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.