Cover story:National Catholic Reporter

Iraq Peace Team gives voice to the besieged
October 25, 2002

Henry Williamson, a 54-year-old para-medic from Charleston, S.C., currently occupies room 509 of the Al Fanar Hotel in Baghdad. The days and nights are hot; the air conditioning pathetic. There are dust storms and a possible war on the horizon. Nonetheless, Williamson, a multi-term combat medic in Vietnam and now a member of the Iraq Peace Team, is planning to stay for at least two months.

Over the next six weeks, the Iraq Peace Team will funnel approximately 40 American peace activists into “enemy territory” for short-term or open-ended stays. Their mission? To show solidarity with the Iraqi people and to articulate for the American public the perspective of the besieged.

If there is a war, the presence of Americans in Iraq will help people in the United States understand what it’s like to suffer bombardment and to realize the country “isn’t just a target in the crosshairs,” said Kathy Kelly, director of Voices in the Wilderness. The Chicago-based organization, which is working to end economic sanctions on Iraq, initiated the Iraq Peace Team last August and sent its first group, Williamson among them, to Iraq in late September.

“People are going in waves, in small teams of four or five,” Kelly said. Four “waves” are scheduled for October and one of these -- a delegation of 14 -- is being organized in conjunction with Christian Peacemakers Team, an interdenominational organization that sends peacemakers for nonviolent intervention in conflict zones. According to Voices coordinator Danny Muller, in late October, 100 to 150 Italians and a few other Europeans will join the Americans in Iraq for a short-term stay.

Since 1996, Voices has organized 50 delegations to Iraq. These trips, which include tours through hospitals, water treatment plants and schools, have become a primary way for ordinary Americans to document the effects of sanctions on the Iraqi people. Kelly said Iraq Peace Team participants, will do volunteer work, assisting nongovernmental organizations, such as UNICEF and Bridges to Baghdad, an Italian charity that set up a clinic in the southern city of Basra to combat water-borne diseases.

Risking prison, fines
To date, she has received approximately 105 applications from people willing to join the project. The price is $2,000, for travel and living expenses, per participant. But there are other costs. Applicants are reminded that travel to Iraq is a violation of federal law.

According to the U.S. Department of Treasury, those who violate economic sanctions risk 12 years imprisonment and up to $1.25 million in fines.

Nor is a timely exit from the country guaranteed. Iraq Peace Team literature suggests that those interested in going to Iraq plan for “an indefinite stay as there is no guarantee that roads leading in or out of the country will be easily navigated in the event of an assault or an invasion.”

And of course, there is the possibility of death.

Williamson says he is not afraid. “I believe in reincarnation. You must do what is right, and the chips will fall were they will,” he said. He would like to see his wife and grown sons again but says of the Iraqis, “These are wonderful people to die with.” He has brought an “arsenal of nonprescription drugs,” to Baghdad and currently spends much of his day doing medical assessments for hotel staff and neighborhood children, dispensing medicine and purchasing prescriptions. “I make contact with the physicians and see what they need,” he said.

The Iraqis, he said, are less afraid of aerial bombardments than the aftereffects of the war -- famine, a tightening of sanctions that have already killed “thousands and thousands and thousands.”

“Getting killed by a bomb is instant, whereas sanctions give you much more time to ponder your death,” he said.

The main purpose of the Iraq Peace Team is education, according to Kelly. Team members would ideally become ad hoc reporters, covering a story ignored by the mainstream media. “As most media tries to convince people that only one person -- Saddam Hussein -- lives in Iraq, [the Iraq Peace Team] will be in a unique position to publicize the fact that Iraqi civilians are suffering under sanctions, and the humanitarian costs will be exacerbated by another war,” states the Iraq Peace Team Support Handbook, which is replete with detailed instructions on how to contact local media and Congressional representatives.

Wanting to educate
Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who traveled with the first Iraq Peace Team in late September, took the mission to educate seriously. He admits the trip was a challenge for him, “I’m a law professor. I’m not a traveler. I’ve never been to the Middle East at all. I’ve been to England twice and I thought that was exotic,” he said. But Quigley maximized publicizing his experience before, during and after the trip. He has spoken once on a local popular radio talk show and is scheduled to speak again. The Louisiana Weekly, a New Orleans newspaper, has done two stories on his trip and he anticipates a third. In late August, he announced his decision to go to Iraq at a school convocation of 600 faculty and staff.

“The fact that I was going to Iraq made at least several hundred people look at the country differently,” he said.

While in Iraq, he sent back e-mails describing what he was seeing. His daily reports, filed from an Internet cafe, included descriptions of burros and “stone, square houses” in the desert, a Catholic Mass at St. Raphael’s in Baghdad, where the Kyrie is still sung in Greek, and nighttime wedding caravans of cars announced by trucks blasting New Orleans brass band music.

Quigley also gave statistics on the effects of sanctions. Reporting on a visit to a public hospital in Baghdad, he wrote, “There is one nurse for every 40 children with cancer. The doctor said that in European countries 90 percent of kids with these diseases could be cured. In Iraq it is 10 percent.” Later in the same e-mail he added, “I am sorry to be so grim, but the reality here is pretty incredible. I have no doubt that if any of you were here to see what I am seeing, you would be as moved as I. These folks are people like us.”

He disseminated his e-mails through a personal list of several thousand people. The e-mails also appeared on peace and justice lists in Cincinnati, and were circulated in Massachusetts and the Midwest, where his family lives. He describes his trip with its subsequent reports as “a small stone in a big pond that has touched a lot of people’s lives.”

Citizen-initiated contact with “the enemy” is not a new strategy for American antiwar activism. During the war in Southeast Asia, more than 200 American peace activists traveled to Hanoi, capitol of North Vietnam. Like the Iraq Peace Team, they usually traveled in small groups of three and four and by 1969 were averaging one delegation a month. They, too, wished to get information about the war for the American public and Washington officials. Their personal contacts with the Vietnamese inspired them to organize humanitarian aid for North Vietnam and to later become involved in facilitating mail delivery to American prisoners of war, even arranging the early release of some.

But American activists have used the strategy of going to “enemy territo-ry” with increasing frequency during the last three decades. Mary Hershberger, author of Traveling to Vietnam: American Peace Activists and the War, a book documenting visits of U.S. citizens to Hanoi, says this is probably because many of the wars in which one side displayed overwhelming military might in the past 50 years have been American wars.

“Citizens watching their country unleash massive bombing on other civilians has been mostly a U.S. phenomenon,” she said.

Hershberger pointed out that during the empires of England and France, “there were plenty of people who went to countries that were being colonized and were profoundly moved. It’s not uniquely American but uniquely human to identify with people who are suffering,” she said.

Quigley believes trips with the Iraq Peace Team offer a counterpoint to the “concentrated [U.S.] political and media bombardment” that has lead to the “Hitlerization of Hussein and the Nazification of Iraq.” He is convinced that if more Americans walked where he walked and saw what he saw, antiwar opposition would grow. Although U.S. war clouds are gathering directly above him, Williamson shares Quigley’s confidence in the compassion of his countrymen.

“We are a wonderful nation,” he said. “Americans are amazing people. When they find the truth, look out government. I just wish the Americans would find out.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.