Eyewitness To War
Eyewitness To War
Since September 2002, nonviolent activists have been on the ground in Iraq maintaining a constant presence to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people. Initiated by Voices in the Wilderness, the Iraq Peace Team members have remained inside the country even as the US launched its invasion, and occupation. Iraq Peace Team activists stood witness to document and report on the humanitarian consequences the new war is having on ordinary people living in Iraq. Santa Cruz reporter Vincent Lombardo (aka V-Man) spoke with Kathy Kelly and Wade Hudson, two activists who experienced firsthand, civilian injuries and deaths, as well as the destruction of homes, hospitals and marketplaces caused by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
VL Let's begin with you, Kathy Kelly. You spent almost 8 months in Iraq this time, arriving in Baghdad in Sept. 2002. Could you describe your thoughts, now, after the invasion and occupation by US forces?
KK I suppose, one friend whose name is Dassan Siboun , characterized what many people were thinking. He said, "the only thing we've been liberated from is the notion that the United States ever wanted to save us in the first place." When I left Iraq, there was a very tangible sense of remorse, disappointment, grief, and loss. I saw people whose eyes are usually bright and gleaming, staring vacantly. It wasn't that they weren't thinking. They were trying to absorb the sense of the city that had been swallowed up from under them. In Baghdad it was very hard on people to see their city destroyed, as many parts of it had been. To realize what precarity they face because there is simply nothing like stability or predictability, and more chaos is bound to ensue. These are people who love their families and want to protect their loved ones. Many of them have high regards for a very simple, traditional lifestyle and now western influences are cascading in upon them. They have alot of reconstruction to do but there certainly are conflicting allegiences and identities emerging. Its very difficult to see how people are ever going to impose on the situation some means to find a suitable government for themselves They face a context in which the occupying power, the US, may not really ever want to let them arrive at a point of governance where their resources, their oilwells, their future would be in their own hands. Its a very difficult scene to leave.
VL Wade Hudson, tell us what motivated you to travel to Baghdad and participate in the Iraq Peace Team.
WH Since 1962 I've been involved in community organizing and activism towards fundamental social reform, and peace has been a central part of that work over the years. For quite some time I've been interested in the growing peacemaker community that has been sending delegations into countries where there's conflict, like Colombia. Last year, I considered going to Palestine during the most recent intifada, but for various reasons I didn't, so when things started heating up in Iraq I looked around and I saw what the Human Shields were doing. I had some questions about their approach and I learned about what VITW was doing with the IPT. I'd been familiar with their work for considerable time and have great respect for them, so I submitted an application.
VL In the early hours of March 20 the first bombs fell in Baghdad in an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein thus begining "Operation Iraqi Freedom." What went through your mind, Wade Hudson, as you experienced your first airraids?
WH I was wondering how many stray bombs were going to fall at locations near where we were across from the Palastine Hotel. After the second day of bombing I went out on a tour and saw a crater fifteen feet wide and several feet deep in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I realized how easily a bomb could have fallen on our hotel. Whenever you drop a million tons of bombs on a country, there will be alot that don't fall on military targets. So obviously that was on my mind, but I was also concerned about what was being done to Iraq and its people. It was a very disturbing, unsettling moment.
VL Kathy Kelly, you've said the Gulf War never ended and that this latest invasion is just an extension of that war.But you were in Iraq in January 1991. What was different for you this time?
KK Well, this time I was very conscious of several children who shared the hotel with us. It was possible to really get to know those kids. I suppose, when you wake up in the morning, (laughs) I was able to get some sleep, though the bombing was actually going on morning, afternoon, evening, and nighttime. There wasn't a particular time of the day that was safe. But to hear birdsong and see that the river was still flowing, spring was budding, trees begining to bloom, made life very precious in that context. Particularly because the al Fanar Hotel hadn't been bombed and these children survived, unharmed. But the two that I knew best, little Miladh, and Zainab, even though they didn't show panic, they started to grind their teeth after the first days of bombing. They were beautiful little girls, one aged three, the other one and a half. The three year old was constantly playing war games, It was impossible to distract her. She would imitate an airplane coming out of the sky and pretend it hit her. Then she would lay backward. Or she would use a flashlight as if she were a gunner and "shoot" at her mother and then at me! I guess this was how she needed to cope. I also got to know their mother well, too. That mother felt intense sadness both through the time of war, and then occupation. At one point she said to me, crying, "Never did I think that this could happen to my country and I am very sad now. I think that this sadness will never go away." I can certainly imagine that there's an abiding sadness that will hang over many cities, towns, and villages throughout Iraq. I also know theres a great deal of resilience amongst Iraq's people. I hope that will come to the fore and rescue them from the terrible tragedy that they face right now.
VL Wade Hudson, you're familiar with the mental health profession. Can you address this phenomenon Kathy's describing?
WH Fortunately, Iraqis have very supportive family structures. And they are very spritual people who have a strong faith which enables them to perservere through crisis. (In the longrun) I think the people of Iraq will benefit from that. By and large, I was amazed at the calmness the Iraqi people demonstrated. One day we had a birthday party across the street next to a cafe for the a 12 year-old girl. Bombs were falling a half mile away but everyone ignored them and proceeded to celebrate this childs birthday. The effects were probably more subconscious in terms of the stress of constant bombing day after day for a month. It just gets to you after awhile. Even if you're not petrified in any one moment, the tension builds up and eats at you so I'm, sure they'll have much to deal with.
VL One goal of the Iraq Peace Team is to document war crimes. Kathy Kelly, let' s talk about what you saw, in terms of civilian casualties.
KK We were really blessed to have Wade, and Dr April Hurley who went out regularly during the bombing, particularly to hospitals, taking considerable risk to do so. I had gone to the al Kindi Hospital, which later had some notoriety as a place that had been turned into a warzone by looters. But when I went, beds were filling up and all the patients were civilians. I visited several teens, a child and an elderly man who had all been hit (in bombings). In one case, trying to leave a home, thinking a bomb was going to come and destroy it because another bomb hit nearby and a wall fell. Or in the case of the little girl, she had run to the door to tell her father bombs were coming and she caught a piece of shrapnel in her chest. To see bodies that are maimed and mutilated, to speak with Jamila, the aunt of Ali Abbas, the ten-year old boy whose photo has gone around the world. (Most of his family was killed in a bombing). She said he woke up and asked her, "Will I always stay this way?"
To see so much punishment inflicted on innocent civilans who had no control over their government. Where are the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was supposed to have? What about the destruction that happened to over 500,000 children over the course of economic sanctions that robbed them of their lives. Definitely I think we have to talk about criminality. But I myself am not drawn toward pointing a finger at a particular government official or group of officials. There's plenty of blame to be handed around between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the governments that imposed economic sanctions and then engaged in this terrible warfare against civilians. But in some ways, all of us bear responsibility because some of the war making of the US has to do with the lifestyle we choose to lead. As long as we keep putting people in office who think the American way of life is non-negotiable and that its okay to use threat, force and really what amounts to acknowledged state-terrorism, in order to preserve control of other peoples resources in far away places.
Yes these were crimes against humanity that we saw in hospitals and one didn't have to go very far to see civilian destruction. I had gone to the al Shaab marketplace, and the evidence seemed to suggest that the kind of explosives used, burst out horizontally because on a wide boulevard, both sides of the street had been hit. The building weren't destroyed. They were damaged, but it wasn't like a rocket had hit, and thirteen cars had been completely demolished. There were two shallow craters on either side of the intersection, and this would indicate that a cluster bomb had been used in a civilian neighborhood. At least fifteen people were killed in that bombing. Afterward, we spoke with eyewitnesses whom we trust greatly. One in particular said he had seen a US tank pull up to a huge storage site where one to two years worth of rice and grains were stored. (According to our contact) an American soldier with a Kuwaiti accent ordered the driver to shoot out the door of the storage place, then told people to take what you want, meaning loot it, steal it, and then if you want to burn the rest go ahead. Looting and thievery happened and then burning. The witness again said the fires were set by people who soke with accents that were not Iraqi- Arabic accents.
VL Upon your return to the US in late April you described you feelings about the directionof the peace movement, in a journal entry titled, War is Terrorism, you wrote, "We need practical strategies that will enable us to build momentum by winning concrete victories. And we need mechanisms that will enable people to provide support to one another in a timely manner, without sacrificing particular priorities." Can you please clarify these thoughts.
WH I think the peace movement needs to develop new tactics to counter the American military machine and I think our experience in Iraq has been very encouraging for the prospects of mobilizing thousands of activists.
VL The U.S. government has recently called for the lifting of the sanctions on Iraq. On April 22, White House Press Secratary Ari Fleischer said: "The sanctions should become history, because the Iraqi people need help. And removing the sanctions leads to help for the Iraqi people.... Why should any nation support imposing sanctions on the Iraqi people now?" Kathy Kelly what are your thoughts on these pronouncements from the White House?
KK I hope for the future that the terrrible suffering the Iraqis endured under the most comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in modern history under sanctions that lethally punished children, so that thousands of children were sacrificed. This was child scrifice. This was the most egregious instance of child abuse, I believe, in the world. Maybe Ari Fleischer words will at least prevent the United States from ever again insisting that the United Nations would be used to punish children to death. Remember, the United Nations was founded to eliminate the scourge of warfare. I hope that Ari Fleischer words will at least create a blockade so that the United States could never again impose such cruel and awful economic sanctions. Sure, it's laden with hypocrisy for US leaders now to say, well lets have some compassion for Iraqi people because clearly Madeline Albright gave the more frank and candid line when she was interviewed in May of 1996 by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes. Leslie Stahl said, "Ms. Albright, more children have died in Iraq than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Is it worth the price? Madeline Albright said, "Yes, I'm a humanitarian person. Its a dificult choice to make, but the price, we think the price is worth it." That attitude has characterized US policy through the Clinton years and also into the Bush administration. The price of innocent lives was worth it in order to maintain dominance in the region influencing the price of oil, the recycling of petro-dollars back into the US economy, and trying to have a geo-political foothold in the Middle East.
VL: If not to hunt down weapons of mass destruction, and to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, what do you suspect were the true intentions behind the US invasion?
KK: It seems possible to me that the US no longer wanted Saudi Arabia as a major client state following 9/11 since so many Saudis had been identified as people who possibly purpetrated that barbarous act. It seems very possible that the US wants to instead develop a new Iraq which would be functioning as a client state to the United States. But, its very important remember the image of the statue of Saddam Hussien being toppled, and that happening because a US bulldozer bashed into it and then the crowd of two-hundred, whom some have suggested might have been a kind of rent-a-crowd. From where we were a block away, its hard to imagine how anybody could have had such freedom of movement. We certainly didn't have it. We don't believe that was the neighborhood rising up in jubilation seeing as how those were people that might have been imported. But it was quite a photo-op. Certainly there was a great deal of release and relief when Saddam Hussein and the regime were gone. The Iraqi people certainly wanted that, but, juxtapose that scene with what happened in Kerbala, a holy city in Iraq. After all the horrors, the bombing and looting and chaos, one million people turned to go to Kerbala to commemorate religious leaders that lived some fourteen centuries ago. There's quite a struggle going on with various facctions in the Shia faith, some are aligned to a kind of Iraqi Shi'ism. There are others that would follow an Iranian based faith which accepts the kind of fundamentalist Islamic theocratic state that defines Iran today, and you can imagine the Mr. Rumsfeld, and Mr Wolfowitxz and Mr Perle are not going to want that group to gain ascendence in the future. So the problem now for the US is how do they contain that group?
VL: What stands out in your mind as the most memorable experience, Wade?
WH: Leaving Baghdad, and just driving through town. We weren't able to get out of town, the roads were all blocked and we had to repeatedly change our direction. The whole town was a shambles. Here you have what was once the most modern country in the Middle East reduced to ruin by the US military over the course of a twelve year war. It was like Watts after the riots but it was the whole city of five million people. I don't think I'll ever forget those images as I drove out of town. We're talking about a sustained war that was brutal, against a former ally that the US helped put into place. For what reason? It was like the Bush administration gave a different reason every week. They would just throw something out and hope it would resonate with one segment of the American population or another. It may help George Bush get re- elected and it certainly lined the pockets of the military-industrial complex, but all the other reasons were either specious or clearly false. So I see it as a real tragedy.
Wade Hudson is a 59 year old resident of Boulder Creek. He has worked as a mental health counselor, an intern minister, an economic policy researcher, and a part-time cab driver. Wade arrived in Baghdad, Iraq on March 13, just one week prior to start of the US invasion. He plans to release a book composed of writings from his online Baghdad Journal at http://www.inlet.org/wade
Kathy Kelly has been active in the peace movement for many years. In 1988, she served nine months of a one-year prison sentence for planting corn on nuclear missile silo sites. As a pacifist and war tax resister, she has refused to pay all of her federal income tax for the last 20 years. She has helped organize and participated in nonviolent direct action teams in Haiti, Bosnia, and Iraq. Kathy Kelly first travelled to Iraq in 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, as a member of the Gulf Peace Team, a delegation of 72 volunteers from 18 countries that set up on the Saudi Arabian border after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. In the mid 1990's she co-founded Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the UN imposed, US led economic sanctions destroying Iraq. Since 1996, Voices in the Wilderness has sent 60 delegations, to hospitals and clinics in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, breaking the siege imposed by the sanctions, and creating an extensive network among Iraq's people. U.S. authorities have threatened the group with 12 years in prison and over $1million in fines for violating the State Department law regarding travel to Iraq. The recipient of numerous awards for her activism, Kathy Kelly has been nominated for a Noble Peace Prize, not once, but twice; in 2000 and again in 2001.