ROME (WOMENSENEWS)–The kidnapped Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, wounded by American soldiers in Iraq just after her release Friday, has galvanized public attention in Italy and around the world on the war in Iraq and its toll on women.
Italian and U.S. officials confirmed that Friday Sgrena was shot and an Italian intelligence agent was killed at a Baghdad checkpoint by U.S. soldiers who fired on her car shortly after her release.
President Bush expressed his regrets to the Italian government. The U.S. State Department’s statement said the soldiers did not know that a hostage was in the car and tried to shoot the the engine block.
Shortly before her release, Sgrena expressed her views and concern for Iraqi civilians.
“Withdraw from Iraq,” she is filmed as saying. “These people must not suffer any longer. Here the situation is no longer tolerable. Children die; people starve to death in the streets; women are raped.”
Sent to Iraq to cover the national elections, Sgrena was kidnapped Feb. 4 by unidentified gunmen near Baghdad University, where she had just interviewed refugees from Fallujah.
The video of Sgrena has played over and over again on Italian television, and more than 500,000 people participated in the Feb. 19 “Let’s release peace” rally here organized by Sgrena’s colleagues at Il Manifesto.
The tragic events surrounding her release are the latest developments in the story of how a passionate, left-wing journalist with a long history of covering women’s issues and human rights has become an international hero.
Since Sgrena’s kidnapping in February, international women’s associations and human rights organizations have released appeals for her release. Now, the National Federation of the Italian Press has announced that it will dedicate the upcoming International Women’s Day celebrations on March 8 to stories of women in the news “inspired by Giuliana Sgrena’s case, with faith she will be with us,” said Paolo Serventi Longhi, the organization’s secretary general.
Broke Story on Alleged Abuse of Iraqi Women
Sgrena has reported from Iraq since the beginning of the war, writing several controversial articles on women. She broke the story on Iraqi women being held at Abu Grahib prison, uncovering allegations of torture and sexual abuse. One of her interview subjects, an Iraqi woman named Mithal, says she was taken with her son to Abu Grahib prison and tortured there by U.S. soldiers.
So far, there has been no clear explanation for Sgrena’s kidnapping, but commentators in press reports have speculated that Sgrena’s reporting might be one of the reasons of her abduction, in addition to the desire to punish Italy for the presence of its militia in Iraq. One hypothesis is that Sgrena might have been kidnapped by Sunni rebels puzzled by her unconventional way of doing journalism in the streets amongst common people. Other commentators, instead, have suggested that the kidnappers could also simply be loose criminals who are doing it all for ransom.
Sgrena’s commitment to women and to women in the Arab world has always fueled her work. Always on the run, unveiling stories like Abu Grahib, Sgrena was described by colleagues as “an Arabic-speaking feminist with a passionate interest in Islam.”
Sgrena was also known for being a strong advocate for women’s rights with pacifist ideals. In her coverage of Iraq, she was fiercely critical of the Italian government’s decision to deploy troops in the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.
“Woman of peace,” said Gabriele Polo, Il Manifesto’s director, of Sgrena. “She loves Iraq and, like all of us, is against war. She was in Iraq because she thinks that war does not help Iraq’s recovery and also to tell the daily stories of suffering people.”
Born in 1948 in Masera, a small town close to the Swiss border, Sgrena has been based in Rome for more than 20 years. At the daily Il Manifesto since 1988–always in the foreign news division–Sgrena has traveled extensively in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, reporting from Jordan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Somalia, Algeria and Mozambique.
“We never tried to convince her to stay home; she just loves her job too much,” said her father Franco in press interviews.
With a real passion for the Arab world, she learned Arabic and became one of the first Italian specialists on Islamic fundamentalism, writing several books on Arab women, including “Slavery of the Veil,” a collection of essays by women in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
“Giuliana never hesitated, in order to tell our stories, to go to those places where the voices of women fond of freedom and democracy had been defeated,” wrote the activists of Espace Tanassof, a Tunisian organization working for the advancement of women’s rights, in an open letter to the kidnappers calling for Sgrena’s release published in Il Manifesto. “With courage, competence, abnegation, loyalty and absolute respect of our culture and tradition, she has risked it all, including her life, to shed light on our situation. She has done it everywhere injustice reigns and today in Iraq.”
“We are Giuliana’s sisters,” wrote Yasmine Reguieg, president of the Arab Italian Women Association based in Rome, in her appeal for Sgrena’s release published on Il Manifesto’s Web site, “because we work for the same goal.”
Addressing Sgrena, she added: “You have reported to the whole world the Algerian women’s drama who have fought and resisted, never giving in to the terrorists and fanatics who wanted to deny their dignities.”
Sgrena belongs to the organization Controparola, or Counterword, which draws together about 30 journalists and writers in Italy engaged in “defending women’s dignity and helping women advance in the media and in the employment world.” She is also a member of Women in Black, an international network of “women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence.”
Dedicated to Telling the Stories of Others
Sgrena herself was modest–an old-style reporter dedicated to telling stories of others rather than telling others of her exploits. “She never told us where she had been, which risks she ran into. Never. Nobody knew about her journeys.” said Dacia Maraini, a well-known Italian writer who has known Sgrena since the 1970s.
French correspondent of daily paper Liberation, Florance Aubenas, and her Iraqi interpreter Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi were abducted Jan. 5 in Baghdad exactly one month before Sgrena.
In her appeal for Aubenas’ release, Sgrena wrote: “information has been militarized . . . rebelling to these schemes is risky, but it is a risk that one must run to inform people. Florence Aubenas has always run this risk: in Rwanda, Kosovo, Algeria, Afghanistan and Iraq. This is why we stand by her.”
Sgrena’s own commitment to journalism is why so many hoped for her release.
“Dear Giuliana,” begins Scolari’s open letter published on Il Manifesto after the rally. “I can only ask (those who have abducted you) to talk with you and look into your eyes, to find in your words and also in the pictures you took the grounds of a humanity which seems lost, the drive for your passion for Iraqi people, whom you have narrated as no one else has been able to.”
While the reasons she was released remain unclear, it is possible that Sgrena’s captors did just that.
Clara Park is a freelance writer based in Rome. She is also a staff writer for the Italian women’s news agency Delt@News, where she covers world news, gender, human rights and development issues.
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