The late Steven Vincent’s award-winning Iraq reporting owed much to his Iraqi translator and media assistant – a remarkable young woman named Nour al-Khal.
She was shot and left for dead on August 2, 2005, hours after she and Vincent were kidnapped off a Basra street. They were bound, gagged, and then shot in the backs after they were released and told to run. Vincent, a freelancer on his third trip to post-Saddam Iraq, was savagely beaten and even bitten in the leg, according to a medical examiner’s report. He's the only American journalist to date who has been murdered in Iraq.
Last week, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent brought Nour to America, following through on her husband’s wishes. Vincent believed Nour's life would be in danger after he left Iraq; so with his wife's blessing, he had planned an arranged marriage with the
Basra native to allow her to leave Iraq.
"She is incredibly happy to be here - she keeps repeating, 'I am safe. I am not afraid,' in tones of astonishment," Ramaci-Vincent announced in an e-mail to me and other friends and supporters, following Noar’s June 26 arrival at Kennedy airport. The pair went directly to visit Vincent's grave in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.
Arranging Nour’s passage was a frustrating 18-month process for Ramaci-Vincent, a labyrinth of phone calls, forms, and cajoling that involved formal and informal channels and contacts. Last January, she told a U.S. Senate committee investigating the plight of Iraqi refugees that Nour, then living in Jordan, was among “countless” Iraqis in "desperate need of asylum and aid.” There lives were endangered for having aligned themselves with the U.S. military, NGOs or Western media outlets, she said.
Nour, an aspiring poet, figured prominently into Vincent's engrossing book, “In The Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq,” published after his second trip to post-Saddam Iraq. Readers were never told Nour’s last name. A fluent English speaker, the five-foot-tall Nour was about 30 years old and had worked in Iraq for a large NGO. She spent long days on reporting outings with Vincent – helping him produce some of the most perceptive reporting of the war – a conflict Vincent viewed as an important front against "Islamofacism." His best-known articles were published in conservative magazines and
his blog, “In the Red Zone.”
On their reporting trips, Vincent and Nour sometimes attracted hard glares – an experience Vincent described with his characteristic moral clarity: It was what an interracial couple would encounter in the Jim Crow South.
"I will never be able to fully express my gratitude to Nour or repay the debt I owe her," Ramaci-Vincent told the Senate committee.
Citing an FBI report on her husband's kidnapping, she said the "thugs who targeted my husband had no interest whatsoever in Nour. They repeatedly pushed her away, telling her to leave. But she would not abandon Steven. She kept inserting herself into the struggle, until they took her as well."
Nour was shot three times in the back. Basra’s police turned her over to FBI agents and she was hospitalized in the Green Zone. She was held “incommunicado" for the next three months and “treated as if she were a co-conspirator of the killers," Ramaci-Vincent told the Senate committee. Then authorities "gave her $2,000 and threw her out into Baghdad's Red Zone, alone, where she knew no one, had no family, no job, no resources, no where to turn," she added.
The kidnapping occurred two days after Vincent published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, describing how Iraqi police were being infiltrated by Iranian-backed fundamentalists and Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr.
Mainstream media outlets have
relied heavily on Iraqis to cover the war in Iraq, and they have died in large numbers. Hastily trained, these Iraqi news assistants, reporters, and photographers have shaped how we view the war. Many of them are of course brave and principled people; the late Fakher Haider, 38, an Iraqi journalist working for the New York Times, is one example. But in more than a few cases, their allegiances and motivations have been called into question.
No such questions were raised about Nour.
She believed in democracy, Vincent wrote, and “the promise of America." And in this sense, she was like many Iraqis, he noted. The next-to-the-last chapter of “In The Red Zone” was simply titled: “Nour.”
“Short of destroying my marriage, I thought, I would do anything to help this woman,” Vincent wrote. It was one of several observations and anecdotes contained in the final pages of “In The Red Zone" that eerily foreshadowed the fate awaiting the pair.
Thanks to Nour's help, Vincent brought a moral clarity and depth to his reporting that relied on interviews with Iraqis from all walks of life. Such reporting has been absent from budget-conscious and
morally neutral media outlets such as the Associated Press, the primary source of news for most Americans. Many American reporters for the AP and other news outlets in Iraq do their reporting from the "Green Zone” – not the "Red Zone" where Vincent and Nour worked.
In Iraq, the mainstream media has treated its Iraqi “local hires” as disposable fodder. It's not how Steven Vincent treated Nour, however. Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, moreover, did not forget the pledge made to Nour by her late husband – a man she and Nour loved and cherished in their own ways. Now, the two share the apartment in which Steven Vincent and Lisa Ramaci-Vincent once lived.
Nour will be there "for the foreseeable future, and I will help her get set up here,” noted Lisa Ramaci-Vincent’s e-mail. “Tomorrow, we go for her Social Security number, Medicare, and a work visa."
While working to bring Nour to New York, Ramaci-Vincent established the Steven Vincent Foundation. According to its website, its purpose is "to assist the families of indigenous journalists in regions of conflict throughout the world who are killed for doing their jobs, and to support the work of female journalists in those regions.” The foundation’s webpage notes that the majority of Iraqi journalists killed on the job lacked health or life insurance and other benefits.
The foundation’s first donation was $1,000 provided to the widow of Fakher Haider, the Iraqi
New York Times stringer, who was murdered in Basra, Iraq, in September 2005.