Letter from Baghdad: A Moment of Understanding

Baghdad, April 10 -- Early this morning, Umm Zainab sat quietly in the Al Fanar lobby staring at the parade of tanks, APCs and Humvees that slowly rolled into position along Abu Nuwas Street. Tears streamed down her face. "I am very sad," she told me. "Never I thought this would happen to my country. Now, I think, my sadness will never go away."

Wanting to give Umm Zainab some quiet time, I took her two toddlers, Zainab and Miladh, outside to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. Several soldiers stood guard not far from me and the children. I wanted to bring the children over to them, to let them behold these tiny beauties. But, no, too much of a risk -- what if it would add to Umm Zaineb's pain?

Eun Ha Yoo, our Korean Peace Team friend, unrolled a huge artwork created by a Korean artist, Chae Pyong Doh, and sweetly laid it out in the intersection just outside the Al Fanar. As I write, Neville Watson and Cathy Breen are taking their turns sitting in the middle of it.

A map of the world covers the top third; grieving victims of war fill the middle third; piles of ugly weapons with various flags scattered over them bulge out of the bottom third. Neville has set up his prayer stool and a small wooden cross where he sits. Cathy is wearing her "War Is Not The Answer" t-shirt.

At least a dozen soldiers have stopped to talk with us since we began the vigil at 3 this afternoon. "OK, can you tell us your side of the story?" asked one young man. "Can I sit there with you for awhile?" asked another. Each of them has assured us that they didn't want to kill anyone. One young man said he was desperate for financial aid to care for his wife and child while struggling to complete college studies and work full time. He felt he could gain some respect in this world and also help his family by joining the Marines. He's relieved that he was stationed at the rear of a line coming up from the south. His role was to guard prisoners. He didn't shoot anyone. But he saw U.S. soldiers shoot at a civilian car with three passengers as it approached. The child in the car survived -- both of his parents were immediately killed. "They could have shot the tires," said the soldier. "Some just want to kill."

One soldier offered earnest concern for us, saying "You're sitting in a dangerous place." We smiled. "Thanks," I said, "But we've been in a dangerous place for the past three weeks." He was puzzled. "What they mean," said a soldier standing next to him, "is that they've been here all through three weeks of bombing."

"Do you try to put yourselves in our shoes?" asked one soldier after he'd respectfully listened to me explain major contradictions between U.S. rhetoric and practice regarding Iraq. "Well, yes," I said, "We try. We're taking the same risk as you by being here, and perhaps an even greater risk since we're unarmed and unprotected. Actually, just now we're lucky not to be burdened by all that heavy gear."

"Yeah," said the soldier, "It's really hot. I don't have much of an appetite. I just give away most of my rations, -- give 'em to these people."

Hassan, one of the shoeshine boys, came over to join us, carrying a ration packet. He opened it, came across processed apple spread, and a few other curious items, then decided to donate it to us. Now the flies have discovered it.

It looks like we're on "lock-down" for a while longer. Iraqi minders are gone, -- U.S. soldiers are here. They're uncoiling barbed wire at the intersection. Anyone wanting to walk across the street is stopped, questioned and searched. Since I began this letter, there have been four huge explosions nearby. Looting and burning continue, here in Baghdad. I'm sick of war, disgusted to the point of nausea. I think all of us at this intersection, residents of the Al Fanar, journalists in the Palestine Hotel next door, and soldiers on patrol, share the same queasy ill feeling. The line, "War is the health of the state" makes no sense whatsoever here.

Kathy Kelly is the founder of Voices in the Wilderness.


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