Unassuming yet determined, she hated war and dedicated her life to Iraqis

By Justin Huggler

17 November 2004


When Margaret Hassan was kidnapped last month her car was waved down by two men in Iraqi police uniforms. Gunmen surrounded the car and dragged Mrs Hassan's driver and unarmed guard from their seats. They started to beat the two men with their guns. Stop beating them, Mrs Hassan told them. I will come with you.

She lived in Iraq through the eight years of war with Iran. Through the bombing of Baghdad in the1991Gulf War. Through the 13 years of sanctions that wrecked the country's economy and brought it to its knees. Through the US-led invasion last year and the chaos and lawlessness that followed.

She never fled to the West, as her Irish and British passports would easily have allowed her to do. She stayed in her adopted land to work for the sick, the weak, the destitute and suffering. She campaigned for them. She built hospitals. She brought medicine and clean water.

And when they heard that she had been kidnapped, they came on to the streets of Baghdad in their wheelchairs to demand her release. Children from a school for the deaf came out holding placards demanding the release of "Mama Margaret".

"If it wasn't for her, we would probably have died," Ahmed Jubair, a small boy in a wheelchair, said that day. "She built us a hospital and took care of us. She made us feel happy again." There can be few greater epitaphs.

She was born Margaret Fitzsimons in Dublin. She was very private about her personal life and details remain sketchy and unconfirmed. She was around 60 years old, and had four brothers and sisters. One sister lives in Co Kerry. Another sister lives in London. Her father is believed to have died a few months ago.

"Our hearts are broken," said a statement from the family last night. "We have kept hoping for as long as we could, but we now have to accept that Margaret has probably gone and, at last, her suffering has ended."

When she was still a child, the family moved to London. That is why she had both British and Irish passports as well as her Iraqi citizenship, and why there was so much confusion over her nationality. It may have given Fleet Street a better story to call her British, but it probably did her little good while being held by the kidnappers. Her colleagues said she considered herself Iraqi, and there can be no stronger evidence than the fact she stayed in the country through so much hardship.

She moved there in 1972. She had met an Iraqi man, Tahseen Ali Hassan, while he was studying in Britain. Again the details are not clear, but according to one report they married when she was 17 and he was 26. At any rate, they went to live in Iraq where Ms Hassan at first worked for the British Council, teaching English.

In 1972, Saddam Hussein had not yet seized power, and the tragic future that was in store for Iraq had not yet begun to reveal itself. According to her friends, Mrs Hassan fell in love with the country and its people. She learnt Arabic. She converted to Islam and took Iraqi citizenship. The men who killed her did not kill a foreign infidel. They killed an Iraqi Muslim.

Mrs Hassan rose to become assistant director of studies for the British Council, and then director of the Baghdad office - a senior appointment. But after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the build-up to the 1991 Gulf War began, the office closed.

Mrs Hassan was out of a job, and facing the worst aerial assault the Middle East had ever seen. She survived the 1991 war and emerged from it to become a director of the humanitarian organisation Care International. It was the beginning of the apotheosis of Margaret Hassan.

Care International is the biggest humanitarian organisation in the world. In Iraq, it specialises in health, nutrition, water supplies and sanitation. She began to tackle the aftermath of the devastating 42-day bombing campaign, and the consequences of the draconian sanctions imposed on Iraq. Margaret Hassan was born for that hour.

She and her husband never had children, but she took the children of Iraq to her heart. She began to work tirelessly for the children who suffered the consequences of the 1991 war, the destruction of water facilities and the American use of depleted uranium shells, and from the sanctions that crippled Iraq's medical services and economy.

The quietly spoken English teacher had become a modern heroine. She became one of the most unrelenting campaigners against the sanctions. She did not oppose them because of some political theory spun in the comfort of London or Washington. She opposed them because she lived with their consequences and walked among the child victims of the sanctions she called Iraq's "lost generation".

In the build-up to the US-led invasion last year, she travelled to New York and London to campaign against a new war that would heap more agony on Iraq. She told the UN security council. "The Iraqi people are already living through a terrible emergency," she said at a House of Commons briefing. "They do not have the resources to withstand an additional crisis brought about by military action."

Margaret Hassan's friend, Felicity Arbuthnot, called her "Iraq's quiet, unassuming, determined best friend".

Now men who claim to be fighting for Iraq have killed her. There are many Iraqi children, the crippled and the sick, who may never forgive those men.


19 October: Margaret Hassan was seized by gunmen in western Baghdad at 7.30am. Hours later, video footage of her was shown on al-Jazeera TV. An unnamed "armed Iraqi group" claimed responsibility. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said diplomats in Baghdad were in touch with Care International.

20 October: Her husbandmade an emotional appeal to the kidnappers. Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, stressed that every effort was being made to free her. The Iraqis condemn the act as despicable.

22 October: Al-Jazeera aired a harrowing video of her weeping and she pleaded with the British people to save her life, saying she did not want to die like Ken Bigley.

23 October: Care International's head, Denis Caillaux, made a plea on al-Jazeera.

25 October: Baghdad rally with protesters carrying pictures of her and banners with "Mama Margaret" on them.

27 October: A new video on al-Jazeera with her pleading for Britain to withdraw troops and for Care International to stop operations in Iraq.

28 October: Care International complied.

2 November: Al-Jazeera declined to broadcast a video of her kidnappers threatening to give her to al-Zarqawi if demands were not met in 48 hours.

4 November: The 42-hour deadline ran out but no news heard.

14 November: US forces found the mutilated body of a Western woman with "blonde hair" in Fallujah.

15 November: Care International said it could not rule out the possibility that the body was that of Mrs Hassan.

16 November: Video released, apparently showing her murder.