Dodging bombs for peace

Stationed in Iraq to witness the American invasion, these activists tell a different brand of war story.

Topics: Iraq war,

Before the war in Iraq began, dozens of Western peace activists made a commitment to station themselves in Baghdad as witnesses. Those from America came with two groups — Voices in the Wilderness and Christian Peacemaker Team. Unlike the hundreds of human shields who descended on Baghdad and whom the Iraqi government deployed to power plants and other industrial sites, these activists had few quixotic dreams of using their presence to stop bombs. Their goal was both more practical and more abstract — to stand in solidarity with the Iraqis, to document the human cost of war, to try to forge bonds between citizens whose armies were killing each other.

Voices in the Wilderness was formed in 1996 to fight the sanctions placed on Iraq after the first Gulf War; Christian Peacemaker Teams is a pacifist group that sends delegations to conflicts around the world, including Afghanistan, Colombia and the West Bank, to act as witnesses and human rights monitors. Members of the two groups joined forces in Iraq, calling themselves the Iraq Peace Team.

Some members of the Peace Team are still in Baghdad, but many have come home, and they express a remarkable equanimity about their experience. Few admit to having had second thoughts about risking their lives as the city endured bombardment. “I always had this tremendous sense that this is where I need to be,” says Shane Claiborne, a 27-year-old from Philadelphia who went to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness. “Even scarier than the bombing was the fact that we were allowing this to happen.”

There’s no way to know whether, as some members of the Peace Team say, Saddam could have been deposed without invasion. Yet even if you don’t agree with all their politics, it’s hard not to admire pacifists willing to subject themselves to war in the struggle against it.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife, Leah, both 22, went to Iraq with the Christian Peacemaker Team, and he describes his mission to Baghdad in explicitly religious terms. “We’re followers of Jesus who were trying to demonstrate that the cross is mightier than the sword,” he says. “We would rather suffer with those who were suffering than to see them suffer in our name. We think that’s what it means to follow Jesus.

“I was often awakened by the bombs at night,” he continues. “What I usually thought when I woke up was, ‘How in the world can this be the answer to our problems?’ I was afraid, but I was really afraid of living in this kind of world where the answer to totalitarian violence is just more violence, dropping bigger bombs to get rid of a regime that’s evil.” The Iraqi regime, he says, needed to be replaced, but he believes that nonviolent measures, like International Criminal Court proceedings, could have done so and should at least have been tried.

The relatively rapid conclusion of the ground war — one that came much more quickly than activists predicted — hasn’t changed Wilson-Hartgrove’s mind, or that of his Peace Team colleagues. When the statue of Saddam fell in Firdos Square, hawks gloated that the peace camp had been proven wrong. Yet now, as that exhilarating image is replaced by massive anti-American demonstrations throughout Iraq, the peace activists have returned to report that the relatively painless war Americans saw on TV isn’t the one they saw on the ground. To them, it’s the triumphalist American media that’s been discredited. America’s army beat Iraq’s, but Peace Team people say there were no winners.

During the war, members of the Iraq Peace Team would gather before breakfast each morning in a room in Baghdad’s El Fanar hotel for 45 minutes of “reflection.” After that, they’d spend the day visiting hospitals, orphanages and bombing sites. They had no more freedom than the press corps stationed nearby — in fact, their movements were restricted because they couldn’t always afford the $50 fees required to hire a mandatory Iraqi minder.

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Still, with all their attention focused on humanitarian information as opposed to military maneuvers, they were able to compile one of the only firsthand reports on civilian casualties and infrastructure during the opening of the war. Their work was taken seriously enough that the U.S. Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC) met with them on April 16. Their criticisms were taken seriously enough that the military later banned them from the Palestine hotel.

After the April 16 meeting, the Peace Team issued a damning assessment of the military’s failure to provide humanitarian aid. Activists described CMOC as utterly unprepared to address the catastrophic collapse of Iraq’s sanitation, communication, electrical and medical infrastructure, and shockingly ignorant of conditions in the country.

“CMOC reported that they did not yet have a plan for how to restore essential services in Baghdad, but are working on creating such a plan today,” a Peace Team press release issued immediately after the meeting says. “However, that information will not be publicly available for review, and will only be shared with organizations that agree to work with the U.S. military in Baghdad — cutting out any humanitarian agency that insists on maintaining neutrality.”

It continued, “CMOC also reported that they spent several days locating hospitals, power plants, and water & sanitation plants in order to do needs assessments. Apparently no one in the U.S. military thought to ask the United Nations, or other international organizations working in Iraq, for any of this information prior to, or even after, the fall of Baghdad.

“The World Health Organization and the Red Cross have been working in Iraq for years,” continued the release. “The United Nations Development program has been working to assist Iraq in restoring electricity since 1996. Locations and assessments of civilian infrastructures are not secret information — except in the Pentagon’s world. Why didn’t anyone ask for this information? Why wasn’t a plan for rehabilitation developed prior to the war?”

The military responded by taping a sign to a checkpoint in the Palestine hotel, saying, “No Voices of Wilderness NGOs.” Says the group’s Web site, “If the freedom to critique U.S. policies in Iraq regarding humanitarian issues is being curtailed already, then exactly what does this mean for building ‘democracy’ here?” (Attempts to reach military command in Kuwait for comment on the ejection were unsuccessful.)

Yet according to members of the Iraq Peace Team, it’s not just the military who impede the truth from reaching Americans at home — it’s the American press. That’s why they see their role partly as guerrilla journalists, disseminating their grounds-eye view of the war to an ever-expending network of e-mail contacts and alternative press outlets.

“Everybody’s declaring it a victory now, and saying we did a good thing, but we violated international law, we enraged the whole world — not just the Arab world,” says Trish Schuh, a Manhattan woman who spent two months in Iraq with the Peace Team. “When I was over there at the media center, I got to talk to media people from all over the world. It’s clear that the American media is regarded in the international community as a joke. I was shocked by how contemptuous other media professionals are about the American media.”

Voices in the Wilderness’ founder, Kathy Kelly, is equally contemptuous. In a scathing online diary entry posted Monday, she writes about Sattar, an Iraqi who has worked closely with the group for years and who volunteered at a Baghdad hospital during the war. “Some Western press came to the hospital and talked with Sattar,” she wrote. “An interviewer pressed the idea that Iraqis should be grateful for liberation. Sattar attempted to explain how much suffering he’d seen, but the reporter insisted on a positive spin. Sattar said, ‘Leave Now.’

Indeed, Peace Team volunteers say the Iraqis have nothing to be grateful for. “The strongest impression left with me is that all of Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, is in shambles. It’s a wasteland, reduced to ruin by the U.S. military,” says Wade Hudson, a 58-year-old from San Francisco. “The impact on the civilian population of Baghdad is just horrific. Whenever you drop a million tons of bombs on a country, you’re going to cause enormous death and destruction. It’s mind boggling what we’ve done to that country. Driving through Baghdad on my way out of town on my last day, April 13, the whole town looked like Watts after the riots there.”

While members of the Peace Team blame the American military for waging the war and bungling the peace, several say they established a melancholic rapport with individual soldiers. Shortly after the Marines arrived, Hudson says, he and some other activists brought them water and spoke to them about what they’d been through. The exchanges, he says, were far more poignant than hostile.

“It was heartrending to talk with these Marines,” says Hudson. “They were so young they had barely begun shaving, and to reflect on the fact that their souls may be damaged for the rest of their lives … they were very conflicted about what they were doing. One soldier told me he lost lots of sleep because he killed lots of innocent civilians when he made the wrong split-second decision. Another said he never fired his gun and told his fellow soldiers that his gun had jammed.”

In the end, most Peace Team volunteers say such moments of improbable connection with both soldiers and Iraqis are their most important achievements in putting themselves on the front lines. “This is a type of citizen diplomacy, if you will,” says Mark Frey, Christian Peacemaker Team’s administrative coordinator. “While the leaders are trying to kill each other, the citizens are trying to be in right relationships with each other.”

Peace team volunteers tell the story of one such relationship. Wilson-Hartgrove, his wife and Claiborne left Baghdad a week before the war ended. One member of the group they were traveling with, Cliff Kindy, was expelled from Iraq for straying too far into the city without a minder, so they couldn’t wait for conditions to stabilize before heading west toward Amman, Jordan. With bombs falling on both sides of them, some as close as a quarter mile away, they dashed through the desert in a three-car caravan. Kindy’s car, the last one, hit a piece of shrapnel in the road and flipped over. The five people inside were all injured.

Iraqis in an oncoming car saw them, stopped, helped the injured Americans into their car and took them to a doctor in a nearby town called Rutba. The doctor told them that three days before, their hospital had been bombed, but they’d set up a clinic. According to Wilson-Hartgrove, the doctor said, “We will take care of you because whether you are an Iraqi or an American, a Muslim or a Christian, we take care of everyone here.”

Claiborne was in the car with Kindy, who he says had a deep gash in his head and had gone into shock. The doctor stitched him up without anesthetic. “He literally saved my friend’s life,” Claiborne says. Meanwhile, people from the town arrived at the clinic offering food and blankets.

As they were piling into the two remaining cars to make the dash to Jordan, they asked the doctor what they owed him. As Claiborne recalls it, the doctor said, “Nothing. The only thing we ask is that you tell the world that your government bombed our hospital.”

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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