“Over the expanse of five continents, throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honourable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble, that words are more powerful than munitions.”
The military juggernaut continues to race towards the Middle East.
At press time, U.S. fighter-bombers raided several facilities in the north and south of Iraq claiming they were military installations. The Iraqis counter-claimed they were civilian facilities. In the ensuing war of words nine Iraqi civilians were killed.
That war of words is not limited to the U.S. and Iraq. Fierce debate is raging throughout Europe and Australia concerning a probable U.S. invasion of Iraq, with a majority speaking out against the idea of invasion. In the Middle East, there is no debate; the Arab masses are firmly in opposition to such a belligerent course of action; Arab leaders are also united in their fear of mass Arab rebellion should Iraq be invaded and the Palestinian question remain unresolved.
While claims and counter-claims are traded in the international arena of diplomacy, the Voices in the Wilderness (VITW) group continues its hunger strike in protest of the U.N. sponsored sanctions regimen imposed on the Iraqi people.
The following is the second part of excerpts from an interview with Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of VITW.
F.A.: How many trips have you taken to Iraq and how would you measure their success?
K.K.: I was in Iraq during the first 18 days of the Gulf War and returned to Iraq March 21 é 26, 1991. Voices in the Wilderness began campaigning to end the economic sanctions against Iraq in January 1996. Since then, we’ve sent 42 delegations to Iraq. I’ve traveled with 14 of those delegations.
Initially, Voices in the Wilderness delegations experienced great difficulties obtaining visas and, upon arrival in Iraq, getting permission to visit institutions or travel beyond Baghdad. Over time, as we gained more credibility, we devised itineraries that included meeting a broad range of people in Iraq, e.g., doctors, patients in hospitals, teachers, students, religious leaders, engineers working in water treatment and electrical facilities, government ministers, representatives of NGOs, UN officials, and members of families who’ve befriended us.
Upon return [to the west], our delegation members ‘hit the ground running,’ é they present reports to local audiences, write for alternative press groups, and often arrange for strong press coverage in their local media. Their stories of what they’ve seen and heard in Iraq have helped build lobbying efforts and mobilize more participants in various walks, vigils and fasts that we’ve sponsored over the years.
In the last several years, we’ve also helped organize and lead delegations of Nobel Peace laureates, nationally known religious leaders, and aides to US congressional representatives. Correspondents for various newsgroups have traveled into Iraq with our delegations, including the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, TV Globo (Brazil), Mother Jones Magazine, WBAI Rado, The San Francisco Chronicle, New Jersey News, the Lehrer Report, AP, FOR Magazine, and, as a free lancer, a correspondent for NPR.
We think often of Maryknoll priest Rev. Miguel D’Escoto’s advice given in 1986 to a US delegation visiting him in Nicaragua: “You must try to find actions commensurate to the crimes being committed.” We try hard, here in the US, to find such actions and to develop support for ending the criminal economic sanctions. Thinking of the afflictions that still burden ordinary Iraqis, we’re not inclined to claim success. And yet, we think we’ve been a little bit successful in having pulled larger, stronger peace organizations into more concerted efforts to end the sanctions. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, Pax Christi USA, Peace Action, and Veterans for Peace are among the larger US peace and justice groups who now dedicate time and energy to ending the economic sanctions.
F.A.: What impact did your first trip to Iraq have on how you view yourself vis-é-vis the global community?
K.K.: During my first trip to Iraq I was one of 72 people from 18 different countries, 24 of whom were from the US. We constituted the Gulf Peace Team that encamped on the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Eventually, the team numbered seven people, and I was the only person from the US. Our small group stayed in Jordan for six months after the war to help coordinate small medical relief convoys and study teams. The other team members, from Europe, Canada, and India, when particularly frustrated with US policies, would sometimes look at me and say, “You Americans!” I felt much more aligned with the international team of friends there than with US people who supported the war in the US, and yet it’s important for me to realize that I do bear particular responsibility as an American. I’ve grown up in sheer luxury relative to most of the world. I’ve benefited, materially, from living in a country that often insists on taking other people’s precious and irreplaceable resources at cut-rate prices. In that sense, I’m more responsible for Saddam Hussein being in power than any dying Iraqi baby whom I’ve held in my arms. I feel it’s my responsibility to be a war tax-refuser, to non-violently resist cruel and lethal foreign policies, and to do everything possible to educate people in the US about the effects of US policies and practices.
Even so, I’m very drawn to Thomas Paine’s line, “My country is the world. My religion is to do good.”
F.A.: What’s your view of Madeline Albright’s statement a few years ago, that the death of more than a million Iraqi children was “worth it” to contain Iraq?
K.K.: I think this statement badly frightened many people all around the world. After the Sixty Minutes piece appeared, no investigative commissions were formed to further examine what was said or meant by the statement. I don’t recall any op-eds appearing in major newspapers to draw attention to this dangerous remark. Instead, Madeleine Albright was elevated to the highest position a woman in this country has ever held. I and four other Voices in the Wilderness members interrupted Ms. Albright’s Senate Confirmation hearing in Washington, DC, holding up pictures we’d taken of dying Iraqi children. We asked her if she was prepared to withdraw the dangerous statement she’d made. A Washington DC policeman quickly appeared at my side, once I began shouting my question. Jesse Helms was waving his arm to indicate that police should remove me. The police officer was quite polite. He raised an arm to Jesse Helms, seeming to indicate that Mr. Helms should calm down, and asked me if there was anything else I needed to say. I shouted, “Ms. Albright, please, you could do so much good,” and then walked out of the hall, escorted by the policeman. I want to stand by that latter statement. I believe she could still accomplish a great deal of ‘good’ if she would revisit the statement, offering regret and remorse for the suggestion that child sacrifice is ‘worth it.’
F.A.: Do the Iraqi people hate the West or America for what they are suffering?
K.K.: In February 1998, I visited the town of Fallujah, just outside of Baghdad. At a crowded market place, where throngs of people had gathered around our team, a man who was livid confronted me and shouted, in English, “You Americans! You Europeans! You come to my home and I will show you water you would not give even your animals to drink, and this is all what we have. And now you want again to kill our children? You cannot kill my son. My son, he was killed in al harb (the war) Bush”. His son had been killed when an RAF pilot dropped a bomb intended for the bridge outside Fallujah. The bomb was not a smart bomb – it ‘went stupid’ and hit the crowded market place, where 150 people were killed, including his son.
Then it was as though a different set of lenses came into his eyes. He looked carefully at me and said, “Oh, Madame. You are too tired. You come with me. I get you something”. He steered me through the crowd toward a falafel stand and ordered tea for me. Then he begged me to find my team-mates and come to his home for lunch. This sort of hospitality characterizes our constant experience in Iraq. Yes, we also meet little boys who dream of growing up to be fighter pilots who can bomb the US. And, yes, there is bitter resentment. But many Iraqi people have relatives who live in the US, – they hear good things about US people and about the opportunities their relatives encountered.
Many admire our technological advances. Quite likely there are many who admire the US for having ousted the British in our early history. No, I don’t think Iraqi people harbour hatred for the west. But they would understandably feel fatigued and battered by the long years of economic sanctions and bombardment.
I think many struggle with feelings of isolation, despair, helplessness, grief, guilt, resentment, and impotence. These are all the ingredients for severe depression. Given how burdened so many Iraqi civilians must feel by such feelings, it’s remarkable, utterly remarkable, that they yet welcome travelers from the West with relentless hospitality. I want to think that they still feel some hope, but it’s grown increasingly more difficult to identify any optimism there.
F.A.: How have the tragic events of September 11th affected your mission and world view? Do you believe that criticism of your humanitarian efforts has increased?
K.K.: I was in New York City on 9/11 , on day 37 of a 40 -day fast across from the US Mission to the UN. We begged US Mission reps to the UN to meet with us. Once a week, we would go to the steps of the building with a meal of cooked lentils and rice, and with untreated water, wanting to break fast with them if they would just talk with us. We wanted them to tell us why they believed smart sanctions would alleviate suffering in Iraq. Each week, we were arrested for criminal trespass. I remember standing on the rooftop of St. Vincent Ferrer parish in Brooklyn, watching a huge plume of smoke billow over the city, and thinking that the people who could best understand the grief and agony endured by New Yorkers would be the families whom we’d met in Iraq – families whose arms ache emptily for loved ones that will never return.
Shortly after the second suicide attack hit the World Trade Center, Colin Powell appeared on CNN. He said, “The people who perpetrated this barbarous attack think that by killing people and destroying buildings you can achieve a political point. They are wrong.” Secretary of State Powell held up a mirror, which United States people must face. Ours is a young country. We cannot achieve political maturity unless we are willing to face very hard truths about ourselves.
The media would have us believe that everything has changed since September 11. Unfortunately, the world has not changed. The power-obsessed group that rules this country is the same group that was ruling it fifty-five years ago. This is the world they chose in 1946-47 when they turned away from the dream of the United Nations as a forum for negotiated peace among all nations. Instead they chose unilateral development of thermonuclear weapons and a “cold war” for military domination of the earth. This is the same group that created millions of hidden casualties of wasteful military spending throughout ensuing decades. This group persisted with the Vietnam War, in which two million Vietnamese civilians were killed in a country that never wanted to bring harm to US people. This is the group that supported death squads in El Salvador, Contras in Nicaragua, paramilitaries in Guatemala, killing hundreds of thousands. It’s the group that authorized surgical strikes in Panama City in 1991, killing over six thousand civilians. It’s the group that supported Israeli occupation of Palestine and never allowed enforcement of UN mandates there, and yet has enacted murderous, punitive sanctions against Iraq. And refugee families may still be dying in the snows of Afghanistan while bombs target their villages.
The US philosophy of empire and military domination has not changed since 9/11. It should change direction, but for that to happen we must understand and respect aspirations for self-determination of people in every country.
Criticism of our efforts to be voices for other people has sharpened. More importantly, I think many people have grown afraid to speak out forcefully against escalated militarism. We may be entering into a ‘McCarthyesque’ period. And yet, websites like Common Dreams offer extremely helpful commentary on a daily basis.
Courage is the ability to control our fears. I’m hopeful that we’ll catch courage from one another and continue seeking the further invention of non-violence.
F.A.: Robert Stewart claims in the National Review that peace activists “give a pass to Hussein’s tyrannical dictatorship.” If you were to meet Stewart face to face, what would you say to him? Would you invite him on one of your trips to Iraq?
We have regularly invited journalists to accompany us to Iraq. Some say that they can’t because by traveling with us they would be tainted. This makes us smile. Do they think that by placing themselves under the control of Iraq’s Ministry of Information they will have more freedom to travel? More access to visit homes and neighborhoods? Nevertheless, we would assuredly want to talk with Mr. Stewart about travel to Iraq.
If he and I met face to face, I’d want to explore what ideas we have in common. It seems that he cares passionately about human rights for Iraqis who’ve suffered under dictatorship. Would he want to get to know some of those Iraqis as human beings? Would visits with ordinary Iraqi people help offset the impression, often conveyed by the media, that only one person lives in Iraq? Would he and Voices in the Wilderness members find some common ground in aiming to move beyond ‘the box’ that personifies the entire country of Iraq as one demonized character who then is deserving of all punishment dealt by the US? Might we agree that any group hoping to help move another society toward more democratic governing structures would surely want to strengthen education in that country, improve communication potential, and shore up basic social services? Sanctions have abusively thwarted education, communication and social services in Iraq. Perhaps we could consider analogies with Franco’s regime in Spain. Following Franco’s death, (he died of old age), European NGOs flooded Spain with the means to reconstitute civil society. What would happen if the hand of friendship were earnestly extended, now, to Iraq’s civil society? Mostly, I’d want Mr. Stewart to meet face to face with Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday. They advocate negotiation and diplomacy. Their years of experience and credibility as Assistant Secretary Generals to the UN would, I think, ‘sweeten the pot’ for dialogue with Mr. Stewart.
F.A.: Do you think or feel your efforts have made a difference despite almost no media coverage of your efforts or the situation in Iraq?
K.K.: Again, let’s not overlook the media coverage that happens in small towns, the alternative press and the international press.
F.A.: What is the most common thing you are told by some of the people you have met in Iraq?
K.K.: During my last trip, I visited about twelve different Iraqi families. I repeatedly heard people say, “I can’t go on. I can’t continue.” Some would say, “Believe us, we know that you can do nothing for us, but anyway you are welcome here, always welcome.”
In hospitals, many mothers have said to us, “I pray this will never happen to a mother in your country.”
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Muslim Canadian journalist living on the Pacific Coast.