- E.L. Andrews, "A
Trip to the Desert With the Raging Angel of the Artifacts," in The New York Times, December 18,
2005: "I have a personal interest in [Susanne Osthoff's] fate. In June
2003, I bet my life on her and let her guide me to a scene of
plundering that could have been taken from 'Indiana Jones.' Hordes of
looters, swarming like ants over a remote patch in southern Iraq, were
digging up sculptures, vases, ornaments and cuneiform tablets. Many
relics dated back 3,000 years to the Sumerian era. Weapons were
everywhere: AK-47's, pistols, knives, even swords. There was no law, no
police, no hint of the American military. Ms. Osthoff's persistence
seems to have shamed American and Iraqi leaders into posting more
protection, though the looting continues. But her exploits had a
broader significance, offering clues to why the Americans remain so
bedeviled and bewildered by Iraq's complexities. Unlike many of those
trying to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, Ms. Osthoff could differentiate
between good guys and bad guys. She also recognized problems that
others wanted to ignore. And to the extent that she stayed alive, it
was because she had credibility with everyone from local Bedouin
leaders to onetime Baathist powerbrokers. As a reporter for The New
York Times in Iraq in June 2003, I met Ms. Osthoff at the Sheraton
Hotel in Baghdad. ... Donny George, head of research at the Iraqi
National Museum, greeted her as an old friend and said he had heard the
same stories she had. Ms. Osthoff wanted to show me the looting
firsthand, but her fearlessness seemed to border on recklessness."
"First we drove south from Baghdad to a small town called Afak. There
we met with Abdulsadiq al-Abed, a 68-year-old Bedouin patriarch who,
with his sons, had worked for decades at a major archaeological site
called Isin. Mr. Abed had sent a son to Baghdad several weeks earlier
to find Ms. Osthoff and seek her help against the looters. When we
arrived, he and his family welcomed her as a hero. His sons told us
that the man behind the looting at Isin was none other than the site's
chief guard, Jassim. He was charging hundreds of people for the right
to dig, they said, and taking part of what was dug up. Ms. Osthoff
didn't doubt the story, and had known Jassim for years. But Jassim
would not dare hurt her, she said, because she was too well known in
his community." "'They are poor people and they are desperate to make
some money,' Ms. Osthoff, cloaked in a black hood and carrying a rifle,
said. 'But they do not understand what they are doing.' Another
Westerner might have been in immediate danger. But Ms. Osthoff knew the
people, understood the tribal loyalties and knew she could bank on her
credibility. It was a striking contrast to the Americans then trying to
rebuild Iraq. Most spoke no Arabic, traveled only in convoys, could not
tell friend from foe and knew nothing about Mesopotamia. Tofiq Abed
Muhammad, director of antiquities for Samawa Province, told her he had
pleaded with a regional American commander whose name he had written in
Arabic as 'Auden Hugh.' The commander turned out to be Lt. Col. Daniel
O'Donahue, the officer in charge of a nearby Marine base, who later
told me that the Iraqis had to defend any 'fixed site' on their own.
Ms. Osthoff refused to be brushed off. She badgered American officers,
her violet eyes boring into them as she lectured. Many could barely get
a word in edgewise, but several grudgingly sent out patrols to the
sites. To say that Ms. Osthoff was difficult would be an
understatement. Then 40, she could be rude, autocratic and infuriating
even to her best friends. She had married and divorced an Iraqi man,
then left her child with her family in Germany. But she had at least
two things going for her. She recognized an extraordinary cause when
people far more powerful had no interest. And she defended that cause
with a courage backed by years of personal experience."
Photo 1: "Edmund L. Andrews/The New York Times. Susanne Osthoff,
a German archaeologist who has lived in Iraq for years, at Isin, an
ancient site in southern Iraq, in June 2003. The chief guard there,
Jassim, greeted her as a driver for the Baghdad bureau of The New York
Times looked on."
Photo 2: "Edmund L. Andrews/The New York Times. Holes with
ancient treasures dotted the landscape, and there were plenty of men
looking to help themselves."
Photo 3: "Edmund L. Andrews/The New York Times. Men clustering
around an excavation. Jassim, holding the rifle, led the way."
Photo 4: "Edmund L. Andrews/The New York Times. A young man
extracting part of statue of a calf from an archaeological pit."
Photo 5: "Edmund L. Andrews/The New York Times. Ms. Osthoff and
the free-lance diggers displaying artifacts from the site."
Photo 6: "Michael Kappeler/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images.
'Freedom for Susanne Osthoff' buttons were distributed in Berlin."