News programs nowadays are dominated by reports that the Islamic State, or ISIS, has been chased out of this or that stretch of Iraqi territory. Logically, that should mean an end to atrocities and human-rights violations. Yet the reality is far more tragic. Parts of Iraq liberated by ISIS are now being taken over by Shiite militias that are kidnapping, torturing, and killing Sunnis in what observers describe as a brutal wave of sectarian cleansing.
This unreported reality is revealed in a powerful new documentary by the Emmy-Award-winning British-Iranian journalist and author Ramita Navai, “Isis and the Battle for Iraq,” which just aired on PBS’s Frontline program (as “Iraq Uncovered” in the U.S. and on the Channel 4 Dispatches program in the UK.) Ramita drives around war-torn Iraq interviewing torture victims, relatives of the dead and missing, government officials and militiamen. “Everyone focuses so much on the battle against ISIS: we wanted to look behind that,” she explains. “Our film is looking at what happens when ISIS are pushed out of areas.”
The Iraq documentary may well bring Ramita yet another award. She won an Emmy in 2012 for a film that was shot in Syria after she and her cameraman were trapped with three wanted opposition activists in a safe house. In November 2016, she won the U.K. Foreign Press Association’s Television News Story of the Year prize for a documentary that showed hundreds of migrants being held by a kidnapping gang in Macedonia demanding ransom.
Ramita is also the author of “City of Lies” (published in the U.K. in 2014), a non-fiction narrative that presented readers with a Tehran they never knew existed – crawling with crystal meth labs, prostitutes, transsexuals, and gun runners. The book was based on real-life experiences that she had in her three years as a reporter for The Times and as an English teacher.
In person, Ramita is kind and unassuming, with large soulful eyes. Born in Tehran, she spent her early years between Britain and Iran, where her Navy officer father was based. When she was five years old, she, her younger brother and mother flew out to Tehran to join her father and start a new life. The day of their homecoming turned out to be a milestone in the history of the Iranian Revolution: September 8, 1978, when the Shah’s troops fired on anti-government demonstrators gathered in Jaleh Square, leaving dozens dead.
More and more demonstrations were to follow, forcing the Shah to leave the country in January 1979. Five-year-old Ramita remembers seeing people dance in the street on that day. Yet the jubilation was short-lived. “The atmosphere slowly started to change, to take a turn for the worse,” she recalls. “I realized that people were uneasy, and that what I was watching was not a good thing.”
Ramita and her family then moved to Windsor, near London. She was “very unhappy” at school there, being an outsider in a place with few if any children from foreign backgrounds. She transferred to the Montessori school in Ladbroke Grove (west London), a much more suitable environment, and later picked up an undergraduate degree from the University of Westminster.
Ramita then had to work to support herself. “If I needed to go on holiday at 19, I worked at McDonald’s,” she recalls. “I did loads of jobs, and am very grateful for that. I meet so many people now who don’t even realize they’re privileged, who can’t connect with people, who don’t understand that for some people McDonald’s is as good as it gets.”
The events of September 11, 2001 were a key turning point. “I thought, ‘I want to be covering this: This is what I want to be doing,’” she recalls. She got a Masters in journalism from London’s City University, completing it in two years instead of one, and financed her studies by working in the press office at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
In 2003, she headed back to Iran, and started reporting for the humanitarian news service Irin News. Soon afterwards, a tragedy of epic proportions happened. The Bam earthquake left some 26,000 people dead and reduced one of Iran’s most ancient heritage sites to rubble.
Ramita was one of the first three Western journalists to reach the devastated city. The vision they discovered before them was “apocalyptic. We were totally unprepared for what we saw. I remember driving into Bam and it was silent, absolutely silent. There were lines of people just sitting on the side of the road. Beside them were bodies.”
No aid agencies had arrived yet, so people were using their bare hands to pull their loved ones out of the rubble, sometimes alive, sometimes not. Standing by the destruction was an elegant woman in a trench coat. When Ramita asked what she was doing in Bam, the woman said she had arrived hours earlier to see her three daughters, who were in their twenties and thirties and living in Bam. All three had passed away in the earthquake. There they were, “lying on their sides,” remembers Ms. Navai. “Their mother had put a blanket over them, and it looked like they were sleeping.”
Ramita’s Bam report ended up on the front page of the Sunday Times the following weekend. The next day, it landed on The Times front page, too. At that point, the newspaper’s foreign editor asked her to become its correspondent in Tehran.
During her three years in the capital, Ramita felt increasingly disconnected from wealthy society. “I’d go to north Tehran, to that little bubble of chichi parties, and think, ‘This is not Tehran. Tehran is 12 miles south of here.'”
South Tehran is where she started spending more and more of her time. She paid regular visits to a drug rehabilitation center (run by two Iranian-American brothers) that handed out clean needles, condoms and methadone to drug users and sex workers.
One of the women serving tea there – an HIV-positive prostitute and heroin addict – became a friend. “She’d take me around her crumbling alley, around the pimps and the pushers, the needle-strewn parks and streets thick with opium and with people shooting up,” recalls Ramita. “It was just unbelievable.”
When Ramita’s press pass was revoked for three months, she used the time to teach English to a group of kids aged 11 to 18 who had no right to schooling because, as children of Afghan immigrants, gypsies or prostitutes, they lacked the birth certificates required to enrol.
Many of the characters she met in her time in Tehran ended up in “City of Lies.” She changed their names, but not their profiles. “People love to tell their stories, and they love attention,” she explains.
After three years in Tehran, she felt an urge to see more of the world. An opportunity came up to make a documentary for the Channel 4 program ‘Unreported World.’ “They offered me one film, and it turned into twenty. Six years later I was still doing it.”
One of those films won the Emmy. “It was an absolute honor, but bittersweet, because the main guy who’d helped us – Mohammed, the most loving and beautiful man – had gone missing, and is still missing. I think he’s dead,” she says.
Ramita is now doing more reporting on ISIS in the Middle East and putting together a proposal for her next book, which she says will not be set in Iran. Her hope, beyond that, is to continue telling the stories of the many people whom no one else seems to be paying much attention to – and, unbelievably, to go back to Iraq.