14 Jun 2013

Watching Iraq From The Sidelines

By Joe Gorman

As Australia prepares to play Iraq in Tuesday's World Cup qualifier, Joe Gorman talks to an Iraqi sports journo who fled the civil war and hasn't seen his team play since 2008

"I live in Australia. It is beautiful, but my mind is in Iraq," explains Farid*. "I can't leave my memories behind. I can never forget."

Farid lives alone in Strathfield, having migrated from Iraq in late 2007. His family are scattered across three continents, dispersed by the war. Every day he speaks to his mother, who lives in the United States, assuring her that he is safe and happy. But he leads a solitary life in his adopted homeland. He steers clear of the small Iraqi community in Sydney, preferring the company of a few new friends.

Football has been at the centre of Farid’s journey from Iraq to Australia. On Tuesday, the Socceroos play Iraq in Sydney in a World Cup qualifying match. Both teams are in transition, their "golden generation" players fading to memory. Having stumbled through the qualifying campaign, both sides will want to finish the campaign with a win.'

But for Farid, the result is not important. The chance to simply watch his countrymen play will give him the opportunity to catch up with old friends in the team, and perhaps even file a story for the Iraqi newspaper Al Malaeb. Before settling in Australia, Farid was a sports journalist for several Iraqi networks, traveling with the country's national teams to international tournaments across Asia and the Middle East.

"I don't like politics," explains Farid, "I just like sport." However, as he knows too well, in Iraq it's never that simple. Sport and politics are intertwined, usually for all the wrong reasons. Saddam Hussein’s brother Uday was notorious for his torture of athletes during his time as head of the Iraq Olympic Committee. But according to Farid, the fall of the Hussein regime did not end tensions. If anything, working as a journalist became more dangerous as the country descended into civil war.

In July 2006, Farid flew to Baghdad after a volleyball tournament with the head of the Iraq Volleyball Federation, Dr Amir Jabbar, for a major press conference. There they met the chairman of the National Olympic Committee, Ahmad al-Sammarai (also known as Ahmad al-Hijiya) as well as other important athletes, coaches and sports administrators.

Midway through the conference, 40 men wearing government uniforms entered the room, commanding everybody to get on the floor. "They grabbed Ahmad al-Hijiya by the beard, and more than 20 other officials, and took them away.” Later, Farid says, the government denied that the men who invaded were government troops.

At this time, differentiating between government officials and criminals was no easy task. Kidnappers masqueraded as soldiers by stealing government uniforms and vehicles, adding further confusion to an already murky sectarian conflict.

As a reporter for Al Sharqiya, a popular television station in Iraq, as well as a contributor to Al Malaeb newspaper, Farid chased the story. He was an eyewitness to events, but found it difficult to find others willing to come forward. "I wanted to cover [the kidnapping], but nobody wanted to speak. Nobody wanted to talk."

One of the men kidnapped, Ahmed Subhi, a former Iraqi footballer and coach, was a personal friend of Farid. After his release he told him that the kidnappers took the group to another location, only five minutes away. The suspicion is that the kidnappers took the hostages to the Ministry of the Interior, but nobody can be sure. 

In any event, Ahmed Subhi was one of the lucky few to be released. Farid says the whereabouts of Ahmad al-Hijiya, who holds dual Iraqi-British citizenship, remains unknown. "His [al-Hijiya's] wife, till now, she asks, she talks, she does interviews. She wants to know what happened to her husband." Almost seven years on, she is still waiting for answers.

The grim fate of Ahmad al-Hijiya's bodyguards have been known for some time, their remains found on the streets of Baghdad on the day of the kidnapping.

Kidnappings and ransom demands had become commonplace by then, and even when families paid the ransom money, the abducted rarely made it out alive. It became an increasingly unsafe place for journalists to work, as one dramatic incident finally made it plain to Farid.

Soon after the group kidnapping, Farid and his driver were approaching his mother's home after work one night to deliver some groceries. "There was a car behind me. I didn't watch the car, I didn't hear the car, because there was no electricity, and the generator was making too much noise. Suddenly, I reached home, and I see a flash of light, and there was a man sitting behind me with a gun."

"I think, I wouldn't have time to go inside. They would take me and kill me immediately. I threw my bags in the air, and ran, never looking behind me. I ran and ran, until I reached the shops, where I was safe."

Though Farid immediately tried to call the police, there was no response. To this day, he suspects that his employment at Al Iraqia, a state-sponsored media outlet set up after the fall of Saddam Hussein, might have made him a target. In May 2006, Ali Jafaar, an Al Iraqia sports broadcaster and personal friend to Farid was gunned down in the street, while in March, Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the assassination of Al Iraqia producer Amjad Hameed.

Farid is a Shi'a Muslim, but has worked freely with media outlets no matter their religious or political affiliation. "I am not political," maintains Farid. "But in this time, you need to work, you need money. It is a difficult situation."

Later that year, Farid left Iraq for Jordan with members of his family, after his sister survived a bombing in Baghdad. She had come away unhurt, but the exposure to the chemicals in the bomb has caused her to become very ill. She had developed aplastic anaemia, a disease that attacks the blood stem cells.

In Jordan, Farid was forced to juggle work commitments with caring for his sister in hospital. In January 2007, he traveled to Dubai for the Gulf Cup of Nations, where Iraq were eliminated at the group stages. The results mattered little, with his sister now gravely ill in hospital in Jordan.

In June, after he’d again had to leave his sister’s side to cover the West Asian Cup in Amman, he learned that she had passed away. “My brother rang me at four o'clock in the morning to tell me. I was with my mum, but I didn't tell her. I go to the shower, and I cry. I didn't want my mum to hear. For two weeks, nobody told my mum."

There was little time for him to grieve with his family. Two weeks later, he was assigned to cover the Asian Cup in Thailand.

"You know, I didn't want to go to the Asian Cup. For my mother it was a very hard situation, she was very upset. But my brother told me that my sister had said 'you push Farid to go to do his job.'" And so he went, and covered one of the greatest sporting stories of the past decade, as Iraq swept past their more fancied opponents to win the tournament.

You can tell Farid treasures his experiences from the Asian Cup. He hands me a manila envelope filled with ticket stubs, media passes and photographs that he has kept. The photos are of Farid with Socceroos fans, as well as sporting and political dignitaries, including the Brazilian coach of Iraq, Jorvan Viera.

"Nobody could know that Iraq would win. [They] had a very poor preparation, and no famous coach. They only paid Jorvan Viera $30,000! The team only bought tickets to Thailand. Then Iraq win the group, and beat Vietnam, so they had to buy tickets to Malaysia. Then when they beat South Korea on penalties, they had to go to Indonesia." The rest, they say, is history.

As celebrations erupted on the streets of Iraq, Farid traveled home with three other Iraqi journalists. The situation on the ground was still no better for them. Iraq is consistently rated by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as the worst country for prosecuting the murder of journalists. A report from 2008 by the CPJ states that most Iraqi journalists are not killed in combat, instead they are targeted "for professional reasons".

When Farid finally left his homeland in late 2007, the family split up, some moving to the US, some remaining in Iraq. He prefers not to dwell on his reasons for leaving for Australia.

Tuesday's game will be the first time Farid has seen his countrymen play since 2008. Five years ago, a single Harry Kewell header was enough for the Socceroos to clinch victory in Brisbane. Farid will be hoping his country can go one better this time, but he doesn't hold much hope. Like the Socceroos, the best players have grown older and slower, and the young players aren't at the same level. These days Farid has a foot in both camps, but for him football is the thing. And journalism.

Farid is currently studying for his Masters in Journalism at the University of Technology. He sits quietly in class with his peers, all of whom are eager to forge their own media careers. Farid hopes to find work in the  Australian media soon. "My dream is to work for SBS", says Farid, smiling. "It is multicultural, and they are always professional. But I have to get some more experience."

*Names have been changed to protect the safety of sources.

Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

MarkCinq
Posted Monday, July 1, 2013 - 23:34

I'm sorry that I got so late for this. Of course, I'm a big fan of soccer myself and I can't help but felt proud that they made to the world cup. - YORHealth