Life and Death at the Daura Refinery

BAGHDAD (March 7th) -- The sun comes up sulfur yellow over the Daura refinery here in west Baghdad. The air quality is not too hot either. Fireballs that can be seen all the way downtown erupt from the stacks and the burn-off of toxic waste sears the eyes and smothers the lungs. Last night, three U.S. citizens plus a virtual international brigade of volunteers from South Africa, Great Britain, Slovinia, Cataluna, France, Italy, Germany, and Japan slept here under the roar and whistle of the stacks, waiting for George Bush to drop his bombs on this prime target that was severely blasted in the 1991 holocaust here, knocking a key fuel source off line for a full year.

On Sunday, March 2, the 100 or so Human Shields currently in Baghdad faxed the White House to inform Bush that we are now on site at the Daura refinery and at four other civilian infrastructure sites in Baghdad, all of them designated by the United Nations Development Program as human-directed installations, and to remind the U.S. president that by bombing this important facilities he would be endangering the lives of his own citizens as well as those of 34 other nations who have come to Iraq to interpose their bodies between the North American death machine and the people of this unfortunate land. We also sought to make it clear that aerial bombing of civilian sites is a violation of the Geneva convention and would make the U.S. Commander-in-Chief subject to international prosecution for war crimes. We are not hopeful that Bush will take our lives into account as his mad conflagration looms on the tarnished horizon but at least we tried to make it perfectly clear that murdering us will not go unpunished.

The Daura refinery is a little neighborhood unto itself. Muslim and Christian families live on either side of the guest house in which we are installed and sometimes invite us in for tea. Stray soccer balls occasionally bounce into the courtyard and laughing kids rush in to retrieve them. A wooly goat lives just across the street which is largely populated by refinery engineers. A child care center is a few hundred yards away with a primary school right next door. Each morning, I walk with the scrubbed, smiling children to class and they practice their English with me.

The other day, Faith, one of the U.S. volunteers, visited the school and the carefully tutored children were intoning the usual chant of "Down Down America!" when the teacher abruptly shushed them to insist that not all Americans were like Bush. I suppose this was a sort of tactical victory in seeking to unburden the name of the American people from the sins of their unelected president.

I write this article as six minders prowl through the guest house. To say that these burly men with Saddam mustacios and leather jackets are trying to control us in not an exaggeration. But as they told my friend Andre, an ebullient volunteer from Joâberg the other day, "You are very difficult to control."

At a mass meeting of all volunteers last Saturday in the ballroom of the ritzy Palestine Hotel, the chief of the minders, Dr. Al-Hasimi of the Peace and Solidarity Committee, ordered all potential Shields to immediately deploy to 60 government-selected sites or leave the country the next morning. The Human Shields, who have voluntarily set up camp at water treatment, food storage and power plants in addition to the refinery here, took umbrage at such ham-handed manipulation and once again, demanded that they be allowed to place their trainee corpses on line at hospitals, schools and archeological sites that the Iraqi government, in a supreme political blunder, has time and again denied them. The rebellion resulted in the overnight exodus of nearly 30 Shields who fled overland to Amman in protest at such coercion. Nonetheless, nearly 100 volunteers remained in Baghdad and utilized the moment to deploy to sites where they had already established a presence.

But the government men were not to be satisfied. Instead, they forced dozens of volunteers aboard buses and ferried them out to the installations, temporarily taking back the initiative. The newcomers' ranks were padded out by an assortment of dangerous-looking types who seemed more like volunteers from the French Foreign Legion or escapees from Devil's Island than Human Shields. On my second night at the Daura refinery. I bunked with a fellow who jabbered past midnight about the humanitarian attributes of the Basque terrorists who hide behind the initials ETA. But by the next evening, full-blown community had settled in and old and new volunteers gathered in friendship around the house hookah.

Throughout this odd ordeal, we have sought to neutralize the ex-Desert Storm marine, Ken Nichols O'Keefe, who issued the original call for this erratic effort to shield the Iraqi people from Bush's bombs. At this writing, O'Keefe remains in Baghdad but not on site, bragging to the press that the action is his personal property and threatening to bolt at any moment, a move that would finally demolish the scant credibility he has left.

One after another, snide young reporters for whom the imminent war is little more than a crass career move, come to us with worst-case scenarios: we will be taken hostage as happened in 1991; we are worth more to Saddam dead than alive; we will be swallowed up in the civil unrest that will follow the war and swing from local lampposts; or even the worst of the worst in which we are rescued by the Yanqui troops and earn a free trip to Guantanamo Bay. George Bush will motorcade triumphantly down the boulevards of Baghdad as the Liberator of Iraq. Ad nauseam.

Given our uncertain status, trapped as we are between governments, we are susceptible to panic attacks. But then hometown comrades from Mexico City suddenly, miraculously, appear, and we are chanting "El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido" in Martyrs Square, and the light at the end of the tunnel is not a freight train barreling down upon us in the claustrophobic dark.

Maybe I'm delusional but it sometimes seems to me that war is not inevitable. The Turkish parliament has thus far resisted the sledgehammer pressures of Powell, Rumsfeld and Cheney to land 40,000 GIs on their turf for an invasion from the north, and key Kurdish leaders have nixed Bush's ploy to exploit their fierce opposition to continued Hussein rule. Most of all, Baghdad does not seem to be preparing for doomsday. Each Monday and Thursday evenings, young couples marry to the tumultuous honking of horns, the blaring of trumpets, and the pounding of drums. Frontloaders dig trenches to lay fresh sewage lines, old men wash cars in the street, the candy store man down the avenue just took in a fresh inventory of sweets.

Last weekend, Grace, who was become my steady squeeze on this torturous adventure, and I considered doing a John and Yoko 40-day stint in bed to make love not war, but then Dr. Al-Hasini's deployment edict came slamming down and she decided she would be of more value battling the Bush war back home in the English westlands. At our farewell dinner, the lounge act trilled "Imagine"and Elvis knock-offs and the only sign that war is the next item on this gran guignol agenda was the huge stack of nearly worthless dinars that literally covered half the table in exchange for the sumptuous fare.

But there is no denying that we have painted ourselves into a scary corner with our determination to fulfill our commitments as Human Shields. Last Sunday dusk, we went to the north bank of the Tigris and put little candle-lit boats of palm wood into the muddy river, closed our eyes, and wished for a peaceful resolution to this frightening endgame. Then I read a poem to the handful of Iraqi National Theater workers who had invited us to this quietly desperate ritual in which I declared I would "never surrender my beating heart to the bastard who calls himself Bush" but if indeed he does nail me with his accursed bombs, "I will return in the flowers in the desert and in the open veins of the people." Inchilah.

John Ross is a journalist, poet, activist and author. In early February, Ross travelled to Iraq with hundreds of international anti-war activists on the Human Shield Action Caravan. He's one of the few remaining human shields from the U.S. and he is committed to staying.

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