An Apology for an Occupation
Apology of US Sergeant Matthis Chiroux to Afghan leader Malalai Joya
On April 21st, 2009, U.S. Sergeant Matthis Chiroux, 25, faces Army prosecution in St. Louis, Missouri for publicly refusing to deploy to Iraq last summer. Like many other resisters, Chiroux was in military service for many years before he came to the conclusion that the wars and occupations in Iraq and in Afghanistan are wrong and found the courage to speak out. Since last summer he has been a key activist in the U.S. veterans' organization, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
Malalai Joya, 31, is the youngest person to become a member of the Afghan Parliament (one of 68 women elected to the 249-seat National Assembly, or Wolesi Jirga, in 2005); after she spoke out against the fundamentalists and former warlords in parliament, she was suspended. She was one of 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, is one of the World Economic Forum's 250 Global Leaders for 2007, and was nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. In 2007, she was in Berlin and spoke at the Human Rights Commission of the German Parliament. She heads the non-governmental group Organization for Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities (OPAWC) in the west of Afghanistan. She has survived many assassination attempts and can only travel in Afghanistan with armed guards.
From April 1st to 5th, Chiroux joined peace activists in Germany and France to speak out against NATO and the war and occupation in Afghanistan. If not jailed by the U.S. Army on April 21st, he will join European peace activists in Ireland on April 26th for their campaign against the use of Shannon airfield by the U.S. military.
On April 4th, at a large demonstration in Strasbourg, France, Chiroux planned to publicly apologize to Afghan peace activist Malalai Joya for participating in the occupation of her country; however, before he could do so, the demonstration was disrupted by attacks of the French police. He made his apology instead on April 5, 2009, at the NATO Congress in Strasbourg. The following is a transcript of their exchange:
"How sorry I am for the violence that my Army has done..."
Apology of Sergeant Matthis Chiroux to Afghan leader Malalai Joya
Strasbourg, France, April 5, 2009
CHIROUX: Hi everybody. My name's Matthis, and I'm still a sergeant in the U.S. Army, hopefully not for much longer. And this is Malalai Joya, who's from Afghanistan. And in 2005, for a brief time, I helped occupy Malalai's country, and it was wrong. It was my mistake. I should not have been there. I should not have been supporting this oppression of her people. Today I want to look Malalai in the eye, and I want to tell you, Malalai, how sorry I am for the violence that my Army has done to your people, to your country. I want to apologize to you for the role that I played in it. I was wrong, and I will show you that my country and the rest of the world can come to a place where they can admit wrong, apologize, and offer some sort of reconciliation.
I don't have much to give, Malalai, but I would like to offer you this small symbol of my reconciliation and our good friendship, which happened here at this conference, and this friendship will continue, and hopefully MalalaI's and my friendship can serve as a model for the other people in our countries. That just because our governments want to fight-the people can be friends, and we can force a peace by refusing to hate each other and refusing to kill each other.. And I want to give Malalai this: it's a dove pin, an international symbol of peace. I would like to present it to you, Malalai, and ask --(applause) -- and ask you to accept it as a token of our reconciliation and of our new and enduring friendship, and thus can hopefully inspire others to do the same. If American and other soldiers could come to the same place, knowing they have done wrong, and apologize to the people they have wronged, and seek friendship, then we can have peace, and it doesn't matter what our governments do. (applause).
JOYA: I'm speechless in thanks -- my dear brother. I have nothing to pass to you but the love of my people. I pass it to you, and I pass your love to them.
And I want to tell you that it is your government that must apologize first of all to great people like you: they are deceiving you and they use you for not a good cause; they use you for a war which only adds to the suffering of my people. And it is your government that must apologize to the Afghan people for invading their land and imposing a mafia government of warlords and drug-lords on them. Not only to the Afghan people, but to the people of Iraq as well, because they occupied that country and they betrayed them and they are going to war in Pakistan as well now. And the U.S. government first of all must apologize to the peace-loving people of the U.S. that your government tries to give the wrong view of the people of Afghanistan and commits every war crime in your name.
And yesterday I was at the demonstration, and I wanted to give a speech on behalf of my people here, to expose the wrong policy of the U.S. government and especially of NATO -- because unfortunately, these governments also have followed the devastating policy of the U.S. for seven years now -- which is a mockery of democracy. Please, as much as you can, raise your voice against the war-mongerism of your government, and also against the U.S. that wants to occupy and occupy. Please raise your voice against the wrong policy of the Obama administration that now wants to send more troops to Afghanistan and to compromise with the brutal Taliban and other terrorists for its own strategic gains, which will bring more conflict and war to my people.
And at this catastrophic moment we need more moral and material support for the democratic-minded people of Afghanistan, who are the only alternative for the future of Afghanistan: they alone are able to fight against terrorism and fundamentalism. The suffering people of Afghanistan, nobody listens to their voice -- while these troops are killing our innocent people, most of them women and children, and on the other side these Taliban and the Northern Alliance terrorists are continuing their fascism under the rule of the US/NATO. So join with our sisters and brothers in Afghanistan, especially democratically minded people there, who neither want occupation, nor Taliban, but an independent, free and democratic Afghanistan.
I have a small gift as well, to dear Matthis, on behalf of my people. I hope in the future I will have an Afghani gift for him. This is from all of us (applause as she gives him a dove pin).
CHIROUX: Just in closing, I would like to say that I met Malalai here at this NATO Summit. The legacy of this Summit will not be violence. It will be this grassroots friendship that was formed here between U.S. troops and the Afghani people, who refuse to fight and hate each other anymore.
JOYA: Thank you.
Interview with a War Resister
Elsa Rassbach, a U.S. filmmaker and journalist living in Berlin, spoke with Matthis Chiroux in Strasbourg and in Frankfurt shortly after the NATO summit. The following is her interview:
RASSBACH: How did you come to join the U.S. Army?
CHIROUX: I was a kid living in the Deep South, with a Dad who was proud of his service in the military - and I was a kid who did not always do well in school, so I was fresh meat for the Army recruiters. In my teens I had some fights with my Dad and wound up living in a tent outside my town. When my money ran out, I joined. I really didn't have any other options. That was in 2002. In basic training, I learned to kill just like everybody else. I also trained for the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina, but I chose not continue that training, because the 82nd Airborne has a reputation for mindless brutality, both to their own and to the "enemy." My commander said, "Are you Airborne or are you a cocksucker?" I wonder how many people that line actually works on? They sent me to Army journalism school for seven months. I had a certain knack for writing, because I had written a lot ever since I was a little kid. I had a speech impediment - literally only my mother could understand me - so that's why I wrote so much. I learned photography in the Army.
RASSBACH: What was it like working as a journalist for the U.S. Army?
CHIROUX: First they sent me to Tokyo for about two years. Then I was in Heidelberg from May 2005 to August 2007 in the "U.S. Army Europe Command Information Division." My main job was to be a literary and photographic con-artist for the U.S. military in relations with its soldiers and with the civilian populations in Japan, Germany, and elsewhere. I was thought to have some potential in international relations and strategic communications. Mainly I worked with civilians doing press releases and articles for the internet or for military publications like Stars & Stripes and the Army magazine in Europe. I was really happy to be in Japan and Germany, but felt the U.S. had no business in either place. I was sent to other places, Italy, the Philippines, and Afghanistan, for example to write an article about how great the U.S. military is to provide medical care to Rumanian NATO soldiers wounded in Afghanistan. On these assignments, I had to carry a weapon: I don't want to think about how many women and children it may have inadvertently been pointed at. As an Army journalist it was my job to collect and filter service member's stories. I heard many stomach-churning testimonies of the horrors and crimes taking place in Iraq. For fear of retaliation from the military, I failed to report these crimes. Now I feel I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in part because of deep feelings of guilt that I used my art to further what I now consider to be a racist, imperialist and ultimately genocidal campaign. And in the articles we wrote, we lied to soldiers from the comfort of Germany and Japan --- these were soldiers whom I knew were suffering, bleeding, and killing in the Middle East.
RASSBACH: What finally led you to become a war resister?
CHIROUX: In Japan and in Germany, I was friends with many civilians and hung out with them more than I did with other soldiers. Some friends in Heidelberg - they were not peace activists, just ordinary civilians - looked me in the eye and said, "You know, what you are doing in Iraq and in Afghanistan is genocide." At first, it pissed me off. I thought "How insensitive; they don't know what my people are going through who have to go and do this fighting." But they said, "You need to understand that there are more types of genocide than simply Nazi fascism. You need to compare what's going on now and what was going on then, because we don't want to see your wars end like ours." It was especially important to me that my Japanese and German friends had the courage to tie it back to their own history. Yeah, at first if offended me, and I said to them, "How dare you?" But what they said sat in the back of my head, and I kept thinking about it, and it came to a point where I couldn't deny it any more. So never be afraid to tell it like it is. It was hard to take, but maybe saved my life. I ended up refusing to go to Iraq, very much as a result of what I'd learned in Heidelberg. I may actually owe my life to some very brave German citizens who were willing to offend me with the truth.
RASSBACH: How did you and other GIs feel about the demonstrations outside the base in Heidelberg?
CHIROUX: Me, I loved it, personally. Most of the soldiers thought it very cool. Some of them made fun and said "damn hippies" and "damn crazies" and "We're here to protect their free speech, but all they want to talk is trash, da, da, da...." These opinions are the loudest, because that's what's accepted in the Army. But I'm sure you've seen it from the outside yourself: soldiers will give you the peace sign. They're telling you, "Good job, keep protesting, because we don't have that right." It's important for soldiers to see that another world is possible. GIs don't have this information, especially in Germany. They don't have newspapers from the U.S., don't have U.S. magazines - just a few in the PX. They get almost all their information from the Armed Forces Network (AFN) or from military newspapers or from their commanders. They don't get information from the outside. That information from the outside forced me to readdress where I was.
RASSBACH: So what led you, finally, to take a public stance against these wars?
CHIROUX: I was discharged honorably from the Army in Heidelberg 2007, but there is a provision where you then are part of the Individual Ready Reserves (IRR), and they can recall you at any time. When I left Heidelberg, I'd been overseas so long that I felt like an immigrant coming back to the U.S., so I moved to Brooklyn, a city of immigrants. After various short-term jobs and a brief time on unemployment, I enrolled in Brooklyn College in January 2008. The Army benefits help a little, but at $1200 a month, they don't even cover my rent in Brooklyn. Then in February 2008, I received a letter from the Army ordering my return to active duty, for the purpose of mobilization for "Operation Iraqi Freedom." I was depressed and did not know what to do, but in March 2008, I watched the "Winter Soldier" hearing of Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW) on the internet (www.ivaw.org/wintersoldier ). This hearing has inspired many soldiers, and IVAW has grown rapidly, with over 1700 members now worldwide. In New York I met IVAW members, like Selena Coppa, who runs the Active Duty Organizing campaign of IVAW and who is now stationed in Wiesbaden. IVAW gave me the backing to stand up and refuse to deploy to support this unconstitutional and illegal occupation that violates all my core values as a human being. But as I said, before I met IVAW, I had already come to the conclusion that these wars are wrong from my talks with Japanese and German friends.
RASSBACH: What is at stake in your hearing on April 21st, and how can we here in Germany help you?
CHIROUX: Most likely I'll be discharged from the military. It is unlikely the Army will attempt any further action as I have been quite public and am part of a growing pool of IRR Soldiers who have refused deployment in similar or more private fashions. More than a dozen members of the U.S. Congress have signed a statement supporting my refusal to go to Iraq. Even my father, who twice voted for Bush, supports me now. People in Germany can help me by continuing to support those like me. Work to help André Shepherd, who also refused to go to Iraq, gain asylum in Germany. Demonstrate in front of more military bases. Talk to more young soldiers like me who need to know the truth in no uncertain terms. Call my unit (HRC-St. Louis) at 314-592-0708 and tell them German people stand in solidarity with IRR resisters like myself: tell them they should refuse to prosecute soldiers of conscience. Add me on Facebook, check out my Website, but most importantly, continue the struggle.
RASSBACH: Was it hard for you to apologize to Malalai Joya?
CHIROUX: it was hard for me to go to Afghanistan in denial of the true nature of what I was doing, the suffering that I caused, not only that I caused to other people, but also that I caused to myself by going to Afghanistan. It's hard to say the words in the moment, but it was absolutely necessary. Those words have been sitting dormant, waiting to rip out of my soul for years now. And I'm just so honored that they could come out to someone like Malalai, someone whom I have so much respect for and so much admiration for. And I really do believe that she is the living embodiment of hope for the Afghan people. And I won't stop struggling to free them, because they are enslaved right now by the U.S., and its as wrong as slavery was against the black people in the 1800s, and everyone deserves to be free, especially Afghani people who have for so long been occupied. This is the way forward. This is definitely the way forward.