writers and artists
IN MEMORY OF MARGARET HASSAN
I didn’t know Margaret Hassan, and I’ve never been to Iraq. But I’ve known a lot of good people like her who work under desperately difficult circumstances in places like Baghdad. These people are sometimes called international civil servants. Others call them development experts. The really good ones are simply humanitarians trying to make a difference in the world.
I know the conditions under which aid workers like Ms. Hassan struggle, and I know the dedication they bring to their jobs in desolate places where the incessant heat, the crumbling infrastructure, unrelenting poverty, and pervasive illnesses are enough to make anyone quit. I also know the risks they take in their work. I’ve lost colleagues to plane crashes and to malaria. One of my friends once spent three days shielding her infant son from gunfire on the floor of her house in Cameroon. Another was beaten to a pulp on the street in Nairobi. Still others have been evacuated during coup d’etats But some of them, like Margaret Hassan, never give up. They just go on, under extraordinary conditions, doing whatever they can to make things better, taking one step forward and two back, endlessly.
Margaret Hassan went even further than most aid workers do. Irish by birth, she married an Iraqi, became a citizen, learned to speak fluent Arabic, and worked for thirty years to bring some level of dignity to the sick and disabled, the hungry, the unemployed, the sad and frightened. By all accounts, she was a real miracle worker who achieved marvelous things with her resourcefulness and her budget. Ordinary people whose lives she had touched loved her. They marched in the streets to plead for her release. But in the end, Margaret Hassan was executed by a gang of thugs for reasons that no one seems able to discern.
We will probably never know why such an unselfish, dedicated woman died such a chilling and lonely death. But we can reflect on the fact that she lived in what playwright Tennessee Williams called Dragon Country in his play, “I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow.” Williams was writing about people’s personal lives and loneliness when he described “the country of pain, an uninhabitable country which is inhabited,” but he might just as well have been writing about present-day Iraq (or Afghanistan, or so many other places on the face of the earth in these times.) In his 1970 play, the personally tormented Williams wrote about characters who tried to reach across “the little cave of consciousness,” to reach out to each other in their mutual pain and grief.
I suspect that Margaret Hassan tried to reach out to her captors during the horrendous month of her confinement. She must have sought a way to cross the chasm that divided them politically or historically, to identify a human connection that might have touched one of the men holding her prisoner. It makes me deeply sad to know that she was not able to do that. And my heart breaks for this good woman of Baghdad, who must have suffered unimaginable torments in her final days.
Ms. Hassan and I were contemporaries. We might well have been colleagues at another time and under different circumstances. But that is not why I grieve her death. I grieve the loss of Margaret Hassan because of what her death represents for all of us: a barbarous act in a terrible time with implications writ large on the page of human history.
May we soon see an end to the madness of war which brings us all to the edge of the precipice, and may the soul of Margaret Hassan rest in peace.
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Elayne Clift, formerly an international health educator, writes about politics and international issues from Saxtons River, Vermont.