Endgame in Baghdad
We had already filled in the six-meter-long H-U and were outlining the M in the words that, when spelled out completely, would signal George Bush's death-dealing missiles that the refinery was a United Nations-certified civilian site that provides fuel and home heating oil to the residents of Baghdad and beyond, and that by blasting the plant off the face of the earth, the U.S. president would also be endangering the lives of his own citizens and those of many other nations, when a delegation from the Organization of Peace and Friendship, our hosts in Iraq, summoned us down to the ground floor to read us the riot act.
Under a fatwa issued by Dr. Abdul Al-Hasimi, the NGO's director, we were banished from this beleaguered land because we had usurped the function of an existing NGO by facilitating the deployment of over 100 Shields to five key infrastructure sites in and around Baghdad. Now the NGO and the government of Saddam Hussein would take control of such deployments. Others to be forcibly departed would be Gordon, a rangy, spike-haired Australian who was now coordinating the site assignments; Eva, an archly uppity woman lawyer from Slovenia who had led many of the unprecedented anti-war demonstrations on the streets of Baghdad that were an essential adjunct to our work; and the off-kilter initiator of the Human Shield Action, ex-Desert Storm Marine Ken Nichols O'Keefe, whose confrontational style and delusions of personal aggrandizement had thoroughly disaffected the Iraqi government during the weeks we spent in Baghdad.
The eviction order had actually been called out by Dr. Hasimi at a disturbed meeting the previous evening, during which he trained a fat finger upon the culprits and accused us of, among other heinous crimes, "forcing volunteers to attend three-hour meetings against their will." The expulsions effectively decapitated an action whose autonomy had become a thorn in the side of Saddam just as George Bush was revving up his killing machine.
Even as Hans Blix was pronouncing his weasle words to the U.N. Security Council on the east side of Manhattan that evening, we villains gathered at the luxurious Meridian Palestine Hotel for our ordered leave-taking. Previously, Tolga and I had motored over to the International Press Center to say our good-byes, but the media, mesmerized by the magnum events on the CNN screens, did not even blink when we enunciated our dilemma.
Now my Turkish pal and I argued that we needed to depart quietly into the night so as not to hand Bush new ammunition for his crazed crusade to "liberate" Iraq. Saddam was a problem, as are all two-bit dictators installed by CIA fiat, but not the primary enemy of world peace. Now it was time to go home and deepen the larger movement, the one against Bush's reign of terror, of which the Human Shields had always been just a sideshow.
But Ken was not to be swayed. His movement had been "rubbished," he kept whining, and determined to force a nose-to-nose with the minders, he resisted their efforts to pack us off without a final tantrum, and eventually he and Eva ran off into the Baghdad night reportedly to yet another swank hotel, the Rashid, to which the police were soon dispatched to round them up.
But by this late hour, three of us had embraced dozens of the Shields we left behind, led a rousing chorus of "No War!" and, accompanied by four drum-pounding Buddhist monks who kept muttering about what a crazy world they had walked into, were already on the road.
Out there in the dark of the desert only marginally illuminated by the sliver of a new moon, with an uncertain destination in our immediate future, my cohorts dozed while I eyed the thick necks of our minders. Would our hosts veer suddenly into the widerness, order us out, strip us naked, and riddle our corpses with dum-dum bullets as payback for our gratuitous disobedience? Would the iron gates of Saddam Prison ominously yawn open to receive us?
None of the above.
Our hosts were genuinely embarrassed by the prospect of expelling us from a country we had come to protect with our lives from U.S. Murder Incorporated, and they treated us with kindly kid gloves, shaking our hands at the border, and inviting us back once the terrible deeds up ahead were done with and the Iraqi people could finally live in peace. I reflected on other deportees, on Mexican workers back home in my own country, chained up and dragged back to their own border for the sin of working a job so low on the ladder that no one else would do it.
Ironically, we passed in that dark desert night a carload of eight Mexican compas, one of them a nun from the San Carlos Hospital down in the Zapatista zone of southeastern Chiapas, on their way to Baghdad to relieve us as "escudos humanos."
The illuminated sign at the Iraqi border featured the usual portaiture of Uncle Saddam and the unusual inscription: "Isn't it nice to come to the border of a country where no one has impeded your mission?" The gods of irony were working overtime in that frigid desert dawnlight.
Sandstorms of Time
The morning sandstorm blew furiously as we swerved up toward Amman, dodging the endless train of rusting tanker trucks that defy the unconscionable U.N. sanctions by ferrying fuel to the oil-less kingdom of Jordan. The blinding grit flew so thickly that our chauffeur was at times driving blind.
Recruiting teenagers off ghetto streets and country farms to come fight under such inhospitable conditions is just as tantamount to premeditated homicide as was packing them off to the jungles of Vietnam three decades and more back down history's tunnel.
Iraq will not be the piece of cake the Pentagon brass advertises it to be. I'm convinced that the new Human Shields who replace us on sites like my oil refinery (never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would wax nostalgic over an oil refinery) have not gathered there to interpose their bodies between the Bush bombs and the civilian infrastructure. Many are hard-eyed, pro-active fighters who have come to Iraq to take the heads of the hated invaders. Despite the 3,000-missile blitzkreig of which Bush never tires of boasting, there will be a lot of street fighting in the very near future.
"We will fight them block by block just as our grandfathers fought the British colonialists," warns Mr. Al-Karash, the general manager of the Daura refinery, who himself survived a 42-day inferno back in 1991 to get this vital installation up and running again.
Up ahead in Amman, wannabe Shields and recent escapees from Baghdad have gathered at the Al Saraya hotel, a cheesy fleabag hard by the bus station, with 24-hour-a-day internet connections. Many have been there for weeks trying fruitlessly to enter Iraq but will never get their visas together. Others have recently evacuated from Baghdad, exasperated by government manipulation, or propelled by their own fears of dying under the gringo bombardment as the war crescendos out of control. "Chicken Shields," the New York Daily News recently slugged them.
Most are in terminal stasis, hanging on until the bitter end. A sizable number who were living in Euro squats or on the streets or who have deposited their meager possessions in cold storage, have no home to go home to. They will watch the war unfold from Amman as their diminishing grubstakes fade to zero.
The ambience at the Saraya is smarmy with what could have been and never was. Now a mad Ken O'Keefe has belatedly arrived to preside over this lost tribe.
It is time I suppose to take measure of whatever happened to the Human Shields. In a very real sense, we fulfilled our mission. Like the double-decker buses that have long since returned home to London, the action was merely a vehicle for inciting the massive movement against Bush's planned genocide and honing the commitment of our own combatants. We succeeded in making the bombing of civilian targets a frontline issue, put hundreds on those targets, and raised the stakes by daring George Bush to bomb us into oblivion. In this small light, we may have indeed made the White House more cautious about leveling the civilian population it lies that it is liberating. We even opened a thin slice of democratic space with our spontaneous street demonstrations, which may be remembered by civil society whenever their time comes round again. But the war will be on the world's doorstep very soon, perhaps as early as tonight, and under such circumstances the window of opprtunity is closing rapidly.
It is time now to go home and return to our countries and communities, our loved ones and companeros, and rejoin the bigger movement of millions and millions who have marched month after month against the prospect of this evil war. At least this is what I intend to do in the next weeks, and I am the only one I can speak for. But before I go, I want to thank the Iraqi people one more time for opening their arms to us, for feeding and housing us and telling us time and again that they love us. "We love you," they smiled when we walked the streets of their cities, "we love you."
In four decades on the road, this has never happened to me anywhere before.
There is no question that I have left a good chunk of my heart back in Baghdad under the roar and whistle of the stacks at the Daura refinery. May it survive Bush and his bombs in fighting style in the awful days to come. Inchilah.
John Ross will be back on the streets of North America in the next week to fight George Bush's war on the Iraqi people. He invites you to join him.