Saddam's shields

Peace activists are flocking to Iraq to put their bodies in the way of American bombs, with no training for what they'll face in a war zone. Are they heroes or dupes?

Published February 21, 2003 11:54PM (EST)

On Sunday, Feb. 16, two red double-decker buses full of self-described human shields rolled into Iraq after a cross-continent journey that began in London, disgorging 75 Westerners who have sworn to put their bodies between American bombs and Iraqi civilians. As the Europeans, Australians, Canadians and Americans stepped off the bus, they were greeted by an adoring Iraqi throng chanting the praises of Saddam Hussein. An Iraqi group called the Friendship, Peace and Solidarity Organization helped the volunteers find accommodation and offered tours of potential bombing sites where the shields might station themselves.

The volunteers were organized by a British group formed in January called Truth Justice Peace Human Shield Action, which has already sent 50 more people to Iraq to join the first 75. According to Ben Granby, a 27-year-old activist from Madison, Wis., who has been living in Baghdad for the last month, other European shield groups are also pouring into Baghdad -- as of Wednesday, he said, there were about 300 would-be shields in the country. Many others are on the way. Truth Justice Peace Action, or TJP, has a delegation of about 140 gathering in Amman, Jordan, on Friday to take the 10-hour bus journey across the desert to the Iraqi capital. Saddam Hussein's government is thrilled to have them -- the country has granted TJP group visas to bring volunteers into the country, and Iraq's ambassador gave flowers to the first caravan as they rolled through Ankara, Turkey.

The volunteer shields are part of a movement firing the imaginations of activists worldwide who are frustrated with mere marching against the war. They're willing, they say, to die for Iraq. Even as American troops mass in the Persian Gulf and news programs contemplate vicious ground battles, the would-be shields seem intoxicated with the idea that they can stop not just this war, but all war. "It's become fashionable," Granby says.

Among the shields are people in their 20s and people in their 70s. Some are committed pacifists, others are anti-globalization activists or champions of Third World liberation movements. A few, alarmingly, seem not to have thought much about politics at all -- their decision to face down American bombs came upon them like a religious revelation. Most have no medical training or combat experience. None have an exit strategy.

The shields are a loose, fairly anarchic confederation, but if they can be said to have a leader, it's Ken Nichols O'Keefe. It was less than two months ago that O'Keefe, an American who also goes by the name Kenneth Roy Nichols, founded TJP. O'Keefe is a handsome, gaunt, 33-year-old ex-Marine with a dark goatee, burning hazel eyes, "Expatriot" tattooed on his right fist and a teardrop tattooed under one eye. While serving in the first Gulf War, he says he was exposed to depleted uranium that he believes may someday kill him. When he left the military a year later, he immersed himself in the literature of dissent, emerging as a furious opponent of the United States, a country his Web site calls the "#1 Terrorist on the Planet with the political goal of total global domination." In December 1997, his wife had a miscarriage, which he attributes to uranium poisoning. In July of 2002, while living in Holland, he served notice at the United States Consulate in Amsterdam that he was renouncing his United States citizenship; the action garnered press coverage in both Europe and the Middle East.

O'Keefe, who was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment, has developed a kind of cult following, one that's expanded exponentially with his human shield movement. "The thing has snowballed," says 27-year-old Torben Franck, a volunteer at the TJP office in London who describes himself as O'Keefe's spokesman. "There's been a huge, overwhelming response from all over the world." Past peace movements have taken years to spawn messianic offshoots. This time, it happened in months.

It's no surprise that the Iraqi government would want the shields there. Shortly before the first Gulf War, Saddam's regime kidnapped hundreds of foreigners and forcibly used them as human shields around factories and military installations, finally releasing them after four months under intense international pressure. Though the voluntary human shields say they're only going to protect civilian neighborhoods and infrastructure, an Iraqi ambassador has said they'll be put at "vital and strategic installations," just like their hostage predecessors.

The American government, for its part, insists it's just as much of a crime for Iraq to use volunteer shields and captured ones. At a Wednesday press briefing, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the volunteers converging on Baghdad and said, "If death or serious injury to a noncombatant resulted from these efforts, the individuals responsible for deploying any innocent civilians as human shields could be guilty of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions."

But it's not just American officials who are critical of the shield movement. Some peace activists are starting to question the wisdom of recruiting untrained volunteers to the frontlines of a looming war, without preparing them for what they may face. "You're taking a large group of people to a war zone," says one early TJP organizer, Lawrence Rockwood, who has since disassociated himself from the group. "The more I worked with them, they didn't seem interested in how things are going to work on the ground." And even those reluctant to criticize the shield volunteers admit they're worried about what will happen to the inexperienced altruists when the bombs start falling.

"It's a big fear, I'll admit it," says Ben Granby, who works with the antiwar group Voices in the Wilderness, which takes a far more rigorous approach to selecting and training the volunteers it bases in Iraq. "I'm very skeptical that they'll actually maintain cohesion." He worries that the shields might become a burden to more experienced volunteers. "It only takes one person to bring down everything," Granby says.

The most scathing critics of TJP and the human-shield volunteers, though, are those who spent time as involuntary human shields during the last Gulf War. "There are no words to describe how naive these people are in my eyes," says Paul Eliopoulos, an American whose hellish four months as a hostage in Iraq have left him plagued with panic attacks, nightmares and depression. "It's ridiculous to think they're anything but pawns in a game that's bigger than anything they can imagine."

For many volunteers, the decision to join TJP was instantaneous. Six days after 52-year-old Gregg Kendrick heard about the shield movement, he flew from his home on a small island near Vancouver, Canada, to London in order to catch a flight to Amman. Twenty-six-year-old New Zealander Christiaan Briggs told the Sydney Morning Herald that after reading an article by O'Keefe, "I knew what I was going to do with my life -- I knew straight away I was going to Iraq."

The shields see themselves as the vanguard of a mass popular uprising against the madness of warmongers. On a videotape made of the convoy, O'Keefe says, "I think what you're witnessing right here could very well be the start of a global movement that will allow for the peaceful world that all sane people want ... We're going to stop this war in Iraq if we get the support that we need."

The plan is based on the assumption that American and British soldiers will be far more reluctant to bomb their fellow citizens than they would be to bomb Iraqi civilians. "The fact is that the world's most powerful nation would be stopped in its imperialist tracks if thousands of Westerners might be killed by its oil lust war," O'Keefe writes on the TJP Web site. His followers are making the same calculation. "It's not going to make terribly pretty television at home if a lot of Tony Blair's citizens are being killed by bombs, and his allies' citizens too," says Judith Empson, a 52-year-old from Shropshire, England, who flies to Amman on Friday.

The shields adamantly insist that they're not defending Saddam, yet it's clear most prefer him to Bush. O'Keefe certainly seems to. When he renounced his citizenship, he gave the U.S. Consulate a long, rambling document explaining why he was rejecting his country. "I, Kenneth Roy Nichols, have been subjected to highly injurious & involuntary human experiments conducted by the US Military," it said, followed by a laundry list of American mendacity and atrocity. It begins "Be it known," and includes the following charges:

"That the US Government has puppets and initiates serving elitist families and their agenda and that these elitists operate via secret societies;
That George W. Bush and his father are both members of one such society;
That 1% of US citizens control approximately 90% of US wealth;
That if I die or 'Disappear,' no matter what the circumstances, I hereby charge these same secretive elitist cowards with responsibility no matter what 'Patsy' is presented as guilty;
That the primary goal of these pathetic secret stooges via the UNITED STATES Military is the fulfillment of the New World Order;
That the goal of the New World Order is total global domination;
That despite the odds, I commit to resisting all forms of global domination, beyond mortal life."

The TJP Web site has a "Human Shield Action Iraq Pledge" that's a bit more balanced, attacking Saddam as well as Bush. "'We the People' acknowledge Saddam Hussein as a violent dictator who has the capacity to kill perhaps thousands. Meanwhile, a man who did not receive the majority of votes in being 'elected' president, George W. Bush, has the means to destroy our entire world thousands of times over. As thinking people we see the obvious, George W. Bush is far more of a threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein."

Such thinking has led some of them to discount reports of Saddam's atrocities -- the raping of children in front of their parents during interrogations, the mutilations of political prisoners, even the gassing of the Kurds -- as propaganda.

Empson, a former human shield in the Israeli-occupied territories who traveled to Iraq three years ago, says questions remain about Halabja, the town where Saddam's regime used chemical weapons to massacre thousands of Kurds in 1988. "I don't think one can necessarily say it was a thing deliberately carried out by Saddam Hussein," she says. She also insists that there is more freedom in Iraq than the Western media would have the world believe, saying of her trip to Baghdad, "I found there was freedom of speech. I was allowed to go anywhere I wanted on my own. I could walk through Baghdad at any time of the day or night without being hassled."

Because she doesn't believe Saddam is a monster, she doesn't worry about him forcing human shields to guard sites other than the ones they choose. "I don't think the Iraqi government would use us to that degree," she says. "I think they know goodwill gestures when they see them. I don't think they're that indecent."

Not surprisingly, the idea of staking one's life on Saddam's decency baffles and exasperates the human shields of 1990.

Paul Eliopoulos was a 38-year-old consultant for Arthur Andersen living in Kuwait during the buildup to the first Gulf War. On Aug. 4, 1990, when he was driving to Kuwait City, Iraqi soldiers kidnapped him at gunpoint; it was the beginning of an ordeal whose horror, he says, will be with him for the rest of his life. After being driven to Iraq and held hostage first in Basra and then at the El Rashid hotel, the Baghdad hotel where most journalists stay, he was taken along with 36 other American captives to a phosphate plant in Al-Qaim. Three days later he was moved to a hydroelectric power plant, and a week later he was transferred to a urea plant, where he was held in an abandoned laboratory for three months. He suffered from bleeding hemorrhoids, fungal infections, severe back pains and dysentery.

The good intentions of those who say they'll only guard civilian targets mean little, Eliopoulos says. "I was held in many places that had very benign names that were actually very sinister," he says. "I was held in chemical plants, refineries, fertilizer plants. I'm not a military analyst and I cannot tell you what most of these things are used for, but the amount of armed guards and army around them didn't suggest to me that they were just civilian industrial sites."

He also has little patience for the shields' altruistic bravado. "The ones who say, 'I know I may not come back,' they have no idea what that means," he says. "They don't know what it means to be hurt, they don't know it means to be next to a person with their head split open, they have no idea what it means to defecate in your pants because you have dysentery. Dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you."

Many voluntary shields seem not to have contemplated anything like Eliopoulos' nightmare. Rather, they've conjured a beautiful dream of self-sacrifice, one that, thanks to the Internet, has ricocheted around the world with astonishing speed, inspiring others to follow O'Keefe's lead. Liev Aleo, a 27-year-old former secretary from Santa Barbara, Calif., who has never been to the Middle East, recently quit her job to form Become the Change, a kind of California version of Truth Justice Peace Human Shield Action. So far, Aleo hasn't actually sent anyone to Iraq. While she gets her operation going, she's forwarding interested people to O'Keefe's group. Yet she's done her part to spread TJP's blissful vision of a world remade.

Recently, Aleo sent out a mass e-mail saying, "I'm also asking *you* to make the pledge to join the shield. Yes, it's potentially very dangerous, but it's also potentially the most astounding and fantastic thing you or pretty much anyone will ever have accomplished ... And I can tell you with what I'm guessing is a 90-95% certainty that, as long as enough of us say yes to this spontaneous global phenomenon -- this worldwide experiment in possibility -- the shield and the peace community will stop this war, effect nonviolent resolution, initiate and assist in Iraq's rebuilding program, and return home safe."

Such rash optimism is what sets the new human shield movement apart from other peace activists in Iraq. Voices in the Wilderness, a peace group based in Chicago, has been sending sanctions-busting delegations to Iraq since 1996, and the group already has roughly 30 volunteers in Baghdad with their Iraq Peace Team, with more on the way. Most are committed to staying in the country for the duration of a war, but they emphatically reject the term "human shield," since they have no intention of, say, stationing themselves at water treatment facilities as bombs fall. Instead, they see themselves as some combination of guerrilla journalists determined to get the truth about war's carnage out to the world, humanitarian workers hoping to help imperiled civilians, and protesters making the ultimate statement about solidarity with the Iraqi people.

"I don't think human shields can stop a bombing, but we can affect how people discuss a war if we're getting stories and sending them home," says Jeff Guntzel, co-coordinator of the Iraq Peace Team.

Voices in the Wilderness is radical in its way, but it's also run professionally. The group, which has recently been inundated with hundreds upon hundreds of applicants, is carefully screening people who want to witness the war, choosing those who've seen battle or have worked in humanitarian emergencies. Among the current contingent is Charlie Litkey, a 72-year-old decorated Vietnam veteran, Andrea Tracy, a 29-year-old who worked with the United Nations in Sierra Leone refugee camps, and Chris Doucot, a 35-year-old Catholic pacifist who previously traveled to the front lines in Bosnia with a group of civilians trying to force a cease-fire.

Doucot has made seven trips to Iraq, and this time he has a specific mission -- he wants to get an Iraqi woman he befriended out of the country, along with her son, who was wounded by an American cruise missile that killed her other boy. Her traumatized husband, an Iraqi military veteran, has started beating her. Doucot wants to get the woman's son medical care, as well as to launch her on a speaking tour of the United States to tell Americans about the savagery of war.

Doucot and his family are committed activists. They live in voluntary poverty in a ghetto in Hartford, Conn., where they take in homeless people and work to confront local violence. He has two sons, 8 and 9, who understand what he's about to do. His astonishingly articulate 9-year-old, Micah, says, "Well, I'm going to miss him, but it's the right thing for him to do because innocent people are being mistreated."

He's done this sort of thing before. In 2001, Doucot brought a 10-year-old Palestinian girl from the occupied territories to America to have an operation to remove an Israeli bullet. In 1993, he was part of an international delegation led by an Italian priest that went to the front lines of the war in Bosnia. "We're sowing seeds," he says. "We might not be living in the harvest time but we're sowing seeds. A small army of nonviolence activists is a start, and without that start there will never be the eventuality of hundreds of thousands of civilians, trained in nonviolence, ending conflicts."

But Doucot says this longed-for pacifist army won't be much good without training. "Before anybody enters a situation like this, they have got to be fully prepared," he says. "If they're people of faith, they have to have done some praying about the seriousness of this. Once you get there, if you haven't done these things, when the shit hits the fan, the shit's going to hit your pants."

He's seen it firsthand. When he was in Bosnia, his group hooked up with a French organization that had recruited people by putting up fliers in Paris. "The first morning we heard mortar fire close by, the bulk of those people were not prepared for that and they lost their nerve," he says. They had control of most of the vehicles, communications and water, which they immediately packed up and drove away with. "It was a terrible hardship for the rest of us," he says.

It's partly to avoid such situations that Voices in the Wilderness spends more time discouraging volunteers than recruiting them. Sometimes, organizers forward applicants a letter written in January by Neville Watson, an Australian who returned to Iraq on Jan. 29.

Explaining that the current situation seems even more dangerous than the Gulf War, Watson wrote, "Once hostilities have started the chance of getting out are virtually nil ... I suppose what I am trying to say in a very convoluted way [is] that I do not rate our chance of survival very high. Anyone coming should seriously consider the likely possibility that they will not return."

Though volunteers with O'Keefe's group have to sign a statement acknowledging that possibility, it still sits curiously lightly on some of the Westerners flocking into Baghdad.

Jenny Norton, a 53-year-old self-employed jeweler and elder-care worker, decided to become a human shield on Jan. 23, the day a friend told her about the movement. "It was an immediate yes," she says. "It resonated through me. I didn't feel as if I chose it myself. It's almost as if it chose me." She volunteered through Become the Change, which forwarded her information to TJP. She flies from London to Amman on Feb. 21.

Norton lives on a small island in the San Juan archipelago off the coast of Washington state. She's never been to a Third World country, she knows no one from the Middle East and she hasn't been an activist since the '60s, when she had a boyfriend who was a conscientious objector. She usually ignores politics.

"Hearing about the angst in the world only caused me inner angst and frustration, so I chose not to pay attention to what's going on in the world, but lately it's been impossible not to," she says. Much of what she knows about Iraq comes from the Internet and from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark's book "The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf." Asked what she thinks of Saddam, she replies, "Personally, I don't know enough about him to give you an educated opinion."

Norton, a divorced mother with three grown children who prefers to be called Sasha, never saw herself going to the other side of the world to try and thwart a war. "I live in the sweetest, simplest little cabin on seven acres of wooded property," she says. "I make my fire in the morning, play my concertina, do a little artwork, visit with my friends. I liked my life. I thought it was perfect."

But as America lumbers towards war, she says she's haunted by the fate of Iraqis. "My decision to go isn't a political one," she says. "It's that some of my brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in a neighborhood on the other side of the world need some assistance and I'm available to do that." Her children, she says, support her.

Norton is scared, but the fear she describes is more an obstacle to self-actualization than a gut-churning awareness of mortality. "Life is risky business for all of us," she says. "If we focus our attention on just staying safe then we don't live. My only real fear is I'll return and slip back into complacency and forget to cherish life as I do now."

Of course, she still has reservations. On Tuesday, her desk chair slid out from under her and she hit her head on her desk. "As I felt my head hit, I thought, oh my gosh, I hope I don't have a concussion, but if I do I won't have to go. I felt both a sense of relief and a sense of huge disappointment. My ego kind of wants to stick around and doesn't want to experience discomfort."

Part of the reason Norton feels confident about going ahead with the trip is that she's sanguine about the shields' chance of averting war. She says Uzma Bashir, a volunteer TJP organizer, told her there would be 1,000 shields in Baghdad. "It takes a lot of us to be a presence," she says. "I'm optimistic enough to risk my life."

Norton is also under the impression that if things go wrong, TJP will take care of her. "I remember reading somewhere in some of the communications from someone in the office that if we're not effective and we need to get out, there is a plan. I don't know what the plan is. It will be part of our training, I assume."

But there is no training and there is no plan. "We're simply offering people a method by which they can get to Iraq," says Franck. "We offer them no exit strategy and they're fully aware of that. I'm pretty confident that the majority of them have had serious thoughts and questioned their own mortality, but the humanity of the situation requires them to share the Iraqis' fate should that be the fate that the Western powers impose upon them." Franck, an artist and musician, has decided he doesn't have the courage to go to Iraq himself.

The almost casual way in which O'Keefe's group is leading inexperienced people into a war zone is what led Lawrence Rockwood to disassociate himself from them. Rockwood, an adjunct history professor at California State University at San Marcos, about 35 miles north of San Diego, is a former counterintelligence officer who was court-martialed after he defied his superiors to document human rights violations in Haiti's National Penitentiary during the American intervention in 1994. He's since become an impassioned human rights activist. Rockwood took a leave of absence from his university to help TJP with logistics, but was somewhat shocked by the group's blithe attitude toward the practicalities of survival in Baghdad.

He describes TJP's approach to logistics as "spontaneous," saying, "I have nothing against being spontaneous, but how are people going to get fed? How are they going to get water? How are they going to communicate? There's a cellphone that works in Iraq, but they had never heard of that."

Rockwood still believes in the human shield idea. "American politicians don't want Americans killed by American bombs, and putting a human shield there goes directly to that issue," he says. "People in targeting cells will be far less indifferent towards potential civilian casualties."

Yet he believes such potential civilian casualties deserve to know what they're getting into. "I think people going with Ken should at least have more of a leadership than Ken provides," he says. "One of the reasons I wanted to get involved is that I wanted to at least mitigate some of the chaos that's going to happen." When he felt that the chaos was getting too overwhelming, he pulled out. Now he's encouraging people to try to go with Voices in the Wilderness instead.

Meanwhile, volunteers with Voices in the Wilderness survey the influx of merry martyrs with a combination of solidarity and dismay. The area where most hotels are is getting hectic, Granby says, as the foreigners stream in. "We're trying to be hands-off with a lot of the delegations coming in," he says. "Someone strapping themselves to a bridge or a water treatment plant, obviously that's not being taken into consideration by the Pentagon."

At the same time, though, he maintains a kind of wary admiration for what they're trying to accomplish. The phone line from Baghdad crackling, he says, "As much as it might be useless or there might be too many people here, you have to respect the spirit of it."

By Michelle Goldberg

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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