When the doorbell rang at 10 p.m. on December 26, 2016, Afrah Shawqi did not think nefarious men who would kidnap her stood on the other side. The three heavily-armed men claimed they were from Iraqi security forces searching all homes in the neighborhood for possible weapons. Such searches are common in Baghdad — something that Afrah was familiar with, so she opened the door. She had just gotten out of the shower, her hair still wet. She was wearing a light dress to roam around in the house and went to the front door of her house barefoot, unsuspecting that danger lurked. Never did she think she would end up wearing that same dress for the nine days that followed. That night Afrah was kidnapped.
The first thing the three men did was verify that they were talking to Afrah. Upon doing so, they quickly handcuffed her and her two teenage sons, confiscated all the family cellphones, taped her mouth, covered her eyes, and forced her into their car to sit between two men. “If you scream, we will kill you,” was all that they said as the vehicle raced away.
Afrah is a freelance journalist in Iraq. She has reported on numerous issues — everything from corruption among government officials to suicide rates in Iraq — over the years. Her journalism career took off after the 2003 invasion of Iraq when the country experienced a media boom. Following the invasion, Iraq went from having four newspapers and TV channels to more than 200 newspapers and about 49 TV channels. She had faced all kinds of verbal harassments for her articles throughout the years — death threats, being called a whore, being labeled a Wahhabi sympathizer (suggesting she is sympathizing with Sunni fundamentalist) — but remained resolute in her mission.
She refused to let all the threats get to her and insisted on staying in the country. “I wish they attacked my writing or investigation but they attacked my honor,” Afrah explains. “Thankfully, my colleagues defended me in most occasions,” she adds, describing how she would go off the radar as a safety measure after publishing any controversial pieces. It is a tactic used by many freelance journalists in the Middle East. They publish something and disappear from all public view for a month or two until they are forgotten. Then they resurface with another piece. But other than such safety precautions, freelance journalists, who are the vast majority of journalists worldwide, have little protection or support for their safety.
After years of surviving violence in the country, Afrah never expected to be kidnapped, tortured and at risk of losing her life for being accused of writing an article that offended “al hashed al shabby” or the “people’s militias,” also known as Shia militias, which are leading the way in the fight against ISIS. But that night her world was turned upside down.
“They cursed me with every bad word there is in the car ride. They called me a whore, a prostitute, a spy for America, a dog, and they threatened to beat me and do all kinds of things to me to put me in my place. I thought it was my end. It was the hardest day of my life.” Afrah’s recollection slows and her voice cracks as she describes that horrible night. After a long drive, Afrah was taken to rural area and was pushed into dirty small room with a mattress and a call toilet.
Afrah was targeted over an article about Iraqi women claiming that they were sleeping with Iranian men during Shia pilgrimage time to holy sites in Iraq at Al Sharq Al Awsat. A mainstream Arabic newspaper based in London and chaired by a Saudi prince published the story and the kidnappers suspected she wrote it.
“I had already resigned from the newspaper six months prior after a couple of years of working with them,” Afrah explains. “But the issue became a huge story in Iraq, it became a story of Iraqi women honor and I was accused of writing it due to my previous controversial coverage of the militias back in 2015.” Afrah became the target of religious groups, something that is a nightmare for any individual, let alone a journalist, in the region. They are known for being well organized and can unleash a series of harassments, threats and campaigns against someone, and in the case of Afrah it led to her torture.
“For five days they would tighten my hands with a robe, blindfold me and hang me from the ceiling for hours while telling me to confess to writing the piece. At one point I thought I will die. I wasn’t courageous enough. So I told them that I wrote the piece just to stop the torture. That day they made me sign a piece of paper admitting everything they wanted me to admit to and they taped me saying what they wanted me to say on video.” But as her captors’ interrogation continued the following day, Afrah admitted her lie to a superior who came to speak with her himself.
Nine days later, Afrah was released after her captors concluded that she didn’t write the article in question. But her release was not without conditions. “You may not write on the militias or religious parties and you may not write any pieces supporting the Kurds,” was their demand. “But they wanted me to continue writing and not stop my journalism on other issues,” Afrah explains.
Little support was available for Afrah after her release. She had to take her sons out of school for fears over their safety, she quit her full time day job at the ministry of information, and moved home to hide with other families. In January 2017, and for the first time in her life, Afrah wanted to leave Iraq. It was no longer safe for her as a journalist, and it wasn’t safe for her teenage sons.
It was in this most critical time of a freelance journalist’s life that the Rory Peck Trust, a small U.K. charity that focuses on supporting freelance journalists worldwide in their times of need, showed up. Freelance journalists generally have little to no support whatsoever if anything happens to them. If they’re kidnapped, there is no formal institute to help negotiate their release. If they get killed, there is no one to help them and their survivors with handling their burial. And if they need to escape, they are on their own too. For the massive number of freelance journalists working in the world, and our dependence on them for much of the news these days, there are only handful of support systems available in case of emergency. For Afrah, the Rory Peck Trust was in touch with her family for psychological support during her kidnapping and, after her release, the group provided her basic financial support to help her leave the country.
Afrah now lives in Holland with her two sons. She applied for asylum there, but her application just got refused. Since she has no desire for her sons to return to Iraq, she is hoping another country will open the door for her. In a time were refugees are resented for entering various European countries, the story of Afrah Shawqi serves as a sober reminder that people leave their country only as a last resort and mostly for no small reason. “All I care about is the safety of my sons,” Afrah says. “As for me, my heart is still in Iraq and I can’t wait for the moment where I can go back and continue my journalism in the country.”
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.