VANCOUVER, B.C. -- War can turn strangers into brothers. It's true if they're fighting it, and it's true if they're resisting it, as Vietnam War resisters resettled in this Canadian province know.
In an American era of "love it or leave it," they left. Now a number have joined to help peace activists here form a new "underground railway" for resisters to the Iraq war, providing food and shelter and transportation north.
The new generation of resisters includes AWOL airborne soldier Jeremy Hinzman, 25, who seeks refuge in Canada. His Canadian immigration hearing, which begins today in Toronto, has inspired activists in the national War Resisters Support Committee to organize vigils throughout Canada.
Hinzman's fate will set the tone for a half-dozen other American soldiers seeking asylum in the face of the Iraq war. Activists are expecting a denial in Hinzman's case, and a long appeals process.
But they're in for the long run.
"The committee's focus is to make sure, if there is a mass influx of war resisters, that Canada is at least as welcoming as it was in the '60s and '70s," said Peter Prontzos, a political science instructor at Langara College in Vancouver and a Vietnam-era draft dodger.
That could be trickier this time around. Discrimination against Americans could be a problem, warns Vietnam War resister Juergen Dankwort. "We should treat them as we have treated other immigrants."
And times, and armies, have changed.
Dankwort and Prontzos were fleeing the draft when they crossed the Canadian border -- along with an estimated 30,000 to 90,000 other young Americans. The 21st-century generation of deserters volunteered to serve. Hinzman said he enlisted to get an education, not to kill people. When he got his orders for Iraq, he tried to get a non-combat job, such as medic or cook. When that failed, he packed up his family and headed north.
His position has stirred a hot debate in Canada. Government officials so far have opposed giving the new resisters refugee status, saying they are not "persecuted." Opinion writers point out that the would-be refugees are deserters, not draft dodgers refusing military conscription. Deserters face stiff penalties under U.S. laws.
But peace activists cite similarities between the two wars that justify resistance.
"Not following the U.N. charter, not going through proper steps, not following international law," says Dankwort, a Swedish-born son of a diplomat.
Dankwort, now a professor of sociology at Kwantlen University College in Surrey, said he's grateful for the assistance he received and now wants to return the favor.
"Having been helped myself, it's an opportunity to help someone else. ... As more Americans decide they cannot participate in an illegal, immoral war, the demand for sanctuary will increase."
Most of the Iraq war resistance activity has been centered in Ontario, where Hinzman sought sanctuary. But British Columbia's loose-knit group of war-resister activists is ready for refugees in Vancouver.
Peace activist Sarah Bjorknas, a library clerk and owner of a century-old home turned into a Samaritan house, is part of the pacifist Catholic Worker network, which promotes Christian acts of mercy. She's also the first person in British Columbia to welcome resisters with shelter.
Deserting is a hard decision, says Bjorknas. But the soldiers heading north are making a choice. "They've come here -- they haven't run here," she said.
Like many other Vietnam War resisters in Canada, Prontzos and Dankwort didn't know each other before they joined in the B.C. branch of the national War Resister Support Committee.
"We're meeting each other for the first time, hearing each other's stories for the first time," said Dankwort.
"It's like a class reunion."
Dankwort seriously considered staying in the United States and going to prison, rather than go to war in Vietnam. "The war was insane. I had no argument with the Vietnamese. Why travel thousands of miles to go kill them?"
After talking with his diplomat dad, he decided on Canada. "I have no regrets," he said.
Neither does Prontzos, who was a student at San Jose State when he got his 1A draft classification and realized he'd be headed to Vietnam. He hooked up with Quakers in Seattle, crossed the border into Canada and eventually got landed immigration status.
"At first I thought I'd always go back. But the more I stayed the more I liked it," said Prontzos.
It was after he had his first child that he realized he'd never go back.
"This is where I wanted them to grow up," he said. "Every little bit of sanity helps."
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