Dr. Yasser Salihee, Translator and Friend
My longtime translator in Iraq, Yasser Salihee, was killed at a checkpoint last Friday, June 24. He was also one of my dearest friends in the country, who would always say, "Let me know when you are coming. I want mine to be the first face you see." He knew the brutal face of Iraq was all too present.
More and more, we are recognizing that it is Iraqis who are taking the greatest risks in the fact-finding business. It is they who go to bomb blast sites, they who talk to insurgents, they who go home late at night after we are safe in our barricaded compounds. At the time of his death, Yasser had been doing byline pieces as a special correspondent for Knight Ridder News Service. I last saw him just over a month ago, as he dropped off pictures for me of his family before I left Baghdad.
Since October, 2003, not a step I have taken in Iraq on four long, independent journeys would have been possible without him. Yasser began as a source, became a friend, and took time off from his own work to help me whenever I needed him.
Yasser was part of the first story I reported for NPR after Saddam Hussein was deposed. We met in Baghdad, when he was a physician at Yarmouk Hospital's emergency room. He invited me home the next day, and I met his beloved wife and child.
As it happened, his was the last voice we heard on Weekend Edition Saturday on June 25, in a story about the evangelization of Iraq's Catholics. None of us felt it was right that he pass from the world without a trace, and that is why we present today's tribute.
Yasser didn't die translating, or from a car bomb. He died, as far too many Iraqis do, simply by living. It was Friday, he was in his neighborhood on his day off, going to get gasoline and an oil change so that he could take his wife and daughter swimming. He was driving his car alone, when an American sniper from the 3rd Infantry apparently shot him at a checkpoint. I say apparently because the circumstances are somewhere unclear. He died of a single bullet to the brain, which pierced the car's windshield.
Oddly, one of Yasser's last stories for Knight Ridder was about the dangers of Sunni men driving alone. A military investigation is under way; but whatever its outcome, it won't bring him back. And one wonders if the investigation will pry from the U.S. military the casualty counts Americans never see. We don't know how many Iraqis die like this -- casually, caught at checkpoints or bomb blasts or heaven knows what. The irony is that Dr. Salihee's death will illuminate the ever-present threat of casual, accidental and anonymous death that is the reality of Iraq today.
Yasser had not completely left medicine. He always volunteered at hospitals on his days off. When journalists were sick, he treated us. Frequently, he would report on the scene of a bomb blast and then help tie sutures. Many of his patients were also his sources.
But translation paid better than medicine. As an interpreter, Yasser could make more money in one day than he would in a month in the emergency room. He needed to make the best life possible for his wife and daughter, and provide for extended family.
He grew to love and embrace journalism, and he took huge risks in his career. Being lost to his family was one of them. Yasser's wife Raghad is also a trauma physician at Yarmouk Hospital, working in the emergency room. She sees the Iraqi dead every day. They have a two-year-old daughter called Danya. Yasser, in his letters, always signed off as "Abu Danya," meaning "Father of Danya."
One can have a thousand considerations of this war. For me the telling thing is that Yasser, as one journalist put it, was the kind of Iraqi citizen Americans would want to invest in: smart, talented, accepting, religiously observant but open, and eager. He had deep skepticism about Iraq's future, but he didn't let that keep him from living or speaking or being heard. For me, and for the radio, the voice is the thing. And Yasser had a beautiful one -- a human sunbeam who could express joy, pain, shock.
He was 30 years old. Thursday, June 30, would have been his 31st birthday.
Thank you, Yasser, for all you did for so many American journalists. You did it for your family, for your country, and for your friends, we Americans. As I type this, I am wondering whether we can ever do enough to honor your sacrifice.
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