Amber Meikle, Care International's spokeswoman, said yesterday. "We want to stress that she sees herself as an Iraqi. Iraq is her home. She has been living there for many years and would never consider coming back to Britain."

Margaret is a driven woman, as I recall so well. Every week, every day, every hour, the evidence of human tragedy on a massive scale - a UN sanctions disaster which they could do little or nothing to alleviate - mounted on their desks in the Care office in a fly-blown estate of Baghdad.

Yesterday, I went back to an old blue-covered notebook and an interview with Margaret. It is dated 5 October 1998. In the margin, I have written of her: "She doesn't shout when she speaks, but her indignation - uttered above her office's hissing air-conditioner - comes across as a cry, angry and frustrated, from someone who is tired of listening to platitudes."

These were black days, but the tragedy continues to unfold for her adopted nation. "This is a man-made disaster," she told me, banging her right hand into the palm of her left. "Yes, some people have benefited from what we have done. But we can't solve the problem of Iraq. It's got no economy. We can't replace this with aid."

Margaret pulled a thick file across her desk back in 1998. "What use can we be here?" she asked. "Now if this was a Third World country, we could bring in some water pumps at a cost of a few hundred pounds and they could save thousands of lives. But Iraq was not a Third World country before the [1991] war, and you can't run a developed society on aid. The doctors here are excellent - many were trained in Europe as well as Iraq - but because of sanctions, they haven't had access to a medical journal for eight years."

Margaret suspected that westerners had somehow divorced themselves from ordinary Iraqis during the 13 years of UN sanctions.

"I don't think we see them as people," she told me. "If you see someone suffering, if you have a grain of humanity in you, you have to respond to that. Sanctions are inhuman and what we are doing cannot redress that inhumanity.

"They are contrary to the UN charter which enshrines the rights of the individual. It's a contradiction, a hypocrisy. It's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde."

There were times when even she was almost beaten. I remember one afternoon, after she had sent our medicines to the doomed cancer babies of Baghdad, when Margaret seemed defeated.

"The people here are really, really suffering," she said. "Do people know what it's like for a mother to wake up each morning not knowing how to feed her children? I don't think westerners see Iraqis as ordinary people."

Before the war to remove Saddam Hussein, Margaret was among the many who warned the British Government that an invasion and occupation would produce a humanitarian crisis in a country already severely weakened by the embargoes.

It is the ultimate irony that a woman who was brave and good and decent enough to oppose the shameful sanctions with which we chose to purge the Iraqi people should now be taken by kidnappers in Baghdad.

If ever there was a true friend of Iraqis, it is Margaret Hassan. Brave, outspoken, steadfast, she is a heroine. Her captors should be humbled that they can speak to so fine a lady.