Monday, 10 July 2006

The final shot

On August 17, last year, in the late afternoon, Mazen Dana, a Reuters cameraman in Iraq, set off to film the US-run Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad which had come under mortar attack the day before. It was the end of his assignment and he was accompanied by Nael Shyouki, his replacement. Mazen was supposed to meet his wife and children in Jordan the following day, where they were going to attend a family wedding before returning to their home in the West Bank town of Hebron.

At 43, standing more than six feet tall with a shock of steel grey hair and a fiery spirit, he cut a confident figure. Among journalists covering the Middle East, Mazen’s name was legion.

As their car approached the back entrance to the prison, he noticed a convoy of tanks approaching, some 50 meters away. Shortly before, they had received permission by American soldiers to film in the area. Dana asked his driver to stop the car, so that he could film the convoy. He got out of the car, placed his camera on his shoulder, trained it on the tanks and started filming. A few minutes later, Dana lay dead.

His camera captured the last moments of his life. The video shows two US tanks driving towards him. Two shots ring out from the lead tank. Then a scream. His camera falls to the ground.

A death certificate records Mazen’s death as ‘immediate’. Cause of death: gunshot wounds to chest.

"I don’t understand it,” says Shyouki, “everything was normal. It was not an area of conflict. It was calm and full daylight; we were there with other cameramen and were visible to everyone. The whole area was controlled by the Americans, so it was impossible for any Iraqi insurgents to operate there."

News of Mazen’s death spread like wildfire. In his hometown of Hebron, he was hailed as the press martyr and his funeral attracted thousands of mourners, seething with anti-American sentiments. It took place only days after a contentious military investigation cleared US forces of improper conduct when they shelled the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad – a meeting place for foreign correspondents – killing two journalists and wounding three others.

For Reuters it was a devastating blow. Dana was their second cameraman killed by US forces in Iraq in four months (the first victim, Taras Protsyuk, was killed in the attack on the Palestine Hotel). Chief executive of Reuters, Tom Glocer, described Mazen’s slaying as “hard to bear”. He wrote to Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, “personally calling upon the highest levels of the US government for a full and comprehensive investigation into this terrible tragedy."

On September 22, the U.S. military announced that it had concluded its investigation into the incident. A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command said that while Dana's killing was "regrettable," the soldiers "acted within the rules of engagement." No further details were provided and the investigation was not available for public scrutiny: military spokesman in Baghdad, George Krivo, announced that the Pentagon would not publish the report because parts of it were classified.

It was only in March of this year, in response to a petition under the Freedom of Information Act, that the report was made public. It contains testimony given by the officer who fired the shots which killed Dana. He says: “I saw a male wearing a black shirt and pants approximately 75-100 meters in front of the tank. […] The man had something on his shoulder that he was gripping with both hands, much like you would to fire an RPG (rocket- propelled grenade launcher). The man was moving the object to aim it at my tank. I thought I saw the man holding an RPG”

The report concludes that the soldier who shot Dana had a "reasonable certainty" that Dana was about to fire an RPG, having mistaken his camera for a launcher.

Robert Ménard, Secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, was outraged: "Whether it's the shelling of the Palestine Hotel or Mazen Dana's death, the Pentagon settles for sham investigations that totally lack transparency and offer no answers."

Reuters Global Managing Editor, David Schlesinger, disagreed with the finding but welcomed the investigation’s recommendations designed to improve the safety of journalists in Iraq. Had they been implemented at the time, he says, it is very likely that Mazen would still be alive.

Mazen’s brother, Najib Dana, disagrees. He is convinced his brother’s death was no accident: “The Americans fabricated everything. My brother was killed in cold blood. I have no doubt in my mind: Mazen was assassinated.” And Najib provides a motive too.

“A week before Mazen was assassinated he called me to say that he was working on a story involving the discovery of mass graves of soldiers,” claims Najib. “His Iraqi contacts informed him seeing soldiers in plastic bags being buried in the desert. He decided to investigate this and was shocked by what he found”.

The soldiers, says Najib, were American non-citizen aliens who had been promised green cards if they agreed to fight in Iraq. According to this account, the bodies of these ‘undocumented soldiers’ who were killed in Iraq were buried in the desert and did not figure in the list of American casualties, in order to minimise the death count.

This claim has never been corroborated or investigated, but Najib remains adamant. “I believe he was assassinated because he was about to reveal some American practices which they did not want the outside world to know”.

Naji Dana, Mazen’s cousin, also suspects foul play. It is feasible, he says, that the Israelis had a hand in ‘eliminating’ Mazen, who was a local hero to his people but a defiant menace to the Israelis.

For over ten years, Mazen’s lens captured the brutal conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and caught the attention of many news outlets. And his determination to carry out his work was met with ruthless opposition from his subject matter.

By his own account, he was shot by Israeli soldiers around eighty times, beaten about 100 times; twice his hands were broken, three of his teeth were knocked out by Jewish settlers and he was arrested ‘countless times’. On one occasion, Dana was shot in the same leg, two days in a row.

In 2001 the Committee to Protect Journalists presented Dana with the ‘International Press Freedom Award’ in recognition of his work. In his acceptance speech, in New York, he said: "To be a journalist and cameraman in a city of lost hope like Hebron requires great sacrifices. Gunfire, humiliation, beatings, prison, rocks and the destruction of journalists' equipment are just some of the hardships. Words and images are a public trust and for this reason I will continue with my work regardless of the hardships and even if it costs me my life."

It is a cruel irony that Dana’s words proved so prophetic.

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