In a polarized Iraq, radio host Suhad Rabia did everything she could to stop her listeners from figuring out whether she was Shiite or Sunni.
When callers used abusive language to speak of ethnic or religious groups other than their own, she promptly took them off the air. When they expressed extremist sectarian sentiments, she reminded listeners that the station did not share their views. She sympathized with victims of sectarian cleansing, Shiite or Sunni, when they called in.
Not giving away her religious affiliation and creating a forum for all Iraqis were some of the things Rabia used in the three years she worked for Radio Dijla to bolster the station’s reputation as an independent voice in a country devastated by violence.
Because Radio Dijla played a part in trying to heal Iraq’s wounds, gunmen attacked the station in broad daylight May 3. The station’s security chief was killed and two other employees were wounded in a 20-minute gunbattle. The building was bombed, torched and looted. Rabia, 29, survived by hiding in an editing room with six other women and two small children. But she was out of a job.
The attack, blamed on Sunni militants, silenced a unique voice in Iraq, where almost all radio stations that have sprung up since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime are linked to political parties or sectarian groups. Those claiming to be independent mostly broadcast music and quiz shows.
“People needed our radio. We did what we could to help them. I felt it was my duty,” said Rabia, who started off her two-hour morning show with love poems, reassuring proverbs, weather and traffic updates.
The Baghdad University English graduate hosted her second show of the day at 11 a.m., a popular call-in program that Rabia said aimed to solve problems like longer-than-usual power cuts – anything beyond 16 hours a day – water shortages, abuses by security forces and harassment by militiamen.
Often, she would call the relevant officials and have them account for their actions on the air. At times, callers who despaired of help ever coming would address her harshly for offering hope.
“Sometimes I felt that I am at the stage where I don’t think there is hope that things can ever get better, but I kept that sentiment off the air,” said Rabia, who has worked for the station since its launch in April 2004 and met her husband, program director Hussein Alaa, soon after she joined.
For some of Baghdad’s 6 million residents, Radio Dijla was a much-needed companion in a city where the streets are unsafe and residents stay home well before a nighttime curfew.
“Radio Dijla filled the vacuum in my life,” said a 20-year-old art student who would give only her first name, Doaa. “It took us to worlds far away from this one. It helped us forget what we have to deal with here,” said Doaa, a Shiite who tuned in to the radio’s cultural and music programs.
“Many of us found what we wanted in Radio Dijla,” said 35-year-old Jamal Hussein, who listened to the station while traveling to and from work along with fellow passengers on the minivans used as taxis in Baghdad. “It dealt with our problems and had a moderate tone.”
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Kareem Youssef, the radio station’s director, said he suspected al-Qaida in Iraq militants who are fighting the Shiite-dominated government and U.S. forces backing it.
The station’s headquarters is located in a dangerous Sunni neighborhood where militants actively seek to kill off any sign of normalcy. Radio Dijla was known to have both Shiites and Sunnis on the staff, and some employees said this may have triggered the attack. Al-Qaida also has been known to go after anyone who does not fully support it in areas where it maintains a heavy presence.
Although the U.S.-led invasion allowed the emergence of a free press not seen in this country for decades, Radio Dijla’s fate was yet another reminder of the dangers to journalists here. Attacks have targeted independent and foreign media as well as both Shiite and Sunni employees of pro-government newspapers and broadcast stations.
In the latest attack, three Iraqi journalists and their driver were killed Wednesday in a drive-by shooting near the northern city of Kirkuk. The four, who worked for an independent media company, joined 101 journalists and 38 media support workers killed since 2003, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Forty-eight other journalists have been abducted since 2003, it said.
Another group concerned with the protection of journalists, Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement Friday that Robert Menard, the Paris-based group’s secretary general, has urged Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to go after those responsible for the murder of journalists in Iraq.
Menard, who was in Iraq this week, also complained that Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military had produced no evidence against eight Iraqi journalists in detention on suspicion of having terror links.
A series of kidnappings and other attacks on foreign journalists has driven many out of the country. The tenuous security means that those who stayed have had to restrict their movements and operate from heavily fortified compounds.
“We could have asked for army or police protection but that would have associated us too closely to the government,” said Youssef, the Radio Dijla director.
The station, which was on the air for nearly 20 hours every day, had a nine-man security team of which six were on duty at any given time. On the morning of the attack, three employees were driving to work when suspected kidnappers traveling in two sedan cars tried to cut them off.
The driver managed to evade them, and all four arrived safely at work.
The attack on the station began hours later, at about 2:10 p.m. Veteran radio host Siham Mustpaha had just wrapped up a 40-minute program marking World Press Freedom Day, and the station was broadcasting a news bulletin.
When militants armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the offices, the radio quickly went off the air without an announcement.
While Youssef and several security guards fought back, the roughly 25 other workers in the building frantically sought help in endless calls to the police and army headquarters, personal contacts in the security forces and the “130” emergency number splashed over thousands of giants billboards and posters across the city.
Help was on the way, they were told.
A major Iraqi army checkpoint a mere 500 yards away failed to respond even though the boom of the grenades should have been loud and clear.
Finally – 50 minutes after the attack began – an army force came to their rescue.
The battle appears to have further bonded Radio Dijla’s mixed Shiite and Sunni work force of about 60.
“The men were ready to sacrifice themselves to protect the women and children,” Mustpaha said.
The solidarity is raising hopes that the staff will soon relaunch the station, whose name is Arabic for Tigris.
Youssef and the radio’s London-based founder Ahmed al-Rikabi are searching for a new and safer location.
Meantime, Radio Dijla news has been available on its Web site with this defiant message: “Soon, we will be back to prove that the water of the Tigris can never dry up.”