Tribute to Iraqi Peacebuilder Ammar Al-Shahbander

Wednesday, May 6, 2015
By: 
Viola Gienger

USIP joins the many other organizations, friends and family honoring the life of Ammar al-Shahbander, the Iraq chief of mission for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), who died May 2 in Baghdad as a result of a car bomb attack. A number of USIP staff worked with Ammar to advance his country’s search for peace and security.

“Many of us have known Ammar since 2003, and this news truly hits home,” said Manal Omar, the Institute’s acting vice president for the Middle East and Africa. The car bomb, in the commercial district of Karrada, killed 15 people and wounded 51, according to Agence France-Presse. IWPR reported on May 3 that Emad al-Sharaa, who also worked with the organization in Baghdad, was wounded and in serious but stable condition.

Just a year ago, al-Shahbander appeared on a panel in a discussion at USIP on the role of independent media in conflict zones. He also has advised USIP on preventing media incitement to violence.

Raya Barazanji, a senior program officer at USIP in Washington, knew al-Shahbander since the late 1990s, when they were close friends and members of Iraq’s opposition in exile. For two years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, they worked together at the Iraq Foundation, a nonprofit group advancing human rights and democracy.

“Ammar was a prominent member of the Iraqi young intelligentsia who fought against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein,” Barazanji said. “An avid human rights activist, he dreamt of a free and democratic Iraq where all citizens would be equal before the law, despite differences and conflicts.”

In 10 years at IWPR, he helped train hundreds of young Iraqi journalists on balanced, independent and conflict-sensitive reporting and supported the establishment of youth radio stations and independent news agencies such as Aswat Al-Iraq, Barazanji said. He also was a family man and an artist.

“Ammar was an optimist who always saw the light in the end of the tunnel,” she said. “During the last few months before his passing, Ammar supported young, community-based artist groups performing in Baghdad.”

Making Plans

Sarhang Hamasaeed, another senior program officer at USIP in Washington, got to know al-Shahbander in Iraq in 2008, when the journalist made IWPR’s offices Suleimaniyah, Erbil and Baghdad an inviting environment for thoughtful discussions about the situation in Iraq. The two served together on several working groups, shared many views and were planning for further collaboration, such as drawing on the Iraqi facilitators who USIP has trained on conflict resolution to train youth who are involved in IWPR programs.

“Ammar and his colleagues at IWPR did indeed make a huge contribution to advancing the capacity of Iraqi journalists and media institutions, and also by reporting during a time when many international media outlets were significantly constrained in Iraq,” Hamasaeed said. “We have definitely lost a dear friend, a dedicated and passionate person, a true professional and a committed peacebuilder.”

Hamasaeed saw al-Shahbander for several days in February at a conference on Iraq that took place in Istanbul. Hamasaeed said they spoke about the personal toll of their work on their families because they are often away traveling and because of relatives’ concerns over their security in these danger zones.

“He lit up with passion when he told me about how he was going out all the time in Baghdad, and that things are better there,” Hamasaeed said. “He was very happy that many of the concrete blocks and checkpoints were removed in Baghdad.”

Joyce Kasee, a USIP program officer in Washington, recalls al-Shahbander’s lighthearted jokes about local security authorities in Baghdad who at times visited international organizations’ offices in clear attempts to intimidate them.

“Ammar was a kind spirit, a connector and motivator for all who worked for peace, justice and rule of law in Iraq,” Kasee said. “I am forever grateful for his willingness to talk through so many critical issues … It is difficult to comprehend another loss of light and life with Ammar’s passing, and I am struggling deeply to make sense of the fact he is gone.”

'Tireless Supporter of Free Media in Iraq'

Theo Dolan, Africa director for PeaceTech Lab, an initiative of USIP that now operates as a separate organization, has known al-Shahbander since 2009 and calls him “an amazing guy and a tireless supporter of free media in Iraq. His loss puts a personal face on this World Press Freedom Day, and I'll remember him for subsequent ones.”

Nahla Arif, a senior field officer for USIP in Iraq, recalls meeting al-Shahbander at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during a visit from a State Department official. “He had great contributions to the discussions, with deep analysis of the current situation in Iraq,” Arif said. Asked about how civic organizations deal with security, “he and all others responded that we do not focus much on the risks but on what we can do to build peace in this country,” Arif said.

Former U.S. Ambassador Steve Steiner, an advisor on gender issues at USIP in Washington, worked extensively with al-Shahbander and IWPR at the State Department’s Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative.

“IWPR was one of our original and best grantees, doing great work on the ground in Iraq, under the leadership of Ammar,” Steiner said, recalling many relaxed and warm conversations. “He was a bright, dynamic and fascinating guy, a real Iraqi patriot, and I learned a lot from him about Iraq … I imagine there are thousands of people in several countries whose lives he touched and who are just devastated with this news. I am one of them.”

Al-Shahbander is mourned by his many friends and colleagues. IWPR said he is survived by his wife Angela Alaliaoui and four children. IWPR Board Member George Packer wrote in a tribute that they and al-Shahbander’s parents and brothers, as well as “hundreds of Iraqi leaders and ordinary citizens” attended his burial on May 4 in the holy city of Najaf.

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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