'Everywhere she went, people just beamed ... if anyone can cope with this, it is Margaret Hassan'

By Terry Kirby Chief Reporter

21 October 2004


She has been described as a secular Mother Teresa: a very quietly spoken, slightly built, almost frail, woman, aged about 60, with a core of steel and a determination to achieve what she wants.

Last night, the friends and family of Margaret Hassan, the aid worker held hostage since Tuesday, were fervently hoping the very qualities which had enabled her to bring help to ordinary Iraqis for more than three decades of brutal dictatorship, wars and sanctions, would help her survive the ordeal of being kidnapped. Memories of the death of Kenneth Bigley remain fresh.

Mrs Hassan - who has Iraqi, Irish and British passports, but is said to consider herself primarily a citizen of Iraq, her adopted country and the homeland of her husband - was abducted as she drove to work at the headquarters of Care International in Baghdad, where she had run the Iraqi operation of the charity for more than 13 years. Hours later a video of her appeared on al-Jazeera television. Nothing has been heard of her since and her kidnappers have not identified themselves or made known any demands.

"If anybody can cope with this situation is it Margaret Hassan,'' said Felicity Arbuthnot, a freelance journalist and film maker who knows her well. "She knows the region, speaks impeccable Arabic and is used to difficult and dangerous situations. She will find out where these people are from - Jordan or Syria for instance - and will be immediately using that to psyche them out.

"She can do that with people. I have seen her in difficult situations where people obstruct you and she can wheedle the impossible out of anybody. She can get them eating out of her hands.''

Although initially described as British Iraqi, Mrs Hassan was born in Ireland as Margaret Fitzsimons, and lived with her parents and sisters in a Dublin suburb. They moved to London when she was a child, thus entitling her to a British passport. But her Irish birth makes her eligible for Irish citizenship and that has allowed the Irish Government to take up her case, as it did with Mr Bigley.

She has a sister who lives with her husband in remote Kenmare in Co Kerry, south-west Ireland. Although the Irish government denies it, the family say they have been advised not to comment, beyond telling callers that the situation is "very, very sad". Margaret Hassan has another sister living in London, and their father is believed to have died a couple of months ago.

Details about Mrs Hassan's private life are sketchy - friends say she deliberately does not disclose much about her background - but it is understood she was raised and educated in London and met her husband Tahseen Ali Hassan, an engineer, when he was studying in Britain. One report said they married when she was 17 and he was 26. They have no children.

In 1972, the couple moved to Iraq, and Mrs Hassan went to work for the British Council, teaching English to Iraqis and, it is now clear, discovering a love for the country and its people. She converted to Islam, learnt Arabic and took Iraqi citizenship. Remaining in the country after Saddam Hussein took control, Mrs Hassan became assistant director of studies for the council, then director of the substantial Baghdad office. In 1990, after Saddam invaded Kuwait and military action by the Allies seemed inevitable, the council closed its office and she was out of a job.

After the 1991 Gulf War, she found a new more high-profile role as director of Care International, the world's largest humanitarian organisation, which, in Iraq, specialises in projects involving health, nutrition, water supplies and sanitation. She vehemently opposed the United Nations sanctions, saying they had left the Iraqi people in a worse position than they had been before the war. She became a tireless advocate on their behalf, particularly the children, briefing journalists, politicians and religious and welfare groups in Baghdad and abroad.

Before the invasion last year, she warned both the UN Security Council and MPs in London that a fresh conflict could cause a new humanitarian crisis.

"The Iraqi people are already living through a terrible emergency," she told a House of Commons briefing. "They do not have the resources to withstand an additional crisis brought about by military action."

After the war, despite the dangerous conditions, she decided to continue her work in the country, believing her Iraqi citizenship afforded her protection. Her husband, now retired, is believed to have considered setting up a company specialising in tourist visits to holy sites when conditions in the country calmed.

Mrs Hassan earned the admiration of those who met her. Ms Arbuthnot said: "She is very quietly spoken, slender, but with a steel core. She could have left Iraq but chose to stay on through dangerous times to continue her projects."

She described travelling with Mrs Hassan to a water sanitation plant in a poor area and seeing her effect on the local people. "A crowd gathered and tiny children rushed up and threw their arms round her knees, saying, 'Madam Margaret, Madam Margaret', and everywhere she went, people just beamed. She was so loved and everybody was so open with her."

Niall Andrews, an Irish former MEP who has visited Iraq several times, said: "She struck me as a very powerful woman, a very strong person and a good person. I'd describe her as a secular Mother Teresa. She's an extraordinary woman.

"She was apolitical but very opposed to the sanctions. She was a very driven woman. She was very energetic, very committed, very compassionate. She's Irish-born but she wants to be an Iraqi. She acknowledges her Irish birth but the reality is she devoted her whole life to humanitarian causes, in Lebanon and Iraq.

"I had the impression she didn't care what nationality she was.

"I'd imagine that because of her marriage to this wonderful man she thinks of herself as Iraqi. She is devoted to the Iraqi people and the poorest of the poor."