Dedicated to the downtrodden

This TV grab footage taken 04 March 2005
This television image taken Friday from Qatar-based Al-Jazeera shows Giuliana Sgrena during her release at an undisclosed location.Al-Jazeera via AFP - Getty Image
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a minute-long video, supporters of the captive Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena summed up her career of defending the world’s have-nots with wrenching photos of her subjects — like an image of two Palestinian children standing in bombing rubble and making the peace sign.

The video, distributed last month to build support for Sgrena’s release from captivity in Iraq, began with a voiceover in Arabic: “My name is Giuliana Sgrena. For my whole life, I have fought and written on behalf of the weakest. I know the suffering of the Iraqi people.”

Sgrena, a 56-year-old journalist for the communist daily Il Manifesto, was freed Friday after being held for a month by unknown captors. The release was marred by an incident in which coalition troops fired on the car carrying her to the airport.

The reporter was wounded in the shoulder, and an Italian secret service agent was killed trying to protect her. One or two other agents were wounded, and one was reportedly in serious condition.

Il Manifesto has been a fierce opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and of Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to send 3,000 troops after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Dramatic stories from Iraq
Before joining Il Manifesto in 1988, Sgrena — born in the town of Masera in the northern Piedmont region — worked for the daily Guerra e Pace (War and Peace). At Il Manifesto, she specialized on the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Magreb. She covered the war in Afghanistan and the conflict in Iraq, remaining in Baghdad during the city’s bombing, even after many journalists left.

One of her most dramatic stories from Iraq was an interview with a woman named Mithal al Hassan, who she said was held for 80 days by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison.

In the July 1 story, she quotes al Hassan: “There were times when they didn’t give me any water or food at all. Then, from the neighboring cells I could hear the screams ... There was no way you could sleep... I couldn’t stand things any more. In the end I asked if I could write a note for my children, because I wanted to commit suicide.”

Sgrena left for her most recent trip to Iraq on Jan. 23. On Feb. 4, she was abducted by gunmen who blocked her car outside Baghdad University. Every day, Il Manifesto wrote articles describing her as a pacifist and friend of the Iraqi people.

“Free her, my daughter hates the war,” read a Feb. 6 headline on an interview with the reporter’s father, Franco Sgrena.

On Feb. 16, Sgrena’s captors released a video showing her sobbing, pleading for her life and calling on troops to pull out of Iraq. At one point, her eyes filled with tears as she struggled to recite her message, and she waved the camera to stop.

“Nobody should come to Iraq at this time,” she said. “Not even journalists. Nobody.”

'A caged bird'
Sgrena was not married and had no children. Her boyfriend, Pier Scolari, worked to highlight her pacifist convictions, putting together the video that was sent to Arab TV stations to win support for her cause.

After seeing Sgrena’s taped plea, he wrote to her through Il Manifesto: “Dear Giuliana, in the video you seemed to me like a caged bird, with your ruffled hair and your frightened look.”

Days later after the video aired, thousands of people marched in Rome to demand Sgrena’s release. As demonstrators walked near the Colosseum, the arena’s lights turned from white to gold, as they do when a death sentence is commuted somewhere in the world.

On Friday, U.S. troops took Sgrena to an American military hospital, where shrapnel was removed from her left shoulder. The Apcom news agency said she was fit to travel and would return to Rome on Saturday.

After news of the shooting broke, Il Manifesto canceled a celebration scheduled Sunday at a Rome auditorium. Instead, it planned a peace rally.