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Compelled to help, idealistic Namibia RPCV Fern Holland pressed on despite danger
Compelled to help, idealistic Namibia RPCV Fern Holland pressed on despite danger
Compelled to help, idealists pressed on despite danger
Before they were slain in an ambush, 2 Americans and an Iraqi translator hoped to create a better life for women
Shadha Hamza Jawad, whom Fern Holland was trying to help, hopes Holland's work for Iraqi women isn't the slayings' motive. (Tribune photo by Zbigniew Bzdak) March 19, 2004
By Aamer Madhani, Howard Witt and Stevenson Swanson. Aamer Madhani reported from Iraq, Howard Witt reported from Oklahoma City, and Stevenson Swanson reported from Pittsburgh
Tribune staff reporters
Published March 19, 2004
HILLAH, Iraq -- Fern Holland, Salwa Ourmaishi and Robert Zangas came from different walks of life, but they all were unabashed idealists drawn to Iraq by a heartfelt belief that they could make a difference in the lives of the people.
Their dreams died outside this city when they were run off the road and shot to death on March 9, hours after Holland, a lawyer from Oklahoma, and Ourmaishi, her Iraqi translator, had arranged to help a poor woman evict a squatter from her land as part of their work for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Holland and Zangas were the coalition's first American civilian employees to be killed in Iraq.
All three embodied the conflicting dreams of Iraqi society. Zangas, 44, was trying to instill the concept of a free press in a nation that had been censored by the Saddam Hussein regime. Holland, 33, and Ourmaishi, 35, were working to bring women's rights to a country that traditionally relegated women to lower status.
But those goals clashed with the ideas held by many in Iraq, even after the fall of the Hussein regime. So did some of their practices. Friends and family said Holland and Ourmaishi rarely wore the traditional head covers used by most women in Iraq, especially those in the Shiite Muslim regions south of Baghdad. Even if she had worn a scarf, Holland very likely would not have blended into an Iraqi crowd; she was a blue-eye blond.
Nor did they follow the coalition requirements for safety, refusing to travel in an armored car or with armed guards.
After the attack, coalition officials announced they had arrested six men, at least four of whom were identified as Iraqi police officers, but they released few other details about the attack.
The question of whether the three had been targeted because of their actions on behalf of Iraqis or whether they were unlucky victims of the violence that permeates the country a year after the U.S. invasion remains unanswered.
Possessing a laser focus on serving Iraqi women, Holland and Ourmaishi had been driving around the country without armed escorts since about late January, according to friends in the United States and Iraqi women with whom they worked. They ignored the requirement that they travel with an armed convoy because they felt gunmen would intimidate the people they were trying to help.
Holland hated the feeling of walking into a women's center or a mosque with soldiers in tow, said Sawsan al-Barak, director of the Fatima al-Zahra Center for Women's Rights in Hillah. Al-Barak, who took at least a half-dozen trips with Holland and Ourmaishi, said they preferred an inconspicuous blue Daewoo sedan rather than the armor-plated GMC SUVs typically used by coalition employees.
"Fern felt like Iraq was becoming her family," said al-Barak, who became close friends with Holland and Ourmaishi. "Still, we all worried about them. Fern was an American woman who stuck out. She was beautiful. She looked like the actress Jodie Foster and Barbie."
Even Zangas, who had twice served as a Marine reservist in the gulf region, including a stint last year in Iraq, said he was having a hard time keeping his guard up as a civilian.
"I am constantly reminded of the threat by our security guys," he wrote on a Web log he was keeping while in Iraq. "I'm sorry, but I just can't buy into it yet. Perhaps when a bullet ricochets near my body, I'll see the light."
Beneficiary weeps for dead
Weeping into the sleeve of her black abaya, Shadha Hamza Jawad said she could only hope that Holland's and Ourmaishi's slayings weren't related to the work they had been doing for Iraqi women like herself.
For four years, Jawad said, she had been asking the mayor and judge in her tiny town of Al Kifil to move a man who was squatting on land that legally belonged to her and her daughter. But no one listened to Jawad, 56, who has been shunned in her village since her husband left her decades ago.
Then Jawad enlisted the help of Holland, an American human-rights lawyer specializing in women's issues, and her Iraqi translator, Ourmaishi.
"I asked her how can she get involved with this. `Isn't she afraid?'" Jawad recalled. "Fern said to me: `I am not afraid. I am doing what is right.' I can only hope her helping me has not led to this merciful angel being killed."
On the day of their death, Holland and Ourmaishi came to the village and arranged for a bulldozer to level the squatter's mud-brick hut. It would be their last good act.
After completing their work in Al Kifil, Holland and Ourmaishi drove to the Zainab al-Hawra'a Center for Women's Rights in Karbala to pick up Zangas, said Dr. Amal Umrin, the center's director.
Zangas had conducted an all-day news-writing seminar for a group of budding women journalists. The three then headed back to coalition headquarters in Hillah with Holland behind the wheel, Umrin said. They never arrived.
The police officers arrested in connection with the killings all are assigned to the Karbala drug division, according to Maj. Madhi Salih Kadem, the division director. Its headquarters are across the street from the Karbala women's center, where Holland and Ourmaishi often visited and were well-known, Umrin said.
"I am sure my people are innocent," Kadem said. "I am waiting for the results of the investigation, which I am certain will prove that they did not commit the crimes."
Kadem said seven of his officers had driven past the crime scene, where police had arrived, en route to dropping off one of the men who was conducting an anti-terrorism investigation near Hillah.
After dropping the officer at his destination, the six others drove back toward Karbala and were stopped by Babylon provincial police officers as they passed the crime scene a second time, he said. Kadem said the Babylon officers said witnesses saw the Karbala officers commit the crimes.
In defending the officers, Kadem added that each officer in his division was nominated for the force by a provincial council member and approved by coalition officials.
Holland had spent years making solo humanitarian missions to Russia, Africa and the Middle East but only rarely did she let her family in Oklahoma glimpse any of the dangers or adversity she faced.
"We are a simple family. None of us have the type of education or experience that Fern had," said her sister Viola. "It's amazing now to learn the scope of what she did. When she came home, she was just Fern with us. She was not ego-driven at all."
Holland's family knew she had backpacked by herself through Europe, helped sick children in a decrepit hospital in Russia, slept on dirt floors in African villages. But in her calls and e-mails, Holland always stressed the needs of the people she was trying to help, not the hardships she was enduring, family members said.
Iraq was different. Under the glare of constant media coverage, it was harder for Holland to parry the increasingly urgent questions about her safety from friends and siblings.
After the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad last August, her sister Mary Ann Dunn was certain she had caught sight of Holland in television news footage of rescuers digging through the rubble, a trademark pen stuck in her long hair. Holland later denied to her family members that she had been anywhere near the site.
Holland senses danger
But in recent months, Holland had begun sharing more ominous premonitions. She once told Viola that she thought she might not return from Iraq. In January, she e-mailed a friend an even more explicit warning, after two rockets landed next to a building where she was sleeping.
"I love the work and if I die, know that I'm doing precisely what I want to be doing--working to organize and educate human-rights activists and women's groups," she wrote Stephen Rodolf, a Tulsa attorney for whom she had worked from 1993 to 1999.
"They'll have to implement and protect democracy when we're gone. Hope they're strong enough by then. We're doing all we can with the brief time we've got left. It's a terrible race. Wish us luck. Wish the Iraqis luck."
In one of her last e-mails, sent a few days before she was slain, Holland told Rodolf of the Iraqi women she was planning to help with their land dispute.
"Two little old women from a nearby village came to see me today," Holland wrote on March 4. "They wear all black, all you can see is their faces--no hair or neck. They don't wear gloves though and you can see their hands--very rough hands, dry and cracked and evidence of broken fingers from years ago, and huge knuckles from years of manual labor.
"One of Saddam's thugs grew crops on their land, and they thought they could remove him upon liberation. No such luck. He built a house on their land and refused to leave. They have court orders and everything, and nobody will move the guy. Everyone's afraid of him. So much for the rule of law."
She concluded with a hint of the idealism that friends and family members said motivated her good works--and might have led to her death.
"Nobody here has faith in the legal system, understandably. And, without that, how can we ensure democracy and protect legal and fundamental rights. The judges and the police are critical components. It will take time."
Holland practiced law intermittently with firms in Tulsa and Washington, but friends said she viewed her degree as a means to enhance her relief work rather than an end to make money. In the summer of 2000, she joined the Peace Corps and spent a year and a half in Namibia. Six months after returning to Washington, she journeyed to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone on behalf of the American Refugee Committee to investigate alleged sexual exploitation of women and children.
Although Holland was slain in a country she was trying to help, her family members hold no bitterness toward the Iraqi people, only sympathy--and the hope that others will be inspired by her example and volunteer to continue her work.
"Saddam Hussein brainwashed those people for so many years, they don't understand, the ones that did this, the difference between right and wrong," said Dunn, Holland's sister. "He terrorized them to the point where they really don't know any better. Fern was there to help them know better. It's going to take, unfortunately, many more people going over there and taking a risk to help them."
Yet Holland's death has already deterred some others from following in her footsteps. One Chicago group that was planning to send volunteers to help with women's programs in Iraq has abruptly reconsidered.
"I cannot put my people in that kind of jeopardy," said Hedy Ratner, director of the Women's Business Development Center, which assists women in developing countries. "When I heard this beautiful, committed human-rights attorney was killed, alone with her translator and another civilian and with no security, I decided I won't do that to my people. Even though I know there has been so much damage to the women of that country."
Translator's road to U.S.
Growing up in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad within walking distance of Udai Hussein's hunting club and the opulent homes of several prominent Baath Party elite, Ourmaishi saw the decadence of Saddam Hussein's regime up close, said her younger sister, Suhair.
As a teenager one of her older brothers was mysteriously killed while he was an engineering student at Baghdad University. The family never has learned the details but always assumed that it was it related to the old regime, Suhair said.
The death devastated Ourmaishi and in part triggered her desire to leave Iraq for the United States, which seemed like a near impossibility because of the former regime's restraints on travel, Suhair said.
Ourmaishi was the daughter of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, but her family said she practiced neither religion.
While studying at Baghdad University, she developed a deep resentment for what she perceived as the second-rate treatment of women in Iraq.
"She decided that she would never marry because she did not want to give up any of the freedom she had to a man," Suhair said. Soon after graduating from Baghdad University with a degree in English literature, she left for Syria, her mother's homeland, to work as a secretary but returned after a few years because she missed her family.
Her elder sister, Jinan, had moved to Nebraska with her husband, but had become ill. In June 2002, Ourmaishi was allowed to go help care for her.
Jinan died in November 2002, and Ourmaishi grew depressed over the loss of her sister and the increasing possibility of war back home in Iraq. In February 2003, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops descending on the region and Iraqis with the means to leave fleeing, Ourmaishi decided to return.
"It was a difficult decision, but one she decided that she wanted to make," Suhair said. "She said that she would rather come home and die with her family than live alone. And if we lived, she saw this as her opportunity to help the women of Iraq."
Last August, she landed a job with the Coalition Provisional Authority as a translator when it was trying to hire more women to pair with female civilian employees, particularly those in contact with Iraqi women, Suhair said.
Almost immediately, she hooked up with Holland.
"They were the same soul," Suhair said.
In the six months they worked together, Ourmaishi helped Holland open women's centers in Hillah, Karbala, Najaf and Diwaniyah. Ourmaishi's mother, Cicilia Malos, said the translator would come home exhausted but exhilarated and proud of the work she was doing.
Malos said she feared for her daughter's safety as she traveled in some of the southern Shiite cities, where the sight of two American-looking women driving alone was unheard of.
Ourmaishi and Holland kept hijabs in the car to cover their heads in case they had to enter a mosque. But Ourmaishi rarely would don one, her mother said. She believed Iraq was an emerging democracy and as such, she should be able to dress however she wished, Malos said.
In the weeks before her death, Ourmaishi's family said she began showing signs of fear. She asked Suhair to purchase a few more hijabs for her and Holland, and she occasionally said that, perhaps, she should quit.
Her mother said Ourmaishi seemed nervous, but she didn't tell the family about what was causing the change of heart.
"We told her many times that she should quit the job, but she would not," Malos said.
Now, Malos said she wants answers to why her daughter and her colleagues were killed, but she said only one thing will offer her any comfort.
"I want these terrorists executed," she said.
Zangas survived wars
Coalition press officer Zangas survived two wartime assignments to the gulf region, only to die on his third prolonged stay, while working as a civilian employee.
A software salesman and father of three who lived in the Pittsburgh suburb of Trafford, he worked in the authority's regional office south of Baghdad.
As a deputy public affairs officer, his duties included helping Iraqi broadcasters set up transmitters for new radio and television stations. The Iraqi media have expanded rapidly since the fall of Hussein's regime.
Described by family members as a gregarious, caring man, Zangas reveled in the sights and sounds of an exotic land and found it difficult to accept that Iraq was a dangerous place.
The threat of terror attacks "is a hard concept for me to realize because I only see the good here," he wrote in an extensive Web journal describing his experiences since his return to Iraq shortly before Christmas.
As one of five children of a Marine pilot, Zangas moved frequently during his childhood, recalled his sister, Patricia Black, 46, of Woodbridge, Va.
His fascination with the Middle East began as a teenager in the 1970s, when he lived in Iran for several years with his father, who was training Iranian pilots to fly American F-14 fighters. At the time, Iran was a U.S. ally.
"It certainly made an impression on him," said his father, Charles, a retired lieutenant colonel. "He felt very at home in that part of the world."
Zangas received his high school diploma from the American School of Isfahan in 1978 and returned to the U.S. to study journalism at the University of Colorado.
But with a father and a brother in the Marines, the military seemed destined to be his career. After graduation, he entered the Marines and became a helicopter pilot.
After leaving active Marine service in 1988, Zangas worked as a salesman for software companies. He saw his first tour of duty in the Persian Gulf region during the 1991 war, serving as a reservist civil-affairs officer.
Called up from the reserves last year, Zangas served in Iraq as a lieutenant colonel in a Marine civil-affairs unit, helping Iraqi communities set up village councils and working to restore the country's shattered infrastructure.
"We were very worried during the war," said Black, his sister. "There was all this frightening speculation about weapons of mass destruction. But he told us the most wonderful stories about how he felt OK there."
Zangas returned to the U.S. in September but after three months, he was back in Iraq, having accepted an offer to work for the coalition.
"We all tried to talk him out of it, quite frankly, in a gentle way," Black said. "We knew it was drawing him, but he was torn about the decision to go back."
The prospect of another long separation from his wife and children--a daughter and two sons ranging in age from 3 to 10--"tormented him," his sister said, but he knew that his country's job in Iraq was far from finished.
"He was very patriotic," she said. "He believed in the mission."
Web journal tells much
His Web journal, with its lively descriptions and an extensive photo album of smiling Iraqis, testifies to his deep sympathy for the country.
"I'm told that the rains have been absent for 10 or more years," he reported on his Web site during a wet spell earlier this year. "The Iraqis tell me that now that Saddam has been caught, the rain is free to come and go as it pleases without fear."
And yet the squalid, ramshackle conditions that he encountered could be daunting.
"This is a society that is in desperate need of everything," he wrote in the journal's last entry, three days before his death. "It is like pouring a cup of water out in a dry desert. ... I don't mean to sound depressed because I am not. I am enjoying this work immensely. It is very gratifying ... as long as the flowers grow eventually. I have hope that they will."
As part of his last entry, Zangas included a photo of three Iraqi police officers. He described them as "brave guys," because the police have been the frequent targets of insurgents who view them as collaborators with an occupying force.
"I was worried every day of the time he was there," his father said, noting that in e-mails and phone calls to his son, he used a Marine aviation term for looking over one's shoulder. "I never closed a conversation with him, never ended an e-mail, where I didn't say `Keep your head down and check your 6.'"