Human Shields Await Bombs in Baghdad
Published on Tuesday, March 18, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Human Shields Await Bombs in Baghdad
From anarchists to Quakers, they've followed their principles to put their lives on the line with the civilians of Iraq

by Rob Collier
 

BAGHDAD -- The ultimatum issued by President Bush on Monday dramatically increases the chance that Faith Fippinger may die in the next few days.

Fippinger, a 52-year-old retired schoolteacher is one of about 90 "human shields" who are putting their bodies on the line in front of potential U.S. bombing targets in Iraq.


A candlelight vigil at dusk on a bridge over the Tigris included human shields from many countries. Photo by Kael Alford for the Chronicle

Since early February, the Sarasota, Fla., native has slept every night at the Daura oil refinery, a huge complex at the southern edge of Baghdad that supplies the entire metropolitan region with gasoline and other fuels. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the refinery was destroyed by U.S. missiles, and it burned for a month and a half.

Fippinger expects another attack.

"I may die here," she said calmly. "But my death is no more or less important than the Iraqi lives that will be lost -- for example, my neighbors, who live next to the refineries, a woman who brings in tea every morning."

Then Fippinger broke into tears.

Together with other human shields from the United States and elsewhere, Fippinger hopes her body might yet clog the gears of war.

But while Pentagon planners reportedly want to avoid bombing civilian infrastructure targets, Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the military campaign, has said potential targets would not necessarily be spared just because of the presence of human shields.

The volunteers are organized loosely by Human Shields, a London organization that is an ungainly conglomeration of 23 nationalities, mostly Europeans and Turks, along with six Americans.

The organization has been riven with dissension. Last month, the Iraqi government expelled five of its leaders after a dispute over which sites would be guarded by the volunteers. The group's leaders wanted to position shields at sites such as hospitals, while the government proposed sites it viewed as more strategic, including military installations. Other shields have returned home and denounced the Iraqi government as repressive.

'SOME FRUITCAKES AMONG US'

"We have a bad impression of the human shields. Some of them are crazy," said an Iraqi Foreign Ministry official, who requested anonymity.

"Yes, there are some fruitcakes among us," said Marc Eubanks, a Wyoming native and Air Force veteran who now lives in Athens, Greece. He was referring to some anarchists, who he said could provoke major culture clashes with Iraqi officials at joint meetings.

"But nobody can tell me that we haven't been an outstanding success," said Eubanks, who has been living at the Dura Electrical Power Plant, which supplies a third of Baghdad's electricity and was bombed in the Gulf War. "We were poorly organized, but we lurched forward."

The Bush administration has said little about the human shields. In February, a State Department spokeswoman responded to a reporter's question about why they were in Iraq by saying, "You might as well ask me why moths fly into porch lights."

NUMBERS UNCERTAIN

It is unclear exactly how many foreign activists are in Iraq, because even at this late date, many are still entering and leaving the country. But organizers estimate there may be about 120 to 150 activists in Baghdad when the U.S. attack starts.


Human shields Faith Fippinger (right) of the United States and Donna Mullhearn of Australia wait on the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad. Photo by Kael Alford for the Chronicle
Although the human shields are under no obligation to remain once the war begins, most say they will stay put even when the bombs start falling.

For the American activists, a lingering question is: What happens if they survive the war? Once they return to the United States, will they be prosecuted under the U.S. Patriot Act for supporting the enemy?

"The truth is, I'm more afraid of what the Americans would do if they caught me," said Eubanks. "The Americans will probably make Camp X-ray here and put me in it," he said, referring to the U.S. POW camp in Guantanamo, Cuba,

that is holding accused al Qaeda members.

As a U.S. war draws ever closer, the disappointment felt by the remaining activists is palpable.

"More than a letdown, it's a catastrophe, a huge punishment heaped on innocent people," said Kathy Kelly, the coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness, an activist group with headquarters in Chicago and London.

In recent months, Voices in the Wilderness and other U.S. groups, most of whom share Voices' origin in liberal Catholic, Quaker and other religious groups, have held many vigils in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

TENSIONS AMONG GROUPS

Kelly hinted at the subtle tension between her organization and Human Shields. While Voices in the Wilderness and other Western activist groups have accepted no aid from the Iraqi government, lodging and food expenses for the human shields has been paid for by the regime.

"We don't want to be under the propaganda wing of the party," said Kelly. "We are independent."

"I respect the human shields," but I wouldn't want to be taking anything from the government," said Charlie Liteky, a San Franciscan who is a member of Voices in the Wilderness. Liteky won the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1968 for his work as an Army chaplain in Vietnam, when he pulled 22 wounded soldiers out of a firefight against the Viet Cong.

"But in the end, we're all waiting for the same bombs," Liteky said. "And we may be in the same jail together after the war."

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

###