The Guardian.png
Screenshot 2019-02-16 at 11.13.52.png
Documentary-maker Ramita Navai (left) and Francine, who says she was sexually assaulted by UN workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Channel 4

Documentary-maker Ramita Navai (left) and Francine, who says she was sexually assaulted by UN workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Channel 4

Lucy Mangan
Wed 1 Aug 2018 23.31 BS

I am reading a book called The House on Vesper Sands, in which a woman who is trying to save girls and young women from lives of destitution and all that entails dismisses the suggestion by an amateur investigator that a supernatural force may be behind a spate of recent disappearances among her vulnerable charges. “I’ve seen a good deal of the world,” she says. “And it’s darker than any of them stories. Men need no magic to do harm. If they did, there would be a good deal less suffering in the world.”

It was a line that kept coming back to me as presenter and producer Ramita Navai’s documentary The UN Sex Abuse Scandal unfolded. Her film set out the scale and dimensions of – well, I was going to say the predatory behaviour of some uniformed members and civilians undertaking UN peacekeeping missions. But as we saw recently when objections were raised to a Guardian headline on migrant children “selling sex” to pay for passage from Italy to France, on the grounds that it could more accurately be rendered “children being raped by adults” (it was amended to “sexually exploited”), there are many ways to put these things. By the end of the gruelling hour it was clear that another description, at least as accurate, might be that it was the bleakest reading yet taken of men’s capacity for sexual violence.

Navai’s film involved careful, dignified interviews with survivors of rape and abuse at the hands of those whom they had looked for protection. It calmly laid out the parlous state of the system for reporting and prosecuting the crimes and supporting their victims, and the historical and continuing impunity with which the perpetrators operate as the UN talks fine talk about zero tolerance, but when it comes to walking the walk prefers to slump into the nearest armchair with a shrug and, perhaps, a hopeless shake of the head at the intractability of the problem. “So many men to control,” seemed to be the attitude – “what can you do?”.

In the past 15 years, 1,700 allegations of UN sexual violence have been made, from Bosnia to Cambodia, Congo to Haiti. These are only the ones reported and recorded. We can infer that, as with statistics on just about every form of sexual violence, they represent the merest tip of the iceberg. A total of 53 uniformed peacekeepers and one civilian have been jailed as a result.

We heard testimony from two children who fell victim to French troops – there to protect them from warring militia in Congo and the Central African Republic – five years ago. Alexis, then 15, described children giving peacekeepers oral sex in return for soldiers’ rations. “They weren’t even good rations,” she noted. “They were just their leftovers.” Daniella was 10 when a group of peacekeepers offered her water, then grabbed her, took her into a house, “took off my clothes, threw me down and had sex with me, then told me to go”.

Word reached a UN human rights worker, who compiled a report full of what Paula Donovan, a campaigner against UN sexual abuse, described as “stunning revelations … that [the UN] treated as just another report from the field.” It wasn’t until the report was leaked to the media that an independent inquiry was commissioned, which uncovered a tale of complacency and buck-passing that amounted to gross institutional failure and an abuse of authority.

In the three years since, it seems that little has changed. Thirty-two new allegations of exploitation and abuse have been lodged with the UN so far this year. A dropbox nailed to an office in the middle of nowhere and not labelled in the local language was where violated women were supposed to leave their complaints. Promises of victim support have, at least as far as Navai’s numerous interviewees’ experience went, gone unfulfilled. A single day’s inquiry by the documentary team’s local producer found several young women whom the UN said it could not find. It seems these things are not difficult if you have the will.

The team also passed on their discovery of a hitherto unknown victim of former UN peacekeeper Didier Bourguet, convicted in 2008 of two of the 20 rapes of children with which he was charged, including a 12-year-old girl. Navai also interviewed Bourguet, who is now out of prison. He assured her it had been easy to find children. “If you have money. Of course, they were starving. That’s why.”

If only there were some diabolical external force to blame. But here we are, in a world in which peacekeepers can be predators, care systems effectively funnel girls to grooming gangs, and call logs and police reports from immigrant child shelters in the US show men already moving in on the newest-minted mass of vulnerable children – and needing no magic to do harm.

Screenshot 2019-03-21 at 13.55.59.png
Threat: reporter Ramita Navai in Iraq last year

Threat: reporter Ramita Navai in Iraq last year

She has had a gun held to her head, been shot at and gone undercover to report from some of the world’s most dangerous places... so it is no wonder that Ramita Navai’s mother wants her to settle for a desk job in the suburbs.

The London documentary-maker, 44, won the British Journalism Award for foreign reporting this month for her new film, Isis And The Battle For Iraq.

In it, she investigated allegations of abuses on Sunni civilians by Shia militias fighting alongside the Iraqi army. She went undercover in Diyala, a province where two journalists investigating the militias had been murdered.

Of her parents, Laya and Kourosh,  she said: “My mum is just dying for me to get an office job in East Sheen. My dad is now just resigned to the fact this is what I do. They worry a lot.”

Refugees in no man’s land near the IS-held town of Hawija

Refugees in no man’s land near the IS-held town of Hawija

Navai, a British-Iranian, said the  possibility of being kidnapped was “a big worry”. But she added: “Normally I don’t travel with security. I like to operate below the radar. That is why I am not gung-ho. The Iraq set-up took months.”

During her Emmy-winning career,  Navai has also investigated criminal gangs, human traffickers and Islamic State in Syria.

Click here for the rest of the article.

LA Times.png

'Frontline: Iraq Uncovered' captures the extreme fallout of a country divided

By LORRAINE ALI MAR 21, 2017 | 6:00 AM 

Displaced people fleeing from Islamic State militants in Tahrir neighborhood walk in Mosul, Iraq. (Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters)

Displaced people fleeing from Islamic State militants in Tahrir neighborhood walk in Mosul, Iraq. (Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters)

The black flags of the Islamic State are coming down in Mosul, prisoners are being released, citizens freed.

That's what the television media has been reporting lately in the few spare minutes a week that aren't populated by Trump tweets and scandal.

But when the documentary "Frontline: Iraq Uncovered" goes where most American media do not anymore, i.e. outside the studio and into the battlefields of Iraq, it finds a different story.

The hourlong documentary, which airs Tuesday on PBS, visits the ravaged towns and provinces recently recaptured from the Islamic State by Iraqi forces only to find citizens terrorized by another faction — their liberators.

It's a troubling development that threatens to further destabilize Iraq, spill over into other regions of the Middle East and possibly incite more terror incidents around the globe.

British Iranian journalist Ramita Navai goes on the ground and shows how the involvement of Shiite Muslim militia in the fight against the Islamic State has incited a new round of sectarian violence.

Large, organized militias that fight alongside the Iraqi army have played a critical role in weakening the Islamic State's grip in predominantly Sunni areas such as Ramadi and Fallujah. But some are exacting a politically motivated revenge on Sunni civilians they deem to be terror members or collaborators.

As the "Frontline" documentary explains, it's a targeted persecution with historical roots.

Iraq is a Shiite Muslim majority country, and many Shiites claim they were oppressed for decades under the predominantly Sunni leadership of Saddam Hussein. After Shiites gained more representation in government following the 2003 U.S. invasion, many Sunnis have claimed they are now being oppressed.

Enter the Islamic State, which identifies as Sunni (albeit a warped version of Islam's largest sect). It exploited age-old sectarian tensions to gain support in the Sunni areas they captured, subjecting anyone who it considered a non-follower — Shiite, Yazidi, Sunni who opposed them — to a barbarism rivaling that of the Crusades.

The presence of the Islamic State is evident everywhere Navai goes — roads decimated by IEDs, burning oil wells, battlefields littered with dead bodies.

She embeds with the Shiite militia group Badr as they fight the Islamic State and then process the displaced Iraqis who they've just liberated. The relief on the faces of families as they are broken out of Islamic State territory soon turns to dread when they face a new round of interrogators.

"There's a 90% chance that an ISIS member is among the displaced families," says a militia leader as they separate terrified men from the women and children and immediately take away a man who the rescued group says was an Islamic State sympathizer who blackmailed them. The cameras are not allowed to follow. (ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State.)

As Navai points out, it's difficult to tell the enemy from a simple farmer or merchant (they could be one and the same), but little proof is needed before husbands, sons and fathers are swept away by militia. If recent history is any indication, says Navai, they — like hundreds before them — will never be heard from again.

The Badr and other militia, like Hezbollah Brigade, are supposed to answer to the Iraqi government and turn suspected Islamic State collaborators over to the justice system to be tried. But in the documentary, a Shiite fighter points to horrific video on his phone of civilians being tortured by the Islamic State as the reason why his forces must act quickly.

Navai, who won an Emmy for the 2011 "Frontline" installment "Syria Undercover," interviews former militia fighters, captives who escaped militia prisons, refugees who witnessed the murder of their families and the rare politician willing to admit it's a systemic problem the government is either ignoring or benefiting from.

The film shows the destroyed Sunni mosques of Diyala province, and in other scenes, beautiful rural green fields where dead bodies dumped in the creek are a regular part of the landscape. In a refugee camp, a grieving mother shows photos of her three sons, all young men, all executed in her home when the militia moved into town to push out the Islamic State.

What's harder to capture in this documentary is the reality that most everyone left in Iraq has been brutalized, by Sunni or Shiites or U.S. troops or random thugs hiding behind various empty causes. Vengeance is an endless cycle, and it's exploited by political factions — in and outside Iraq — for strategic and economic gain.

Watching this path toward civil war unfold, perpetuated by sectarianism and a government crippled by its own corruption, is heartbreaking.

Navai drives past a bombed-out main street where aid workers are passing out food and water. A group of boys who, if born 10 years earlier, might be playing soccer is, instead, fighting over a bag of bread.

This documentary captures the extreme fallout of a country divided, run by incompetent leaders who fan the flames. There's a lesson here, even if most of the U.S. media has stopped paying attention.

favourite books from 2014

"City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran" by Ramita Navai
Ramita Navai’s “City of Lies” was a great read. She takes readers to corners of Iranian society that are very difficult to penetrate. And she does that with great personal risk. Listen to an interview with the author here. - Shirin Jaafari

See the full list of PRI's favourite books from 2014 by clicking here



From magisterial biographies to captivating memoirs and fiction — our reviewers and writers choose their favourites from the past 12 months

Heart of the country: an illustration from David Gentleman’s In the Country (Picture: David Gentleman)

Heart of the country: an illustration from David Gentleman’s In the Country (Picture: David Gentleman)


Ramita Navai’s City of Lies (Weidenfeld, £18.99) is gripping, a dark delicious unveiling of the secret decadent life of Islamic Tehran, deeply researched yet exciting as a novel, while Charles King’s Midnight at the Pera Palace (Norton, £11.99) — brilliant, entertaining authoritative — recounts the twilight of late Ottoman Istanbul. Ali Allawi’s Faisal I of Iraq (Yale, £30) is excellent and indispensable, effectively a history of the making of today’s Middle East.

Click here for the full list


BOOKS FEATURE The Spectator 15 November 2014


Jonathan Rugman

In City of Lies (Weidenfeld, £18.99) Ramita Navai tells us that ‘in order to live in Tehran you have to lie’. Survival there depends on dodging the fatwas of Iran’s medieval theocratic regime. Drink, drugs and paid-for sex proliferate; the divorce rate soars while religious attendance tumbles. Navai paints brilliantly insightful portraits of eight Tehranis suffering under an Iranian revolution which has gone terribly wrong — but with no stomach for another in the light of the failed ‘Arab Spring’.

Click here for the full list


Discussing Iran and my book City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran. 

Frontline Club
Insight with Ramita Navai - interviewed by Jeremy Bowen

The politics of Iran are frequently analysed and debated on the international stage but rarely do we glimpse what everyday life is like in Tehran. In her new book City of Lies, Ramita Navai returns to the city where she was born to explore the lives of its residents.

Publication: Action on Armed Violence

Named in list of Top 100 most influential journalists covering armed violence

Top 100: The most influential journalists covering armed violence
By AOAV, 8 Oct 2013

From besieged cities in Syria to American street-corners, and countless other places in between, armed violence continues to take the lives of hundreds of thousands of people a year. It fundamentally reshapes the world we live in. Yet for a vast number of people, violence and conflict are abstractions far removed from their daily realities.

Journalists are the bridge between those peaceful and violent worlds. Without their bravery and determination to bring the realities of armed violence to the rest of the world, we would neither understand nor be able to address the issues that cause and propagate violence.

Here, AOAV celebrates 100 men and women who we consider to number the most influential writers and broadcasters covering armed violence and conflict around the world, as chosen by our staff.

Gallery: 100 of the most influential journalists covering armed violence and conflict


Publication: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism  

Ramita Navai

Syria Undercover, 14 December, 2012 

Laura King writes:

When journalist and filmmaker Ramita Navai speaks of courage, she isn’t taking about her own, considerable though it is. In discussing her award-winning documentary film “Syria Undercover,” she alludes again and again to the bravery of activists and dissidents who helped her and producer Wael Dabbous piece together an often harrowing portrait of the early days of the Syrian opposition movement.

Unable to report openly on the uprising, the pair spent weeks in clandestine constant contact with activists who had left behind lives as teachers and businessmen to devote themselves the struggle against the Assad regime _ a ragtag band that was just beginning to coalesce into the Free Syrian Army. The filmmakers endured danger and hardship along with their subjects, including a heart-poundingly close call when Syrian government forces and militiamen raided homes adjacent to the safe house where they and a trio of fugitives were sheltering in the town of Madaya.

Click here for the rest of this article

Publication: Wild Magazine 

by: Blaine Skrainka, October 26, 2012 

Journalists – the good ones at least – are essentially two things: truth-seekers and story tellers. Ramita Navai travels to far and dangerous corners of the globe to do just that, uncovering the ugly truths that are all too often brushed under the rug while bringing a human connection to those that are ignored.

Copyright: Wild Magazine

The fight for democracy throughout the Arab world, while at times fascinating and inspiring to witness, has been an arduous and bloody affair. No place is this truer than in Syria where literally tens of thousands of peaceful pro-democracy protesters have been systematically targeted and intimidated, tortured and murdered.
Foreign press coverage had been outright banned in the country, and journalists have been said to be targeted by government security forces. Ramita Navai and her director Wael Dabbous were some of the first reporters to make their way in. After hooking up with a dissident network in London, the two snuck into Syria posing as tourists and then embedded themselves in with the activists. Upon her return from the turbulent situation, Ms. Navai spoke to The WILD about her perilous mission, and the life journey that shaped her motivations for telling this story.

Click here for the rest of the interview

Anderson Cooper 360 


Frontline Club
Crisis in Syria

Birmingham University 
Keynote Speaker


Frontline Club
Murder for Honour's Sake