Wartime journalism comes full circle this week as Iraqi girl sees iconic photo of herself
When Chris Hondros photographed Iraqi children Samar and Rakan Hassan in 2005, he could not have known the chain of events it would set off, leading Rakan to Boston then back to Iraq, and culminating in Samar seeing the photographs for the first time this week, three years after her brother’s death.
Hondros’ iconic images showed then-5-year-old Samar and 11-year-old Rakan just after their parents were killed accidentally by U.S. soldiers who thought their car was carrying suicide bombers.
“Every day, somebody gets shot by accident by Iraqi troops, American troops. And, for as much as it happens in Iraq, it very rarely gets photographed. In fact, that incident I photographed in northern Iraq, in Tal Afar, was one of the few times. So I look back and I’m glad that those pictures exist because they document a circumstance that happens a lot there and that people need to know about,” Hondros said in 2007.
Hondros’ images of a bloody, screaming Samar brought home the horror of war around the globe and caused the Pentagon to consider ways to reduce civilian casualties, The New York Times reports.
Hondros’ images of Rakan, paralyzed in the shooting, set in motion events that would change the course of the young boy’s future.
“I couldn’t get the images out of my mind,’’ Hondros told The Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen the following year. “I kept thinking about the boy.’’
Hondros worked successfully to bring the photos of Rakan to the attention of humanitarians who could help him, said Cullen, who followed Rakan’s progress for the five months he spent recovering from his injuries at a Boston hospital.
During Rakan's stay -- arranged together by Senator Ted Kennedy and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- the boy's attitude vacillated between gratitude and hostility. “He allowed all outsiders, including me, only so close,” Cullen said.
In 2007, Cullen was a finalist for the ASNE nondeadline award and wrote about his experience with Rakan for Poynter’s annual edition of “Best Newspaper Writing.” (You can find Cullen’s essay here; just search inside the book for “Cullen, lessons learned”)
“If there were lessons I took from the project that became ‘Rakan’s War,’ the most important were to let the reporting process take you where it will, and that when writing, you shouldn’t pretend you know more about your subject than you really do.
“Originally, my editor, Mark Morrow, and I expected that the dramatic narrative would focus on whether Rakan would learn to walk again. But after a couple of months, it became obvious that the real story was whether he would go home again.”
Hondros visited Rakan during his hospital stay but did not talk with him about the photographs.
“Someday,’’ Hondros said, “he’ll see those photos and we’ll talk.’’
But someday never came for Hondros or Rakan.
Rakan returned to Iraq, a difficult decision for his medical team, as Cullen wrote:
“Poor Larry Ronan. It was he who had to face the Solomon-like decision of whether to let Rakan go back to Iraq. There were local Muslim families who would have gladly adopted Rakan. Ray Tye wanted me to adopt him. Fred Gerber, the former 82d Airborne officer and logistics genius who got Rakan out of Iraq, had families lined up, too.
“But Larry Ronan is a doctor, and doctors listen to their patients, even 12-year-olds, and Rakan begged to go home. His family wanted him home.”
And so Rakan returned to Iraq, a decision that would come back to haunt Ronan three years later when the 14-year-old was killed by a bomb in his home. Rakan’s death also led Cullen to question whether he did the right thing in writing about the boy:
“Did somebody somehow read Rakan's story, maybe online, and set out to kill him and his family, to prove that anybody who takes sweets or help or anything from the Americans is a collaborator who shall die the death of an infidel? …
“Would he still be alive if I didn't write about him? If Michele McDonald's beautiful photos of him never appeared in this newspaper?
“We'll probably never know.”
Adam Reilly, writing for The Boston Phoenix, defended Cullen’s coverage and underlined its value:
"In his dual incarnations of beatific survivor and obstinate, occasionally resentful patient, [Rakan] Hassan emerged as both a victim of American force and a beneficiary of American generosity. His patrons, meanwhile, came across as often noble and occasionally presumptuous. And the relationships between Hassan and his benefactors captured the troubling complexity of the war in Iraq in an unexpected and deeply effective manner.
“That’s the most that the public can ask of any journalist.”
“We’re all suited for different sorts of things in terms of what we’re able to handle and what we’re able to mentally put ourselves through and I think I’m suited for this line of work,” Hondros said in a 2007 interview.
“My primary reason for being in any of these places is to photograph. To me that’s an important role in the larger context. I mean, we have soldiers who go to these places and they do their role. And diplomats, they do their role. And journalists, they do their role. … We need soldiers, we need diplomats, and we need journalists."
In this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, the paper’s editor, Bill Keller, writes about “the inner life of wartime photographers”
“Why do they do this crazy work?” Keller asks, on behalf of all who wonder, and he answers. “They do it for the most mundane of reasons (to feed their families) and the most idealistic (to make the world pay attention) and the most visceral (it is exhilarating; it is fun) and the somewhat existential.”
Today, Keller’s paper published a recent photo of the now 12-year-old Samar Hassan, who says she hopes to be a doctor someday.
For the first time, Samar saw the image that started it all, completing a circle that reminds us of the virtues and violence of documenting war.