Sophie McNeill brings you the story of Mary Awanis, a single mother killed in Iraq by an Australian-run private security firm.
Airdate: 
Wednesday, November 21, 2007 - 01:01
Channel: 
SBS

Sophie McNeill brings you the heartbreaking story of Mary Awanis, an Iraqi single mother of three who was killed in Baghdad by employees from the Australian-run private security company Unity Resources Group.

Mary was reportedly driving behind a convoy in Baghdad that was being guarded by URG employees. They perceived her as being a threat and when she allegedly didn't stop after being warned, they opened fire, killing her.

Mary's brother Paul lives in the UK and is now the guardian of Mary's children. McNeill records Paul's attempts to get them out of Iraq, a place where private security firms - exempt from prosecution in Iraq - are accused of acting like lawless cowboys.


Resources

Transcript

You will almost certainly remember the headlines back in September when security guards from the US Blackwater company operating in Iraq opened fire and killed 17 innocent bystanders. Hard not to remember. Then last month, the news broke that two Iraqi women in Baghdad had also been killed, this time by employees of not an American, but an Australian-run security company. One of the two women killed was a widow and mother of three. Sophie McNeill has been following her story.

REPORTER: Sophie McNeill

On Tuesday 9 October, Mary Awanis and her three passengers were driving through the streets of Baghdad. At that same moment, an armed convoy belonging to the Australian-run private security company Unity Resources Group was returning to its base. Mary's car was reportedly driving about 90m behind the convoy when the URG guards decided it was a security threat. They used flares and hand signals to warn Mary off, but when her car came closer, they fired over 40 shots towards it.

MAN, (Translation): You can't describe it. Just at the Masbah intersection over there, they were coming in this direction, quite far from them. The guards opened fire.

Mary and her fellow passenger in the front seat were killed instantly.

PAUL MANOOK, MARY'S BROTHER: On Wednesday morning nearly 24 hours later my sister phoned from Baghdad and broke the news and I was absolutely beside myself, I just went...

Paul Manook is Mary's brother. He left Baghdad in 1974 but kept in close touch with his family in Iraq. Mary was the youngest of his three sisters.

PAUL MANOOK: She was a very loving sister, and her house was full of friends. Every time I phoned people were visiting and such. So really, that was her character, such a lovely character.

Mary's husband died from heart failure in 2004, leaving her as the sole provider for their three young daughters. Mary was university educated with a degree in science, but in today's war-torn Iraq, there weren't many options for her to earn a living.

PAUL MANOOK: My sister, everything fell suddenly on her to look after the children and she learned how to drive, and within six months, I think.

On Baghdad's dangerous streets, Mary started an unofficial taxi service to take the children of family and friends to university.

PAUL MANOOK: She said she will never go to area that was dangerous, she avoided that. And also she only used the car if it was necessary, to the university and back and to church and back.

Mary was an Armenian Christian. Three daughters were at her funeral. Nora is 20, Karoon 19, and the youngest, Alees, is 11 years old. Having now lost both, their mother and father, their uncle Paul has become their official guardian. Paul's flown from the UK to the Jordanian capital Amman with his daughter, Miriam. They've come to investigate Mary's death and see how to get the girls out of Iraq.

MIRIAM MANOOK, MARY'S NIECE: Really my first thought was that we had to get the girls out. We can't leave them in a country where this can happen to them.

They want to bring the girls back with them to the UK, but for now Jordan is the best and most immediate option.

MIRIAM MANOOK: They've lost their mum and they have been living in this country that is sort of steadily descending into just such horror that in the past few weeks I don't think they have been doing anything other than just staying in the house, you know.

Since the war began, over 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighbouring countries. But Jordan and Syria have now tightened their borders and it's become increasingly difficult for people to escape Iraq. Paul and Miriam hit the phones to see who can help. With no official government or agency support, they are relying on unofficial channels to rescue their orphaned nieces.

MIRIAM MANOOK: I spoke to Tamara about the tickets, like do we buy them here for them, and she said Faisal will buy them as soon as they have the visa.

The hope was for the girls to come to Jordan while Paul and Miriam were still here, but arranging visas and passports is taking longer than hoped.

PAUL MANOOK: Something's not right.

Paul calls the family in Baghdad.

PAUL MANOOK, (Translation): How are you? Yeah, thank God. We are fine, how are you? We talked to people here and they said as whenever the papers are ready you have to leave directly, don't stay there.

Paul and Miriam believe they may have a civil case against Unity Resources Group.

PAUL MANOOK: They could have done entirely differently, they could have shot the tires to disable it from a distance if they suspected it. So they could have shot a bit more in the air, just to warn, but somehow I was told that there was about 40 bullets hailed on them, and 19 going into my sister's body, from waist up like. I don't know what went into the mind of this person that he would hail 40 bullets completely, as if they are nothing. As if they have no value.

According to witnesses, after opening fire on Mary and her passengers, the URG guards left without offering any assistance.

MIRIAM MANOOK: All the accounts that we have is simply that my aunt was shot and that the contractors left. Virtually in a blaze of dust.

Unity Resources was founded in 2000 by Australian Gordon Conroy, a former SAS commander. Over half of the company's 160 staff are said to be Australians or New Zealanders. Its yearly turnover is reported to exceed $50 million. This is not the first time they have made the headlines. In March last year, URG guards shot and killed a 72-year-old professor and Australian resident, Kays Juma. Paul believes the Australian Government has a responsibility to monitor the kinds of operations its citizens set up aboard.

PAUL MANOOK: It was Australian origin. Yes, registered in Singapore, yes, headquarters in Dubai. You can see the international scene of it, it's a global system. So the Australian Government has a responsibility. It's true its not operating from Australia but the moral case is very strong. There is a moral case to monitor and uphold the law.

I've come to the Arab Emirates to see if I can get any answers about Mary's death. Unity Resource Group, like many private security companies in Iraq, has headquarters here in Dubai.

REPORTER: Oh hi, is Michael Pridden there please?

Michael Pridden is an executive with the group. Sure, it's Sophie McNeill from Dateline, SBS TV, Australia. URG has expressed regret over the incident, but they refused to answer any questions we asked about the attack. I've been trying to talk to URG management for weeks but they haven't returned my calls and have refused our request for an interview.

REPORTER: Hi. Excuse me, hello? Can I just speak with Mr Pridden, is he available? Please, just a few minutes of your time.

MAN: No, we are not doing any interviews.

RICHARD GALUSTIAN: So many shots to be fired at one car driven by a woman with another woman in the passenger seat seems very, very excessive.

Richard Galustian lived in Baghdad for three years running his own private security company. That's where he met Australian Gordon Conroy who set up Unity Resources Group.

RICHARD GALUSTIAN: They had a pretty good reputation, nothing controversial, relatively low-key, and run by Australian management.

Richard says that in the world of private security in Iraq there are essentially no real checks and balances.

RICHARD GALUSTIAN: There's that feeling of lawlessness, that feeling of being in a Mad Max movie. There is essentially a sort of lawless cowboy philosophy amongst some of the people in private security.

Richard Galustian believes that the deaths of civilians at the hands of private security contractors is vastly underreported.

RICHARD GALUSTIAN: The two incidents that have got all this publicity, the Blackwater incident and the URG incident, are just two of something that's been a symptom right from the very beginning. Or just because the media hasn't reported it or because there's been so much general carnage, people who were involved in incidents, whether they shot somebody, wounded them or killed them, felt that they were immune. They felt they wouldn't be prosecuted. And they weren't and they haven't.

REPORTER: So as someone who worked in the industry, this is something that you saw all the time, but it just went unreported?

RICHARD GALUSTIAN: Yes.

Back in Amman, Jordan, Miriam has received copies of her cousins' passports by email. She's hopeful they'll able to get their visas to Jordan soon.

MIRIAM MANOOK: This is Nora, the eldest of Mary's daughters. So she is my cousin. She's 20.

Iraqi police have told Dateline that they are continuing to investigate the incident. But because private security firms are immune from prosecution in Iraq, it is unlikely that the men who killed Mary Awanis will face any criminal charges. Miriam and Paul want people to realise that behind every death in Iraq, there is a family and a story.

MIRIAM MANOOK: The stories you hear about, they are people like you or I, they've got families who are real and they've got lives, and they all have hopes and dreams. And I just feel that Iraq is not a country in which to live your life.

REPORTER/Camera
SOPHIE MCNEILL

Fixer
ALIA HAMZAH

Translator/Subtitlers
MARIE EVANIAN
DALIA MATAR

Editor
ROWAN TUCKER-EVANS

Producer
ASHLEY SMITH

Executive Producer
PETER CHARLEY