Perhaps it was the thousands of pilgrims who braved rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs just to kiss its wooden doors.
Or the mystery of its legacy, the shrine being the place where Shia Islam’s last imam disappeared.
Maybe it was the fact that it was a Shia shrine, looked after for generations by a hereditary line of Sunni imams, in a northern Sunni Iraqi city where every street wraps in meandering circles around its spiritual heart.
The shrine’s 1000-year-old tilework of aqua blue and salmon pink was lovely and its unique and protected status made it hopelessly beautiful.
The more so now that it is gone.
And so it was with Atwar Bahjat, the Al-Arabiya correspondent who was shot and killed in Samarra the day the shrine was destroyed.
If you had ever known her, you would have found something just as rare and precious.
Daughter of Iraq
“A very revealing article about journalist in Iraq. I was deeply saddened to see the destruction of the mosque. I cannot begin to understand who would do such a thing.”
Atwar was born in Samarra to a Sunni father and a Shia mother from Karbala.
She began her career as a reporter with the Iraqi Satellite Network, then joined Aljazeera and in the past few months shifted to Al-Arabiya.
Atwar was more than a new reporter burning to prove herself.
She was a young Iraqi who found herself telling the story of her country under foreign occupation, on the brink of division and chaos.
“People saw this young Iraqi woman, reporting from hospitals,the scenes of explosions, deserted streets, the family homes of the deceased. People felt she belonged to them. They felt she represented them,” says Uday al-Katib, a colleague at Aljazeera.
Atwar was not objective, as she herself admitted.
She was biased in favour of Iraq.
Atwar found herself telling the
She always leaned to one side in the conflict – the human one.
“Atwar never talked about Kurds and Shias and Sunnis,” says Ahmad Al Samarai, another Aljazeera colleague.
“She always talked about Iraqis.”
Over the course of her career, Atwar was to become one of the most famous television personalities in Iraq.
She was respected and liked by the Sunni and Shia and some of the most hardline elements across the political spectrum.
Perhaps it was her dual heritage or that she was an accomplished poet who could harness words to unite Iraqis.
Atwar believed in Iraq and she would brave any situation to save it.
When the destruction of Samarra’s shrine brought on a national crisis, Atwar rushed to the explosion as a doctor would rush to a dying patient.
In her last report, she said “whether you are Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurd, there is no difference between Iraqis, united in fear for this nation.”
After the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, Atwar joined Aljazeera as a reporter in Baghdad where the channel was training a new generation of Iraqi journalists into a vastly expanded bureau.
Though talent was brought in from Iraq’s traditional media, there were also new faces: Wedding photographers became war photographers, young poets became reporters.
Atwar never spoke of factions,
Atwar stood out among 130 men as one of only three professional women with experience in reporting.
Yet Atwar was usually assigned to culture stories, to cover women and children’s issues, while other less experienced male colleagues were sent out for the more “serious” or dangerous stories.
Atwar waited, silently biding her time and working hard, knowing she had to be twice as good to be taken half as seriously.
Over time she became a political reporter, covering every movement on the Iraqi political scene from the daily machinations of the Governing Council to the formation of a new government.
When the Governing Council shut down Aljazeera’s bureau for a month, Atwar continued to call them every day, standing in the corner of the office with a satellite phone and a bad signal, doggedly trying to convince them to give her news.
When she was detained overnight by the US military and the soldiers crowded around to interrogate her, the men at Aljazeera’s bureau became hysterical, but Atwar kept her cool.
Through the daily explosions, violence and suffering, the 45 degrees celsius heat, the parade of distraught Iraqi families coming to the bureau to beg Aljazeera to cover their plight, the challenge of trying to get bad news from officials who did not want to give it out, Atwar never gave up or cried.
She put a smile on her face, thanked everyone who worked with her profusely, and ended each sentence with Arabic compliments such as “yes, my eyes,” “my heart,” “anything for you, my dear”.
Slowly but surely she broke down her opponents.
One night I found one of Atwar’s biggest detractors alone in the newsroom reading her reports.
When I asked what it was, he mumbled, “It’s something Atwar wrote” and without lifting his eyes from the page, added quietly “it is excellent”.
When clashes broke out between Shia militia and US forces in Najaf in spring 2004, Atwar finally convinced Aljazeera’s management to send her to the hot zone.
Atwar convinced her editors to
Majid Khadir, former Baghdad bureau chief said: “She used to plead all the time, she would say I know it’s dangerous but I can handle it.
“When I let her go, some complained, saying why are you sending a girl to such places? And I said she is a correspondent, she has the right.”
For two months, Atwar stood on a rooftop day and night braving sniper fire to conduct live shots and stayed put even after the death by US sniper of Aljazeera colleague Rashid Wali.
Atwar used her pulpit to give a balanced picture of the fighting and to emphasise human losses.
Day by day she began to obtain privileged information from Iraq’s top officials as well as the militias they were fighting.
Atwar laughed: “They knew if they didn’t give me information, I would go to the streets of Najaf at 2am and get it in person. They would tell me, ‘Please Atwar, we’ll tell you everything, just don’t go out and get hurt.'”
Even when Aljazeera was permanently banned from Iraq, Atwar managed to convince top Iraqi officials to give her exclusive interviews.
When the al-Askari shrine was blown to pieces, Atwar convinced her reluctant editors at Al-Arabiya to let her cover the scene.
She was always so determined it seemed nothing could stop her.
Not bad phone lines, car bombs, exhaustion or legal injunctions, not colleagues, the Iraqi government nor the US forces – and they had all tried.
“She used to plead all the time, she would say I know it’s dangerous but I can handle it”Majid Khadir,
Former Baghdad bureau chief
Her death was no less shocking than seeing the golden shrine reduced to a pile of rubble.
In her last live shot from Iraq, Atwar stood on the outskirts of Samarra at dusk wearing her favourite necklace – a gold pendant in the shape of Iraq, the unified Iraq that she embodied and believed in.
As she emphasised the fact that the Sunnis of Samarra did not support the attack on the Shia shrine, the sun was going down, her image increasingly dark and grainy in the waning light.
It is hard not to see her passing as a final act in Iraq’s long twilight towards civil war.
Symbol of Iraq
As the scene gets uglier in Iraq, perhaps it is difficult for such a person as Atwar to even exist.
As long as Atwar was present there would always be, like the al-Askari shrine, a living monument to co-existence.
There would always be a daughter’s voice shaming the fathers.
There would always be a person who believed in Iraq and who would never surrender the country and never give up.
Some say Atwar was targeted by the Shia.
Others contend she was targeted by the Sunni.
The same arguments are made about the shrine.
The truth is: It does not matter.
Those who destroyed the shrine and Atwar are the same.
When they shot her, they murdered not only an Iraqi national icon, a beautiful young woman and a brave journalist, they targeted the very idea of Iraq.
May Ying Welsh was a producer for Aljazeera and worked with Atwar Bahjat in Baghdad.