In December and into January of 2004 I was living with Kathy Kelly and two other members of Voices in Wilderness in a house off Karrada St., just outside the Green Zone in Baghdad. It was dangerous for foreigners then, but nothing compared to what we've heard of since those early day of the occupation. Every day we heard of kidnappings, but in those days it was Iraqis who were being grabbed--both by the 'coalition' forces and by other Iraqis. We were careful, and fairly cautious, but we did live in an unguarded building, walk around the city, even on our own, and take cabs to get where we needed to go. The house was marked by a hand-painted sign; Voices had maintained it for some time. People knew them personally, and about them through the grape vine in Baghdad. They had been a welcome presence in Iraq for many years.
There was an open door policy--like a Catholic Worker house-- and there were always visitors, from morning till night. We sat, usually without heat or electricity, in the freezing kitchen, drinking tea or coffee and eating cookies bought specifically for the guests who would inevitably arrive. So it was that we sat talking with some four or five Iraqi friends and a Canadian journalist one early evening when the doorbell rang downstairs. I had a mini-disk set up on the table, recording the conversation and the comings and goings in the kitchen.
I answered the door, and led the three men upstairs. You hear warm greetings all around when we arrive at the kitchen door, "Ah, itıs the CPT!" A man with the Christian Peacemakers Team, unknown to me, but obviously known to everyone else at the house, came seeking help for a 30-something Iraqi dentist and the man's uncle, or father, it was never quite clear.
This was two years ago; I'm remembering the story as I listen now to the accounts of the CPT hostages in Baghdad. There has been a universal, across-the- boards appeal for the release of these innocent men: from Palestinians, Iraqi factions, and internationally known writers and peace activists. There is the now-obligatory on-line petition; one woman on a list serve asked, where will this be sent, and to whom?
I have read some of the statements; I know the CPT put the responsibility for this crisis where it belongs: on the US government. What I haven't seen, or heard, though is any attempt beyond that CPT statement to understand how this terrible thing has come to pass--that peacemakers, people in Iraq to bear witness and help Iraqis--have, like the two Simonas and Margaret Hassan before them, been seized and threatened with death. The irony of the situation breaks my heart, yet again.
Two years ago, the dentist Amer, came seeking help for his young brother, held for close to nine months, in a US detention camp in Um Qasr. As he tells it, his brother was coming from classes at Baghdad University where he was a student. As he passed by a mosque close to their home, shots were exchanged between two groups gathered there. Everyone was trying to run away from the scene when the military police arrived and arrested all the men in the area. "One of them, unhappily, was my little brother," he says sadly.
When a neighbor told him what had happened, Amer went to the police station, to try to get his brother released; he was unsuccessful. His brother was sent first to the airport, and then to Bucca Camp. If you could get enough gasoline and had a functioning car, it was some eight hours drive from Baghdad on very dangerous roads. Nonetheless, Amer had visited once; conditions were terrible, he said: the food was bad, prisoners were forced to sleep on the cold ground with very little protection from the weather, and dogs were released to terrorize them. There were worse stories that he could not repeat. Like the relatives and friends of the CPT captives, Amer worried for the very life of his brother.
The CPT has been in Iraq specifically to help detainees and their families; now they themselves are detained and held prisoner. I don't draw this comparison to justify the taking of hostages under any circumstances. But, I think it is important to recognize that Iraqis, like any people living through a terrible war, thirteen years of sanction, and then another war and occupation, have come to the end of their collective rope. Powerless, and more hopeless by the day, they strike out. Foreigners, even helpful, friendly ones... who have come in solidarity over the course of many years... are targets. They are the collateral damage on our side, unintentional victims of the bomb gone astray, the car accidentally riddled by bullets and the over-zealous interrogation techniques.
The best book on Iraq that one could read to try to shed some light on the terrible, deteriorating situation for Iraqis is Anthony Shadid's newly released Night Draws Near, Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War.
"The voices I heard in the city were now a thunderous, confusing, swirling din that
reminded me of the American reaction to the attacks on September 11, 2001. The depth
and breadth of people's emotions continually shocked me. The people I met contradicted
one another and themselves. All the old myths had disappeared; new ones had yet to be found. Iraq faced a lacuna; there was nothing to be done to restore the certainties, right or
wrong, that had been shattered by the war. Everything was shifting. Nothing was definite. Morning's hopes were shunted aside by evening's unexpected loss and by silent noontimes of despair." -- pgs. 252-253
We can sign petitions, and rally; we can write letters and beg for the release of the CPT. But, the most meaningful protest against this hostage taking, would be to demand the end to the US occupation and to policies of mass detentions, and illegal holding of detainees anywhere in world. We can only end the violence by ending the war; we should broadcast that message loud and clear.
Claudia Lefko lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. E-mail at: email@example.com