John Ross

Wal-Mart a la Mexicana

Each winter solstice, tens of thousands of revivalist Indians, New Age acolytes, and just plain tourists don cameras, feathered head dresses, or simple white cottons and tramp to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in San Juan Teotihuacan to soak up the rays and revitalize their bodies and souls for the coming year.

Teotihuacan flourished for nearly a millennium between the second century BC and 700 AD. In the year 500, half a million people lived in the city, which covered an expanse of eight square miles, larger even than Rome. Having harnessed underground streams, the rulers of Teotihuacan created Mexico's first corn culture. Queztalcoatl, the plumed serpent, a deity ubiquitous in ancient Mesoamerica, ruled over Teotihuacan, and his priests maintained the balance of the agricultural seasons and upheld the sun in the sky through human sacrifice.

As I climbed the 247 steep stone steps divided into four narrow tiers to the pyramid's summit, many of my fellow pilgrims expressed their umbrage at the new Wal-Mart, in plain sight down below, just 2,000 meters away.

"It is like an invasion, a new conquest," opined Rafael, a young computer technician from Cordoba, Veracruz.

"Falta de respeto" (a lack of respect), a middle-aged woman missing her two front teeth spat. "This is Mexico, you know."

"What a horror! They insult the Gods! Quezalcoatl must be furious!" said Mexico City grade school teacher Xenia Marquez, extending her arms towards the weak December sun at the very apex of the Pyramid of the Sun. Her tirade was interrupted by the tingling of her cell phone.

The saga of the resistance to the Teotihuacan Wal-Mart is a picaresque footnote in the battle against the global leviathan. "Wal-Mart has profaned the City of the Gods, and there are no deities in Mesoamerica that can protect it," darkly warned Miguel Limon-Portillo, the celebrated translator of Aztec poetry. Whereas in the U.S., such disputes are apt to be settled before permit appeals and zoning boards, the Teotihuacan Wal-Mart touched a raw national nerve, and so this war was fought a la Mexicana.

Having jumped the gun on NAFTA by buying into the 122-store Bodega Aurrera chain here in 1992 and taking it over five years later, Wal-Mart now owns 687 superstores in 71 Mexican cities under the marquee logos of Wal-Mart, Bodega Aurrera, Superama, and Sam's Club – plus 52 Suburbias (a more upscale department store chain) and 235 Vips restaurants. Total Wal-Mart sales of $10.8 billion in 2003 dwarfed the $8 billion taken in by the next three retailers together. And Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. employer, is also Mexico's biggest job generator, accounting for 101,000.

As in the U.S., the bottom line is gospel for Wal-Mart in Mexico, and no unions or other troublemakers are tolerated on the premises. Non-union Mexican Wal-Mart "associates" earn an average of 13 pesos an hour (about $1.20) as compared to $9 for their non-union U.S. counterparts.

"It is not good for our sovereignty that all our clothes and our food come from another country," asserts Vicente Yanez, director of the National Association of Self-Service Stores. (More than 2,000 McDonald's also stain the Mexican landscape.)

A full decade after NAFTA kicked in, the commercial physiognomy of Mexico is often indistinguishable from that of its neighbor to the north.

Not many months ago, polleros (people smugglers) in Tapachula, Chiapas, on Mexico's southern border, wheedled $5,000 each from six Guatemalans and two other undocumented workers whom they promised to deposit safely in the United States.

Moving through Mexico stealthily in an old bus with its curtains drawn and slipping immigration officials the obligatory mordida (little bite, or bribe) to ease through the checkpoints, the smugglers arrived in Chihuahua City, 100 miles south of the U.S. border, drove out to an upscale suburb, and dropped their load off in front of an enormous Wal-Mart, informing the clueless clients they had arrived on "the Other Side." The Wal-Mart shared the gleaming mall with a Wendy's, a KFC, even an Applebee's, and the ten-plex "Hollywood" Cinema.

"It looked just like how it looked on television" a rueful indocumentado told Froilan Meza of the local Chihuahua Herald.

The Civic Front to Defend the Teotihuacan Valley (Frente Civica) first got wind of Wal-Mart's plans very late in the game after concrete trucks started pouring a foundation less than two kilometers from the pyramids. Activists immediately suspected a deal had been cut between the conglomerate, the municipal government, and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), without whose permission the project could not go forward.

On Oct. 1, 2004, Lorenzo Trujillo, a middle-aged teacher, the self-styled "spiritual guide" Emma Ortega, and Emmanuel D'Herrera, a poet and professor, set up camp at the Wal-Mart site, rolled out their petates (straw mats), lit copal incense to the guardian figure of Coatlicue, a sort of Aztec Shiva, and, in classic lost-cause Mexican struggle posture, declared themselves on hunger strike. Their sacrifice made an impact in a nation that bridles at dubious NAFTA encroachments and has been galvanized by the plight of its Indian cultures after ten years of Zapatista rebellion.

Mexico State Governor Arturo Montiel, a dark horse presidential hopeful of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ran Mexico for seven decades and would like nothing better than to take back power in 2006, was a big booster of the new Wal-Mart store. He boasted it would bring 3,000 new jobs to this run-down region. But local street sellers and market vendors figured their livelihoods were jeopardized by super-store competition and joined the fray. Street fights ensued between those who opposed the project and those who did not want to bus 20 miles away to other towns to do their shopping. When the Frente Civica camp was attacked by angry construction workers, the three hunger strikers moved to the ruins. A second strike began on the sidewalk outside the INAH's Mexico City offices.

By now, lots of fingers were being pointed at the INAH for having declared the Wal-Mart site of "no archeological value." One fired construction worker, Martin Hernandez, told the national left daily La Jornada that he had seen broken pieces of pottery and other items being hauled from the construction site and was ordered to keep quiet about the destruction.

Soon Rigoberta Menchu and Subcomandante Marcos were commenting on the desecration. The Teotihuacan Wal-Mart was a ready-made flashpoint for indigenous organizations such as the National Association for Indigenous Autonomy, which pointedly asked if the Catholic Church would allow a megastore to be thrown up at the door to the Vatican.

Francisco Toledo, Mexico's most luminous painter, who had single-handedly kept a McDonald's out of Oaxaca city's colonial plaza (which like Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), drew pictures of monkeys pushing shopping carts beneath the pyramids of "Teotihualmart," as social critic Carlos Monsivais tagged it. Union leaders came to express their support of the hunger strikers and to remind the press of Wal-Mart's anti-union bias. Anarcho-punks, anthropologists, and comedians expressed their outrage, and cabaret star Jesusa Rodriguez told of the "Hualmartas, a tribe from the north."

As the uproar mounted, Wal-Mart worked around the clock to get the new store up and running before October was out. And as the deadline approached, tempers flared. On Oct. 24, militant farmers from nearby San Salvador Atenco, who had fought off a proposed international airport with their machetes three years previous, clashed with police just outside the ruins. A police car and three motorcycles were torched.

When on Oct. 30 Wal-Mart was finally ready to throw open its doors, there were 70 customers in line before 9 a.m. A sound truck had been circulating through the small city for days advertising free gifts and big bargains. But just before opening time, a team of INAH workers appeared on the scene and demanded entrance in order to drill for last-minute samples. Two meter-deep holes were perforated between cash registers six and seven as store stockers stopped to gawk. The samples yielded only sand and fragments of 20th century brick, and Wal-Mart received the INAH's blessings to open for business.

But the perforations had left a gaping chasm in the megastore's floor, and Wal-Mart public relations officer Claudia Algorri decided the inauguration would be postponed until after the long Dia de los Muertos weekend, Mexico's traditional celebration of its dead.

Over the weekend, the Frente Civica built altars to their ancestors and prayed that the gods of Teotihuacan were tuned in.

When customers once again flocked to the megastore the following Tuesday morning, 250 riot cops were on hand to greet them. The first scuffling occurred after the mob tried to take the doors, and Wal-Mart officials had to calm the public with free Cokes, French fries, and "little cakes," according to La Jornada. Then the link to the satellite, which would connect the Teotihuacan cash registers with Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., went down – the gods must have been listening. For six hours, the crowd hung around the parking lot under the blazing sun. A family quarrel broke out and noses were bloodied, the Jornada reporter noted. Finally, at about 3:30 p.m., customers were allowed to grab a shopping cart, and the consumer frenzy was consummated. But sales were not brisk. Many people had come just to gander at the marvels of modern merchandising contained within this temple of plastic.

That night, a band of toughs dismantled the Frente Civica encampment by the ruins. D'Herrera, then in the fourth week of his hunger strike, was rousted from his petate, and three students were slashed by a razor-toting thug. The Teotihuacan Wal-Mart was officially in business.

By December, the Teotihuacan Wal-Mart was booming. Although "Nueva Wal-Mart" (the corporation's Mexican handle) has posted no outside store sign to avoid controversy, the interior is unmistakably a prototypical Sam Walton-style emporium stocked to the roof beams with mostly Chinese-made items.

Given the season, the toy aisles were packed with parents shopping. Of six customers questioned, all fervently concurred that Wal-Mart prices were the lowest in town. Princess Barbie was on sale for 288 pesos (about $20), He-Man action figures for 162. But a giant yellow Hummer toy weighed in close to 4,000 pesos. A miniature Wal-Mart megastore marked down to 988 pesos was drawing oohs and ahs. Elsewhere in the aisles, Black & Decker irons were going quickly at 97 pesos, and U.S. grown tomatoes and apples were holding their own against local produce.

Miguel Angel Nieves, a young custodian whose father worked rebuilding the Pyramid of the Moon in the 1960s, exalted the prices and the products. "Before Wal-Mart opened, we would shop in the street or in the central market, which is owned by one man," he said. "The prices were high – and, well, it wasn't very clean."

Out in the parking lot, Victor Acevedo, a local anthropologist who affects handmade Indian accessories, was sheepishly loading merchandise into his battered Volkswagen bug. "I don't like the idea of Wal-Mart being so close to the pyramids," he said, "but where else am I going to shop?"

Mexico is a four-millennium-old civilization with a culture as obdurate as granite and obsidian. When the Europeans came, they pulled down most of the Aztec temples. But the majestic pyramids of Teotihuacan remained. And so they will remain long after all the Wal-Marts in Mexico crumble into dust.

Mexican Data Grab

Since the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. Justice Department has gotten access to the personal records of more than 300 million Latin Americans, including the citizens of its two most populous nations, Brazil and Mexico, in addition to Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

The U.S. information grab has not been a big hit in Latin America. In Mexico, it has triggered political shock waves. "Alarm over sale of millions of Mexicans' records," headlined Reforma, the rightwing daily that broke the story of how U.S. info giant ChoicePoint acquired the data. "Attack on national sovereignty," editorialized its leftwing rival, La Jornada, "Mid-term elections threatened."

Under an agreement signed in September 2001 with the U.S. Justice Department, ChoicePoint, the Atlanta information entity that was implicated in the 2000 elections shenanigans, provided Washington with dubiously acquired Mexican data, Reforma reported. Attorney General John Ashcroft received access to updated Mexican voter registration lists containing personal information on sixty-five million citizens, Mexico City drivers' license records dating back to 1997 and updated each month, and all automobile registration data collected in the capital during that same period.

The political scandal exploded just two months before a make-or-break midterm election for President Vicente Fox's rightwing National Action Party (PAN) and has spawned an investigation by Ashcroft's counterpart, Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha. Whereas in the United States, such public records are fair game for direct mail advertisers, telemarketers, political candidates, and other annoying hucksters, in Mexico their confidentiality is closely guarded. Their sale to ChoicePoint -- and ultimately the U.S. government -- has raised issues of national security and sovereignty.

"I didn't register to vote so that the government could sell my name to the gringos," fumes barber Lalo Miranda, snipping hair in his downtown Mexico City market stall. Miranda grew curious about the sale of his name and address when he began to receive unsolicited junk mail -- in English. "I don't even speak English," he snorts.

The scandal has been made even more conspicuous by ChoicePoint's refusal to divulge from whom or how it obtained the databases, citing confidentiality clauses in the purchase contracts. According to preliminary findings by Macedo's electoral crimes prosecutor Maria de los Angeles Fromow, ChoicePoint bought voting lists from a Mexican database for $250,000 two years ago. When the scandal broke, the Atlanta corporation agreed not to offer the lists for commercial sale while the legality of the information transfer is under investigation, confirms ChoicePoint spokesperson Chuck Jones.

But the brouhaha over the Mexican records goes far beyond junk mail and nuisance phone calls. Voter registration and drivers' license databases are prime law enforcement tools to track suspects and fugitives. And ChoicePoint's leasing of access to this information to the Department of Homeland Security's Quick Response Team worries not a few Mexicans that Big Brother is beaming in from Washington.

Reforma speculated that the data could be used to expand watch lists of undesirable foreigners at all U.S. points of entry as mandated by the Secure Borders Act of 2002. La Jornada Washington correspondent Jim Cason was alarmed that the Mexican data bases could be incorporated into the Terrorism Information Awareness operation being run out of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) by Retired Admiral John Poindexter, convicted of five felony counts of lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandals. Poindexter's project would incorporate all public and private databases to develop profiles of potential terrorists. In a half dozen years of doing business, ChoicePoint has become the largest purveyor of public records to U.S. law enforcement and other investigative agencies, claiming that it can supply "10,000,000,000 records on individuals and companies." "Whether you are looking for a fugitive or tracking their assets, we provide mission-critical information with a flick of the finger," ChoicePoint's flag-bedecked web page brags. "We get you the info you need now." (That slogan is trademarked, by the way.)

ChoicePoint's accelerated growth from a spin-off of a credit check agency in 1997 into an info industry giant closely parallels the rise of George W. Bush.

In 1999, First Sibling Jeb Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris paid ChoicePoint subsidiary DBT $3.8 million to tidy up the state's voter registration lists by eliminating allegedly ineligible electors. In the process, it knocked off 57,600 mostly black and Latino voters, most of them Democrats, a ploy that ensured Jeb's brother the Presidency.

According to documentation unearthed under the Freedom of Information Act by the independent Electronic Privacy Information Center, ChoicePoint representatives were on the scene at the World Trade Center tragedy in Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-ambulance-chasing time. The company won contracts September 12 to match victims with its growing DNA data bank.

Two weeks later, ChoicePoint, one of the six largest information brokers in the United States, signed a $67 million contract (another $11 million would be attached later) to provide Ashcroft with the personal records of hundreds of millions of Latin Americans, all presumably potential terrorist suspects.

The handing over of Mexican voter registration records was a serious embarrassment to President Vicente Fox's assertion that his country's electoral system is at last free of the fraud that kept one party in power for seven decades. The voting credential issued by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), whose legitimacy is undermined by the scandal, contains a digitized photo and thumb print and is essential I.D. here for everything from cashing a check to entering a public building.

While only the names, addresses, birthplaces, and birthdates of voters are thought to be included in the voting data obtained by ChoicePoint, drivers' license records contain home telephone numbers for six million Mexicans. The vehicle registration lists, which indicate motor serial numbers, are thought to have been taken from Mexico's now-defunct National Automobile Registry, whose director, Ricardo Cavallo, was extradited to Spain, where Judge Baltazar Garzon has pledged to try him for genocide during Argentina's dirty war. Cavallo may have learned the tricks of the document-stealing trade while allegedly processing the confiscated property of suspected leftists held at a Buenos Aires naval training school where 5,000 are thought to have been tortured and killed by the Argentine military.

ChoicePoint's ease in obtaining sensitive Mexican public records has occasioned a flurry of fingerpointing. Some 4,000 underpaid IFE officials in thirty-two states had access to the voter registration lists that were contained on a series of easily copied CDs. In addition, the political parties, whose venality is legendary, all had access to the discs. In fact, the Mexico City drivers' license data dates back to 1997, when the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) took control of the capital. The updating of the data on a monthly and yearly basis suggested ongoing involvement with ChoicePoint by someone with access to the files.

The scandal tarnished Mexico's political system. "Do you think I'm going to vote after all this?" Miranda asks a U.S. reporter. "They would probably pick my pocket while I was marking the ballot."

What is to be done? National Autonomous University law professor Jorge Camil suggests a class action lawsuit by sixty-five million affected Mexicans. "But the U.S. courts do not listen to Mexico," he adds ruefully.

The prospect of the U.S. Border Patrol or its bounty hunters kicking down doors in Mexico City looking for a Los Angeles bail skip or New York parking scofflaw was no longer just a paranoid's vision, says Monterrey Technological Institute professor Julio Tello, who helped write Mexico's protocols on the use of databases. Neither was a phone tap ordered by U.S. Homeland Security. In the new New World Order, borders no longer guarantee privacy. "This is a violation of personal privacy and political rights," says Tello. "Now it is not just the telemarketers. The FBI has your number, too."

But not any longer. This story has a happy ending. Because of the outcry in Mexico, ChoicePoint "has scrapped its practice of obtaining and selling personal information on Mexican citizens," The Wall Street Journal reported in June. "ChoicePoint spokesman Chuck Jones said . . . that the company agreed last month to stop buying and selling the Mexican data because a government inquiry there determined that it was confidential. He said the data would be returned and purged from the ChoicePoint system. U.S. agencies will no longer have access to it."

Reached by The Progressive, Jones says, "We are still interested in obtaining this data but only with the cooperation of Mexican authorities." Jones insists the company obtained the data legally.

Meanwhile, other countries in Latin America are not panning out for ChoicePoint. "We just dropped Argentina because there was no market for it," Jones says. And Costa Rica recently changed its law to make the data confidential.

Reached at his barbershop stall in the Pino Suarez market, Lalo Miranda was incredulous at the news that ChoicePoint had returned the Mexican lists. Said Miranda: "Listen, once they have your name, they have it forever."

John Ross is a longtime Mexico hand and the author of "The War Against Oblivion," a chronicle of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.

Endgame in Baghdad

AMMAN, JORDAN (March 11). This past Friday (March 7), the day the fatal Blix report would be broadcast to an expectant universe, my Turkish comrade, ex-Greenpeace Mediterranean campaigner and Elvis Presley lookalike Tolga Temuge and I were perched upon the rickety roof of the engine house at the Daura oil refinery in west Baghdad, marking the site with industrial black paint, when the Human Shield action finally fell irrevocably apart.

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.

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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.

Baghdad Countdown

The afternoon sky over Baghdad browned ominously as the sandstorm swirled in from the surrounding desert. Suddenly, the dirt was flying everywhere, filling the mouth with grit, a choking blast of hot, stifling air that would not abate until near midnight. Some taxi drivers cursed, fearing the worst for their already damaged vehicles, while others were enthusiastic. "God is Great!" rejoiced the ferret-faced, bearded driver who carried me home from a crosstown meeting.

Indeed, the storm was a portent of weather to come as the desert heats up to 100 plus degrees. Here the spring and summer sandstorms blow like the Russian snow that snatched victory from Napoleon and the Nazis back in history's frozen museum. The heat here, they say, will fry the brains of the invading army, and because the brains of the U.S. barbarians are now embodied by killer computers, their machines of war will slow and discalibrate, and the 3,000 missiles Bush brags he will drill down upon us in an unprecedented 48-hour blitzkrieg are not guaranteed to kiss their targets with any precision. Above all, this is not good news for my new neighbors here.

Everywhere I travel, the war is in the air. In Mosul 200 miles to the north where the desert climbs into the cold mountain rain, if the experience of 1991 is any teacher, a bloodbath seems inevitable as U.S. proxy Kurds and Turkish troops (if their Parliament greenlights their participation) will go at it with the Iraqi army, trapping the civilian population in a deadly squeeze.

A delegation of Human Shields who have come to Iraq to interpose their bodies between the Bush bombs and the people of this unlucky land visit the edge of town and pause before one of this ancient city's 15 crumbling gates, each embossed with the emblem of the eagle king Asyripanipani, who protected Mosul from other barbarian hordes long centuries ago, much as the Human Shields dream of doing now although such a defense we know in our open secret hearts is a mere symbol, a kind of metaphor before the coming slaughter.

Mosul still bears the unmistakable scars of 1991. We visit sites blasted by the U.S. "smart" bombs a dozen years back -- the telephone company smashed to smithereens, a Christian church where the roof literally blew in, killing four worshipers at prayer, we are told by the young house priest. Mosul is the site of some of Christiandom's earliest crusades, a multicultural oasis where 8,000 orthodox Catholic families still reside. We bus down the valley to a fourth-century monastery hewn from the surrounding mountains -- the ruins of a church built in 150 AD are said to be nearby, such relics being in spitting distance of Jesus Christ himself, as an erudite fellow Shield observes.

This particular monastery, whose chambers breathe a musty antiquity, was damaged in a firefight between Kurds and Iraqi troops after the U.S. assault, and such engagements are a certainty once the American death machine has done its dirtiest work here.

The sinister Moloch, with its head of a snake and fearsome eagle talons, will greet the invading army when it descends upon Babylon, now a dusty, sparsely attended tract an hour south of Baghdad whose reconstructed walls will surely fall when Bush's missiles zero in on the presidential guest house here in their painstaking search and destroy for Saddam Hussein -- erasing his ubiquitous portraiture from public buildings alone may take a thousand times the number of heat-seeking rockets in the Yanqui arsenal.

We stroll through the ruins, a world heritage site, with a friendly posse of schoolkids, the only visitors this late February morning, trailing behind us chanting "Down Down Bush!," practicing their rudimentary English and slapping fives. "How are you?" and "Hi, my name is Muhammad" are particular favorites.

The Shields have come to Babylon hoping to set up shop here, but the Iraqi authorities build roadblocks. The Minders want us to install at what they consider to be priority infrastructure sites -- refineries, power plants, water treatment facilities that are sure to be bombed -- but not hospitals, schools, or the ancient ruins that define this place. We send our volunteers into the facilities the government insists we man and woman in pursuit of a quid pro quo that would hopefully grant us access to the humanitarian sites we have come here to protect, but there is no real dialogue with the authorities and the push and pull of where the Shields now in Baghdad will be deployed seems destined for a dark end. Spanish and Turkish comrades have already threatened to return to their home countries unless they are allowed to pitch their tents in front of local hospitals, but how easily their exit will be accomplished is still anyone's guess. No, we are not yet unwelcome guests, but the writing is indeed on the wall, and the choices narrow as the war draws near.

But settling in at the Daura Oil Refinery and the Seventh of April Water Treatment Facility is only half the business we are about. The international volunteers are resolved to maintain a steady drumbeat of street protest, and almost daily we parade along the boulevards of Baghdad, yelling at both Bush and Blair to get off the Iraqi peoples' backs. On Sunday the 23rd we strung up a 17-meter-long banner on one of the eight bridges that connect the banks of the Tigris River (all were blown the last time around), strumming guitars and shouting poems to the joyous honking of horns. "Bush -- The Whole World Is Watching You!" the banner reads, but whether it can be seen 10,000 miles away in Tampa, Florida, from whence the missiles will be triggered, is not assured.

That same morning, we marched on the United Nations headquarters here, our hands tied together by thick rope, to ask that international tribunals be convened to try us for the war crime of being human shields, as suggested by U.S. "defense" secretary Donald Rumsfield. Should we be declared innocent, we demand that Rumsfeld be tried instead for the potential million murders his grotesque weaponry could mow down in the coming days.

The day before, the Turkish comrades had danced through Martyrs' Square, pounding drums and tambourines in an exuberant effort to drown out the dirges of death that Bush and Blair duet. Earlier that morning, we had descended upon the International Press Center, hollaring 'No More Lies!' into the cubicles of corporate media which just loves this "war" (more likely a massacre) because it means booming ratings and bigger budgets, billions in expanded advertising revenues, and extravagant overtime for the all-star correspondents and their crews. "No More Lies!" we shouted at a CNN flunky, Ingrid Kormanack, who stomped out of her cardboard-walled cave muttering "I ask the questions around here."

But for all our fury, in the still of the soon-to-be-exploding, we know it is all a pantomine. The missiles will whistle in very soon, possibly as early as the new moon (February 28th) -- historically, the U.S. has always bombed the world by that small light. Many here would just as soon get it over with as quickly as possible because the waiting is killing their souls. "We eat America for breakfast," says Bassam, an ex-army man who invented a way to feed sheep chicken-shit (32% protein) in the aftermath of the last war, and now works as a driver at the swank Palestine Hotel. "Every morning, we listen to the news. If it is good our day will be good but if it is bad we cannot eat..."

Bassam and I have agreed to celebrate our birthdays together -- my 65th is March 11th, when we may still be alive, but his is April 19th, by which date our fate will surely be sealed. Only an impossible miracle -- the apparition of the Pope in Baghdad or a transplant of George W. Bush's evil heart -- can save us now.

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's committed to staying.