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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Margaret Hassan, Irish-born Aid Worker in Iraq

Margaret Hassan, Irish-born aid worker also known as “Madam Margaret,” is born Margaret Fitzsimons in Dalkey, County Dublin on April 18, 1945. She works in Iraq for many years until she is abducted and murdered by unidentified kidnappers in Iraq in 2004. Her remains have never been recovered.

Soon after the end of World War II Hassan’s family moves to London, where she spends most of her early life and where her younger siblings are born. At the age of 27, she marries Tahseen Ali Hassan, a 29-year-old Iraqi studying engineering in the United Kingdom. She moves to Iraq with him in 1972, where she begins work with the British Council of Baghdad, teaching English. Eventually she learns Arabic and becomes an Iraqi citizen.

During the early 1980s, Hassan becomes the assistant director of studies at the British Council, later becoming director. Meanwhile, her husband works as an economist. She remains in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, although the British Council suspends operations in Iraq, and she is left jobless at the end of it.

Hassan joins humanitarian relief organisation CARE International in 1991. Sanitation, health, and nutrition become major concerns in the sanctioned Iraq. She is crucially involved in bringing leukemia medicine to child cancer victims in Iraq in 1998. She becomes a vocal critic of the United Nations restrictions. She is opposed to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, arguing that the Iraqis are already “living through a terrible emergency. They do not have the resources to withstand an additional crisis brought about by military action.”

By 2004, Hassan is head of Iraqi operations for CARE. Well known in many of Baghdad’s slums and other cities, she is especially interested in Iraq’s young people, whom she calls “the lost generation.” Her presence draws large crowds of locals.

Hassan is kidnapped in Baghdad on October 19, 2004, and is killed some weeks later on November 8. In a video released of her in captivity she pleads for help and begs British Prime Minister Tony Blair to remove British troops from Iraq. She adds that she does not “want to die like Mr. Bigley,” a reference to Kenneth Bigley, who had been executed in Iraq only weeks earlier.

Patients of an Iraqi hospital take to the streets in protest against the hostage takers’ actions. On October 25, between 100 and 200 Iraqis protest outside CARE’s offices in Baghdad, demanding her release. Prominent elements of the Iraqi insurgency and Iraqi political figures condemn the kidnapping and call for her release. On November 2, Al Jazeera reports that the kidnappers threatened to hand her over to the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and who is responsible for the execution of Bigley. On November 6, a statement purportedly from al-Zarqawi appears on an Islamist website calling for the release of Hassan unless the kidnappers have information she is aligned with the invading coalition. The statement cannot be authenticated and Hassan’s whereabouts in the video are unknown.

On 15 November, U.S. Marines in Fallujah uncover the body of an unidentified blonde- or grey-haired woman with her legs and arms cut off and throat slit. The body cannot be immediately identified, but is thought unlikely to be Hassan, who has brown hair. There is one other western woman known missing in Iraq at the time the body is discovered, Teresa Borcz Khalifa, a Polish-born long-time Iraqi resident. Khalifa is released by her hostage takers on November 20.

On November 16, CNN reports that CARE has issued a statement indicating that the organisation is aware of a videotape showing Hassan’s execution. Al-Jazeera reports that it has received a tape showing Hassan’s murder but is unable to confirm its authenticity. The video shows Hassan being shot with a handgun by a masked man. It is not known who is responsible for Hassan’s abduction and murder. The group holding her never identifies itself in the hostage videos.

She remains a Roman Catholic throughout her life and never converts to Islam as is widely reported after her death. A Requiem Mass is held for her, after her death is confirmed, at Westminster Cathedral by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

CARE International suspends operations in Iraq because of Hassan’s kidnapping. At least eight other women kidnapped by insurgents during the conflict are released unharmed by their captors. It is unclear why Hassan, who was opposed to the war, lived in Iraq for many years, held Iraqi citizenship, was married to an Arab Muslim and spoke fluent Arabic was killed.

On May 1, 2005, three men are questioned by Iraqi police in connection with the murder. On June 5, 2006, news reports emerge that an Iraqi man by the name of Mustafa Salman al-Jubouri has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “aiding and abetting the kidnappers” but two other men are acquitted. Al-Jubouri appeals this sentence and is given a shorter imprisonment.

An Iraqi man named Ali Lutfi Jassar al-Rawi, also known as Abu Rasha, an architect from Baghdad, is arrested by Iraqi and U.S. forces in 2008 after contacting the British Embassy in Baghdad and attempting to extort 1 million dollars in return for disclosing the location of Hassan’s body. Though Jassar signs statements confessing to the charges, he pleads not guilty, stating he was forced to sign them after receiving beatings and electrical shocks during questioning.

On June 2, 2009, the Press Association reports that Jassar is given a life sentence by Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court for being involved in Hassan’s abduction and murder, and for attempting to blackmail the British Embassy. Hassan’s family welcomes the court’s decision but pleads with Jassar to tell them where her body is so they can return her to Britain for burial. On July 14, 2010, a day before Jassar is due to appear in court for retrial, it is reported that he could not be located in the prison facility where he was being held. He had been missing for a month.


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National Day of Commemoration 2017

national-day-of-commemoration-2017President Michael D. Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar lead the ceremony to mark the National Day of Commemoration at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Kilmainham, Dublin on July 9, 2017. The event is a multi-faith service of prayer and a military service honouring all Irish people who died in past wars or on service with the United Nations. Events are also held in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Sligo, Kilkenny and Waterford.

The National Day of Commemoration is held on the Sunday closest to July 11, the anniversary of the date the truce was signed in 1921 to end the Irish War of Independence.

Leaders from Christian, Coptic Christian, Jewish and Islamic denominations read or sing prayers and readings, and President Higgins lays a laurel wreath. The service is observed by more than 1,000 guests, including Government Ministers, the Council of State, which advises the Taoiseach, members of the judiciary, members of the diplomatic corps, TDs and Senators, representatives of ex-servicemen’s organisations and relatives of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising.

The national flag is lowered to half-mast while the “Last Post” and “Reveille” are sounded. After a minute of silence, a gun salute is sounded and the flag is raised again before the national anthem is played with a fly-by by three Pilatus PC-9 aircraft.

The Army band of the 1st Brigade and pipers play music including “Limerick’s Lament” and “A Celtic Lament” as guests arrive at the quadrangle of the former British Army veterans’ hospital, now the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

The prayer service begins with Imam Sheikh Hussein Halawa of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, father of Ibrahim Halawa, who is in prison in Cairo, singing verses from the Quran in Arabic and praying in English, “I ask Allah, the Mighty, the Lord, to bless our country, Ireland, and give the people of our country a zeal for justice and strength for forbearance.”

Soloist Sharon Lyons sings hymns between prayers and readings from all denominations, ending with Rabbi Zalman Lent: “May the efforts and sacrifice of those we honour today be transformed into the blessing of people throughout the world.”

Speaking to reporters, Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces Vice Admiral Mark Mellett says more than 650 personnel are serving in eleven countries and on the Mediterranean Sea. “In the Defence Forces we have over 80 people who have given their lives in the cause of peace internationally, and I think it’s a sign of a State that recognises those who give this service,” he says. “The military of our State serve the political and serve the people. And it’s this loyalty to the State which is actually critical, and I’m delighted that we have a day like this.”

Mellett’s views are echoed by former sergeant Denis Barry, who says 47 Irish soldiers died in Lebanon and it is important to pay respects for that sacrifice. “None of us who served ever thought we would see the day we could travel in Lebanon without weapons, heavy armaments or flak jackets.” That United Nations mission paid off, he says.

Former British soldier Ron Hammond says the event reflects positive developments, such as the creation of the veterans’ Union of British and Irish Forces. He served from 1960 to 1980 in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rangers, spending time in Germany, Canada, Yemen and north and south Africa. He joined the British rather than the Irish forces because at the time “a home posting in the Defence Forces was Collins Barracks and an overseas posting was the Curragh encampment.”

(From: “Irish military dead honoured in National Day of Commemoration” by Marie O’Halloran, The Irish Times, July 9, 2017)