In July 2003, the Washington Post published a harrowing account of the torture
of an Assyrian Christian woman in Baghdad. The woman, Jumana Hanna, took Post
reporter Peter Finn to the prison where she said she had been jailed, tortured
and raped for nothing more than marrying a non-Iraqi. Ms Hanna told the reporter
her husband had been killed in a nearby prison and his lifeless body was later
passed to her.
After the Post story appeared, US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz mentioned
it in testimony to the US Senate: "There is a positive aspect in the distressing
story of Jumana Hanna. That is her courage in coming forward to offer U.S. officials
what is very likely credible information, information that is helping us to
root out Baathist policemen who routinely tortured and killed prisoners."
American officials in Iraq protected Jumana Hanna from possible reprisals and
the U.S. government eventually helped her resettle in northern California. Her
story, considered to be an important document of an evil regime, was to be published
in a book, written by an experienced California-based journalist, Sara Solovitch.
“I just thought it was an extremely powerful story, that this was a very
brave, fascinating woman who was extremely independent and went against the
prevailing culture of her country to stand up for what was right,” says
Ms Solovitch. Many women around the world have difficulty admitting rape and
when they do, they often refuse to go into unpleasant details. Not so Jumana
Hanna. She gave a precise description of alleged rapes, one taking place in
the presence of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. Sara Solovitch says before
meeting the Iraqi woman, she had attributed her outspokenness to education.
Namely, Jumana Hanna claimed she had a degree in accounting from Oxford University
in Britain. But after their first meeting, Sara Solovitch discovered that Ms
Hanna barely speaks English, certainly not enough to graduate from a British
university. The California journalist says there were a few other problems with
Jumana Hanna’s story.
“She told these very vivid, almost like cinematic stories. The one that
she told about Uday Hussein while she was raped by all his henchmen and then
asking for her blood to be smeared along his whiskey glass, like salt on a margarita.
I really had major reservations about that. That just seemed ludicrous to me.”
Sara Solovitch says she warned the Iraqi woman that she would have to verify
all the details of her story before publishing them in a book. Jumana Hanna
expressed no concern and even volunteered names of some witnesses.
It did not take long for a professional journalist to find out that very few
if any details of Jumana Hanna’s account were true. She was not married
to a foreigner, but to an Iraqi Arab. Her husband was not killed and was probably
never in prison. Ms Hanna may have been jailed for a few months, but most likely
for prostitution. One of her key witnesses appears to be a boyfriend to whom
she has been sending money from the United States. So what is the true story
of Jumana Hanna?
“It’s just a story about a homeless prostitute who single-handedly
fooled the Pentagon, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Washington
Post,” says Sara Solovitch. Jumana Hanna also fooled many ordinary Americans
who, touched by her story, rushed to deposit charitable contributions into the
Iraqi woman’s account.
But while the false story of an alleged victim of a brutal regime commanded
the front page of a major American newspaper, Ms Hanna’s sordid real story
did not get much attention. The Washington Post published a retraction only
after Sara Solovitch’s account appeared in the “The Esquire”
magazine earlier this year.
“I was a little disappointed frankly that the Post didn’t publish
its revised version of this woman’s story on its front page,” says
Joseph Campbell, professor of journalism at American University in Washington.
He adds that war reporting is prone to exaggeration, which tends to capture
the public imagination.
“Some of the best known stories, anecdotes in American journalism, stem
from war coverage. Once these myths and urban legends take hold, they can be
very enduring, and they can defy any efforts by scholars and journalists to
debunk the myth,” says Professor Campbell.
Jumana Hanna’s story of torture was something politicians needed, journalists
were looking for and the American public expected. Sara Solovitch says that’s
why for a long time no one thought to verify the facts, which would have been
easy enough. Unfortunately, the dreary true story does not seem to hold the
same appeal as the false one of torture