First-hand accounts from Iraq

Let There be Life
by Kathy Kelly

BAGHDAD, March 12, 2003 -- Late in the evening on March 10, we learned from
a UN worker that remaining support staff for UN organizations other than
UNMOVIC inspectors would be shuttling out of Baghdad on March 12, in
accordance with involuntary departure orders. Many of the UN staff had
already left in a slow attrition accomplished through applications for
vacation leave or re-assignments. We lined the departure road in early
morning hours on March 12 holding enlarged photos, on vinyl banners, of
Iraqi people, many of them children, who've befriended us during seven years
of regular visits to Iraq. Our banner, strung in front of a tent encampment
across from the UN Compound, read:

Farewell UN Please Advise: Who will protect Iraqi children?

Rumors proliferate around us. The diplomatic community will evacuate
embassies on Saturday, March 15. The inspectors will pull out on Monday,
March 17. Who knows if any of them are true? But we do know is that time is
very short. Within days, the US government may start the saturation bombing
of Iraq.

I spent this morning coloring with eight year old Sohab, a patient in the
cancer ward at the Al Mansour hospital. She is too weak to uncap the
markers, but delights in choosing colors and carefully making bright colored
pictures in a children's coloring book. War seemed light years away from
warfare during the calm quiet morning with this radiantly beautiful child. I
remember the broken glass and shattered windows that lined the roadway in
front of this same hospital, in December 1998, when Desert Fox bombing
destroyed a decrepit "old ministry of defense building" across from the
hospital. I hope we can help comfort Sohab, if she's still hospitalized when
bombing comes.

It's too much to hope for protection of the vast majority of people here
from anticipated consequences of an attack and invasion on Iraq. According
to a UN document for the planning of humanitarian relief, the expected
outcomes of a US campaign of bombing and invasion includes:

- 500,000 civilian casualties, - 2,000,000 people homeless, - 10,000,000
people without enough to eat, - 18,000,000 without access to clean water,
and - more than 1,000,000 children under the age of 5, at risk of death from
malnutrition.
 

War plans released by the US military state that more than 3,000 bombs and
missiles will fall on Iraq, more than used in the entire Gulf War, in the
first 48 hours of the campaign. The New York Times quoted Pentagon officials
as saying, "There will be no place in Baghdad that will be safe." Baghdad is
a city of 4,500,000 people.

Three days ago, reports were released about US testing, in Florida, of the
new Massive Ordinance Air Bomb (MOAB)-an improved version of the daisy
cutter bomb. This 21,000 pounds fuel air explosive must be dropped via
parachute so that the plane which fires it has time to fly beyond the field
of explosion, the "kill radius," lest the bomb destroy the plane. The MOAB
has the explosive capacity of a small tactical nuclear weapon.

Small wonder, then, that on March 11 eight mothers in a maternity hospital
run by Dominican sisters, opted to have their babies by Caesarean section.
They didn't want to bear babies during the bombing. Six women spontaneously
aborted on the same day.

I asked Dr. Hameesh, at the Al Mansour Hospital, if he ever anticipated,
when he was a young student, that he would have to learn so much about
electrical engineering, sewage and sanitation, and economics.

First, he laughingly insisted that he is still young. We swiftly agreed. "We
never imagined," he said, "that we would be face to face in a war with the
United States. It is so far away. We are separated by oceans. Never did we
dream that we would be face to face with the United States in such a war,"

Mohammed, our driver, knows all too well what it means to be face to face
with enemy soldiers in battle. He is the sort of person who anticipates
needs before they are even voiced. When I eyed a vacant lot, feeling
perplexed about how to string up a banner, Mohammed was already tying a knot
and within minutes had climbed a palm tree with the banner under his arm.
This morning I was rummaging through lists trying to figure out if today was
a day when some of our members needed to check in at a health clinic for
certification of having received an AIDS test. Mohammed was already sitting
in the lobby, waiting to catch my eye. He quietly nodded, stubbing out his
cigarette. "Yes, Madame Kathy," he said, smiling. "Today, AIDS test."

He's the jefe of a friendly cabal of cab drivers who assemble outside the Al
Fanar hotel, every morning. I can barely remember a day in the past five
months when Mohammed's small and dilapidated red car wasn't parked outside
at 7:30 a.m. So it came as a surprise that he wanted to fly to Basra with us
and accompany us on our four day vigil at the Iraq-Kuwait border. When I
said "Sure, why not?" he dashed off to the Iraqi Airways office to purchase
the last available ticket.

In Basra, as we made arrangements to head further south toward Safwan,
Mohammed seemed strangely subdued. He stared silently out the window while
we drove toward the border. "Mohammed," I asked, "is this your first time
visiting Basra?" "No," he said, "I was here in 1982." Then I remembered.
Mohammed was a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war. During our four day visit, he
began to disclose more details. He had been left for dead, in a field, after
a battle between Iranian and Iraqi soldiers. During the attack, several
bullets grazed his head. Another bullet cut off one finger. One bullet
pierced his backpack, and tore right through his chest. Several bullets were
embedded in his upper arm and leg. Mohammed somehow survived and spent a
full year recovering in a hospital. "In my day," said Mike Ferner, a US
Medical Corp man from the Viet Nam War era, "We'd say you were
well-ventilated." He and Mohammed laughed gently.

I can anticipate Mohammed's main need just now. He makes a little profit
from vigilantly accompanying us, but I know that more than anything he
desperately wants us to succeed in preventing a new war. Mohammed knows what
it means to be torn apart by war. "Madame Kathy," he said, leaving Basra,
"We don't want this for our children."

During our time in Safwan, on the Iraq-Kuwait border, a dozen of us sat in a
semicircle, in white plastic chairs, comfortably bundled up in warm clothes
and blankets, at the border between Iraq and Kuwait. We were within shouting
distance of soldiers on the other side. When Charlie Litkey clambered atop a
large piece of debris to call out a message to uniformed men across the
border, he began by shouting Al Salaam Alaykum. (Peace be upon you).
"Alaykum wa salaam," they shouted back. Reflections offered by my companions
touched me "in the deep heart's core."

Credible and admirable relief/humanitarian organizations have recorded
numerous strategies and mandates regarding what to do in the event of war.
But perhaps our "brief" has best been captured by Neville Watson's 10 year
old granddaughter. This is her response to a primary school writing
assignment.

GRANDPA

My Grandpa is the minister of Wembley Downs Uniting Church.

He has gone on many protests in his life including sitting in a small box
overnight outside parliament to protest about the jail cells.

He sat in the middle of the gulf and takes in refugees.

But this time he is going to sit in Baghdad and comfort the Iraqi people
while the Americans bomb them.

You may think he is nutty but I am proud of him. He does what is right and
he does it for other people not himself.

On the day he left he had every TV station apart from Channel 7 interviewing
him, even the New Idea.

When he left we were all supset. Poor Grandma will have to live on her own
for six weeks and maybe forever.

I love Grandpa very much and I hope he will return.

--Jessie (age 10)

"And so do I, Jessie," said Neville, softly. "And so do I."

Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness (www.vitw.org) and
the Iraq Peace Team (www.iraqpeaceteam.org), a group of international
peaceworkers pledging to remain in Iraq through a US bombing and invasion,
in order to be a voice for the Iraqi people in the West. The Iraq Peace Team
can be reached at info@vitw.org

This Present Moment: Living in Baghdad on the Eve of War
by Ramzi Kysia

"The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door
to all moments." - Thich Nhat Hanh

I am in Baghdad with the Iraq Peace Team, and we will stay here throughout
any war. We will share the risks of the millions who live here, and do our
best to be a voice for them to the world. Our risks are uncertain. Thousands
here will surely die. But most Iraqis will survive, and so too, I hope, will
I.

A banner the government put up a few blocks from where we stay reads simply,
"Baghdad: Where the World Comes for Peace."

It's meant as propaganda, I'm sure, flattering Saddam Hussein. But without
knowing it, it states a simple truth: that the world must be present for
peace. We must be present in Baghdad as in America - in Kashmir or Chechnya,
the Great Lakes, Palestine and Colombia - where there is war, and rumors of
war, we must be present to build peace.

We are present.

My country may arrest me as a traitor, or kill me during saturation bombing,
or shoot me during an invasion. The Iraqis may arrest me as a spy, or cause
or use my death for propaganda. Civil unrest and mob violence may claim me.
I may be maimed. I may be killed.

I am nervous. I am scared. I am hopeful. I am joyous, and I joyously delight
in the wonder that is my life.

I love being alive. I love the splendor of our world, the beauty of our
bodies, and the miracle of our minds. I bless the world for making me, and I
bless the world for taking me. I feed myself on the fellowship we inspirit,
in standing one with another in this, this present moment, each moment
unfolding to its own best time.

Different things move different members of our team, but all of us are here
out of deep concern for the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Iraq.
20 years of almost constant war, and 12 years of brutal sanctions, have
killed hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq.

We are here, today, because most of the world refused to be present, then.
What more right do I as an American have to leave then all the people I've
come to love in Iraq? An accident of birth that gives me a free pass
throughout the world?

All of us are here out of a deep commitment to nonviolence. Peace is not an
abstract value that we should just quietly express a hope for. It takes
work. It takes courage. It takes joy.

Peace takes risks.

War is catastrophe. It is terrorism on a truly, massive scale. It is the
physical, political and spiritual devastation of entire peoples. War is the
imposition of such massive, deadly violence so as to force the political
solutions of one nation upon another. War is the antithesis of democracy and
freedom. War is the most bloody, undemocratic, and violently repressive of
all human institutions.

War is catastrophe. Why choose catastrophe?

Even the threat of war is devastating. On March 11th, when we visited a
maternity hospital run by the Dominican sisters here in Baghdad, we found
that eight, new mothers that day had demanded to have their babies by
Caesarean section - they didn't want to give birth during the war. Six
others spontaneously aborted the same day. Is this spirit of liberation?

Don't ask me where I find the courage to be present in Iraq on the eve of
war. 5 million people call Baghdad home. 24 million human beings live in
Iraq. Instead, ask the politicians - on every side - where they find the
nerve to put so many human beings at such terrible risk.

We're here for these people, as we're here for the American people. The
violence George Bush starts in Iraq will not stop in Iraq. The senseless
brutality of this war signals future crimes of still greater inhumanity. If
we risk nothing to prevent this, it will happen. If we would have peace, we
must work as hard, and risk as much, as the warmakers do for destruction.

Pacifism isn't passive. It's a radical challenge to all aspects of worldly
power. Nonviolence can prevent catastrophe. Nonviolence multiplies
opportunities a thousand-fold, until seemingly insignificant events converge
to tumble the tyranny of fears that violence plants within our hearts. Where
violence denies freedom, destroys community, restricts choices - we must be
present: cultivating our love, our active love, for our entire family of
humanity.

We are daily visiting with families here in Iraq. We are daily visiting
hospitals here in Iraq, and doing arts and crafts with the children. We are
visiting elementary schools, and high schools. We are fostering community.
We are furthering connections. We are creating space for peace.

We are not "human shields." We are not here simply in opposition to war. We
are a dynamic, living presence - our own, small affirmation of the joy of
being alive. Slowly stumbling, joyous and triumphant, full of all the doubts
and failings all people hold in common - our presence here is a thundering,
gentle call, to Americans as to Iraqis, of the affirmation of life.

We must not concede war to the killers. War is not liberation. It is not
peace. War is devastation and death.

Thuraya, a brilliant, young girl whom I've come to love, recently wrote in
her diary:

"We don't know what is going to happen. We might die, and maybe we are
living our last days in life. I hope that everyone who reads my diary
remember me and know that there was an Iraqi girl who had many dreams in her
life..."

Dream with us of a world where we do not let violence rule our lives. Work
with us for a world where violence does not rule our lives. Peace is not an
abstract concept. We are a concrete, tangible reality. We the peoples of our
common world, through the relationships we build with each other, and the
risks we take for one another - we are peace.

Our team here doesn't know what is going to happen any more than does
Thuraya. We too may die. But in her name, in this moment, at the
intersection of all our lives, we send you this simple message: We are
peace, and we are present.

Ramzi Kysia is a Arab American peace activist and writer. He is currently in
Iraq with the Voices in the Wilderness' (www.vitw.org) Iraq Peace Team
(www.iraqpeaceteam.org), a project to keep international peaceworkers to
Iraq prior to, during, and after any future U.S. attack, in order to be a
voice for the Iraqi people.

The Iraq Peace Team can be reached through
info@vitw.org