Iraq Emergency Peace Team – 2004-04-28 10:54:40
NAJAF, IRAQ – April 23 – As numerous people from nonprofit organizations working in Iraq evacuated the country during the past week, an independent emergency delegation of US civilians was preparing to enter the conflict-torn nation, traveling to the tense stand-off around Najaf, where the US military recently deployed almost 3,000 troops for a looming assault to crush Shiite rebels there.
The Najaf Emergency Peace Team, “Peace Between Peoples” — a handful of determined volunteers from several well-established peace/global justice/human rights and religious organizations — has now arrived in the area, to place themselves “nonviolently, symbolically and physically” between the US armed forces massed nearby and the civilian population of the ancient holy city — in the way of any American military assault.
The delegation has received messages of encouragement from religious and community leaders in south-central Iraq, including an advisor to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
“We understand the dangers of our journey, but we are determined to try and contribute in our own small way to peace and justice for the people of Najaf and Iraq. Only when peacemakers are willing to shoulder some of the same risks that soldiers take in war, can we begin to move away from the cycle of violence that grips human society at the dawn of the 21st century,” says the group’s statement.
The Peaceforce Members
Meg Lumsdaine, Peter Lumsdaine, Mario Galvan, Trish Schuh, and Brian Buckley – of California, New York and Virginia, respectively — are now in south-central Iraq to carry out their peace mission.
• Rev. Meg Lumsdaine is an ordained Lutheran pastor who has previously been involved in human rights delegations to Latin America and Iraq.
• Peter Lumsdaine is coordinator of the Military Globalization Analysis Project and organizer of the Najaf delegation.
• Mario Galvan, a high school teacher, is a national board member of Peace Action, with 100,000 members throughout the US, and a founding member of the Zapatista Solidarity Coalition.
• Trish Schuh co-founded the Military Families Support Network in 1990 and was involved in Military Families Speak Out.
• Brian Buckley is a carpenter and member of the Little Flower Catholic Worker community.
First Peaceforce Report from Najaf
(April 26, 2004) — As I write, the call to prayer sounds again in the street of Najaf. Yet, on the edges of the city, US and coalition forces maneuver closer, and rumors of an impending attack are increasing. Having just arrived yesterday, we are still trying to get a grip on the situation. Even as I write, other members of our group are driving around town, trying to size up the situation, and looking for the place where our presence will be most effective.
This afternoon we had planned to visit a hospital where, we had been told, US troops had opened fire and killed several people who pulled up to the hospital, not knowing it had been occupied by them.
Today, just before leaving, we were informed (by the news team from Al-Arabia news from Dubai, who had just interviewed us) that it might be certain death to approach the hospital. Snipers in the building, we were told, would kill anyone who approached. And that the troops there were not US at all, but Spanish.
We held a quick council and decided that we had come to confront U.S. troops, not Spanish, and that if we were going to get shot before we could say a word, there was no chance to get a message across in any case. We cancelled our plan.
The reason this was on our minds in the first place was that yesterday when we arrived, we were told at al-Sistani’s office that the US had occupied the main hospital in the area, forcing people to go to smaller, overcrowded clinics. This, combined with Rahul’s report (on epirenotes.org) of the US forces closing hospitals elsewhere, and the report mentioned in our earlier update of lack of medicines, made us think that this was worth looking into. Then we were told about the people who had driven up to the hospital unknowingly, and were shot without warning.
On the way from Kerbala to Najaf, we had passed an army base with a sign on the fence that said “Guards will fire without warning.” We hadn’t realized how true that was!
Let me back up a bit, to our drive over from Kerbala yesterday. I may have mentioned before the general sense of disorder. There were no traffic signals, and very few traffic police to help out. It was a tangle at every intersection, and a relief to get out of town onto the highway (4 lanes), where we sped southward to Najaf.
At the edge of town, we ran into a police checkpoint, where, to our dismay, we were stopped because our passports had not been stamped at the border! There was some talk of sending us back to the border, but thanks to the letters we had from al-Sistani and others, we managed to get through. One of the policemen came with us, and directed us to al-Sistani’s office.
It’s hard to describe our entry into Najaf, the city itself, and the entry into al-Sistani’s “office.” There are a million details that it is impossible to capture here; I can only share some impressions. As in Kerbala, life seemed to be going on as normal. There were cars and buses and people walking everywhere. But the landscape seemed like a battleground (as indeed it is!), with rubble and twisted metal and a general worn-down feeling to everything, as if it had been beseiged for 10 years (as indeed it has been!).
The entry into al-Sistani’s was an entry into an armed camp. There were many guards with rifles as we walked thorugh a labyrinth of streets (alleys?) too narrow for a car to enter. Yet the atmosphere was somehow relaxed, as if this were normal.
One guard played with a small child, his rifle leaning against the wall. Others smoked and talked, guns across their laps. And people passed by, women and children and old men, coming and going on their daily errands. WE were the abnormality! In one place, a break in the wall let us look down into the ruins of some ancient building, and I realized that the street we were walking on was maybe 20 meters above the original floor of this building. Along the sides, for the roof had fallen long ago, columns carried a series of arches, and dusty tiles hinted at it’s past splendor.
Then we turned another corner and were swallowed up in the roar of a huge industrial-size generator in a shed, bringing the light of the modern world to this ancient place.
Another omnipresent modern touch, that we see in Latin America as well as in the US, was the ever-present TV, left on even in the midst of our meeting. (At the police station, they were watching soaps as they interrogated us!) Later, when we met with al-Sadr’s representatives in the lobby of our hotel, the TV was also on the whole time, and no one (myself excepted, perhaps) even thought of turning it off.
Even in the bazaar around the holy shrines in Kerbala, booths in the street with multiple TV sets and loudspeakers thundered out their ancient holy messages in the new universal electro-technical language.
I can’t go into all the details of our meetings with the organizations of Sistani and Sadr, but there were some common themes. Both received us and our mission warmly, but warned of the dangers we were exposed to in Najaf.
Sistani’s office advised us not to stay, as they could not protect us. They had enough of a challenge protecting their own people, they said. When they learned that we were going to stay anyway, they offered to help us contact the various media in town.
Sadr’s people, on the other hand, while also warning us of the danger, offered to send us armed bodyguards. They seemed to be surprised that we declined, saying that we came to oppose the use of violence, and that it would be inappropriate for us to have armed men with us, even as protection.
We have been interviewed by various news teams, from the moment of our arrival. Our story is being seen in Lebanon, Iran, Dubai, and al-Jazeera is waiting for their turn.
We have not seen any western reporters yet, nor has there been any response from major US media to us. The bright spot so far is that we are going to be interviewed on Democracy Now tomorrow, and just this evening we have received requests for interviews from Boston and Radio Euzkadi.
The word is definitely getting out, even in the silence of the major media. We have received messages of encouragement and thanks from Asia, Latin America, North America, and Europe! People-to-people contacts, web sites, and list serves are making connections and taking our story around the world.
To all of you who have written, too many to reply to, we send our thanks. Your words feed our souls and spirits, and make us see that, whatever may happen, our mission has already touched many lives, and is already, in that sense, more successful than we could have hoped. There is still more to be done, where all of you are, as well as here.
Goodbye for now.
The Najaf emergency delegation can be contacted for interviews and more information by e-mail (email@example.com), as their peace witness and nonviolent challenge to the US military assault plan unfolds in the days ahead.