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Kidnapped in Iraq: Who is Hella Mewis?

Stefan Dege
July 24, 2020

A German art curator was abducted in Baghdad and released days later. Why did Hella Mewis choose to live in Iraq years ago despite the evident danger?

Hella Mewis in a crowded room with posters and bright lights
Hella Mewis in 2012 at the film festival in Baghdad Image: DW

"I love Iraqi food, I love the Iraqi people," the art curator told Sary Hussam, an Iraqi journalist, in an interview in January 2020 posted on YouTube. "Of course, I have difficulties with the social customs here, but, as a foreigner, I can enjoy my freedom and am not involved."

There can be no doubt that Hella Mewis, who has lived in Iraq for years, was aware of the omnipresent danger for foreigners. Many live barricaded behind thick concrete walls and barbed wire, protected and escorted by armed security personnel. Not so Hella Mewis. "I can't live without Baghdad," Mewis said in the interview. "If I leave Baghdad just for an hour, I already feel homesick!"

Born in then-East Berlin and educated as a theater manager, Mewis discovered her love for Iraq in 2013, when she went to Baghdad for a project sponsored by the Goethe Institut. "I got off the plane, set foot on Baghdad's soil and knew: This is home," Mewis was quoted two years ago in the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau (FR), which continues, "She came to Baghdad with the aim of giving the city of car bombs, suicide bombers and militias a different look."

Working with young artists' collective in Iraq

Mewis soon founded an artists' collective named Tarkib  ("composition" or "combination"), aimed at presenting "what people inside and outside Iraq have long since ceased to associate with the country: art, talent and beauty," the paper wrote.

Sidewalk with jugs of paint, a graphitti-decorated wall and nondescript objects (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Al , Mohammedaw)
Founded by Mewis in 2015 and a go-to place for Iraqi artists: the Bait Tarkib art center in BagdadImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Al Mohammedaw

The collective of 15 young artists and volunteers created Bait Tarkib (House of Installation), a center for contemporary art in Baghdad. Most Iraqis rarely come into contact with modern art, Mewis told the Frankfurter Rundschau, adding that there is "a lot of catching up to do" in the country.

The art center organized music events, festivals, art and photo exhibitions, workshops and theater productions about individual women. Mewis organized Saturday concerts in the heart of the city, on crumbling boulevards in blazing heat. The group also started what it called the "Baghdad Walk," where artists turn the street into a studio and gallery.

In a city that does not offer much in the way of cultural life, and with tensions on both political and religious levels, the collective's offers drew the young people of Baghdad, creating "small pockets of freedom," Iraq expert Nesrine Shibib told DW.

"Someone like Hella Mewis who works for the freedom of art knows the risks," said Shibib, author of an analysis of the country for the website of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). Mewis is a "courageous champion for an open and free Iraqi society," she added. The Iraqi media, however, Shibib said, did not mention Mewis as kidnapped or abducted but refer only to her "removal."

Who in Iraq was pulling strings in the abduction of Hella Mewis?

On Monday, Hella Mewis left her office in the city's central Abu Nuwas district not far from the Tigris River at around 8 p.m. While mounting her bike, she was approached by two vehicles. Overpowered, Mewis was taken away in one of them, according to witnesses. Police officers reportedly watching the incident did not intervene. This reinforces speculation that supporters of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who have been targeted by protests for some time, may have been involved in the kidnapping. Shibib also thinks it possible that pro-Iranian militias of the Hezbollah brigades are behind the kidnapping. "Both sides have cause," she said. "Presumably Hella Mewis got caught in the middle."

Wearing a pulled-down face mask, Sirka Sarsam speaks into microphones
Activist Sirka Sarsam at a press conference after the kidnappingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Al Mohammedaw

Mewis was outraged by the killing of the internationally renowned historian and terrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi two weeks ago, said her activist friend Sirka Sarsam of the NGO Burj Babel at a press conference in Baghdad.

Security forces secured Mewis' release on Friday, a military spokesperson told the German dpa news agency.

'Hella, aren't you afraid?'

Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer who lives in Germany and knows Mewis well, was also shocked by the kidnapping. "When we walked through the streets of Baghdad, many people would stand and shout 'Hello Madame'," he told DW, adding that he told her she was "really brave." When he asked whether she wasn't afraid, she only laughed.

Hella Mewis is the symbol of a cultural opening in Iraq. "Her abduction is a setback," Najem Wali said before news of Mewis' release was made public. "Even if she gets out safely, nothing will be the same as before."

Najem Wali
A long-term colleague: Iraki author Najem WaliImage: Imago/Sven Simon

Before she became known as the smiling face of the cultural revival of Baghdad, Hella Mewis lived in the eastern part of Berlin for many years. She and her husband worked at Kunsthof Berlin, managed galleries and a caé.

After their separation, Hella Mewis studied business administration at night school and became a project manager at the Theaterhaus Berlin Mitte, which participates in the network for cultural reconstruction in Iraq. When Hella Mewis was invited to a theater festival in Baghdad, she was utterly fascinated by the Iraqi capital.  

This article was updated to reflect that Hella Mewis was released on July 24, 2020.