GAZA CITY, FREE PALESTINE (29 October 2008) -- This morning I walked to the Indian Ocean and made salt in defiance of the British Occupation of India. This morning I marched in Selma, I stood down tanks in Tiananmen Square, and I helped tear down the Berlin Wall. This morning I became a Freedom Rider.
The Freedom Riders of the 21st Century are sailing small boats into the Gaza Strip in open defiance of the Israeli Occupation and blockade. This morning I arrived in Gaza aboard the SS Dignity, part of a Free Gaza Movement delegation of twenty seven doctors, lawyers, teachers, and human rights activists from across the world, including Mairead Maguire - the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
When I close my eyes, I still hear the crash of ocean waves, I still feel the warm sun on my face, and I still taste salt from the sea spray. When I close my eyes, I can still see the Israeli warship that tried to intimidate us when we reached the twenty-mile line outside Gaza, and I can still see a thousand cheering people crowding around our ship when we refused to be intimidated and finally reached port in Gaza City. Today, the proudest boast in the free world is truly, "Nam, Nehnu Nastatyeh!" -- "Yes, We Can!"
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, sailed aboard the Dignity, along with six other Palestinians from the West Bank, from 1948/inside the Green Line, and from countries in Europe. What should have been a ninety-minute drive from Ramallah to Gaza City became a three day odyssey as he travelled from the West Bank to Jordan, then flew to Cyprus, before finally coming aboard the Dignity for the fifteen hour sea voyage to Gaza.
"We're challenging Israel in a manner that is unprecedented, " said Dr. Barghouti. "Israel has prevented me from visiting Gaza for more than two years now. I am so pleased that we managed to defy Israel's injustice so that I can see all the people I love and work with in Gaza. Israel's measures are meant to divide us, but it is our defiance and resistance which unite us. " This is a resistance which can and should light the fire of all our imaginations, and bring hope not just to Palestinians, but to peoples suffering the terrible tides of oppression and injustice the world around.
After watching the Dignity's arrival, Fida Qishta, the local coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Gaza Strip, said "If Gaza is free then it's our right to invite whomsoever we wish to visit us. It's our land and it's our sea. Now more groups must come, not only by sea but also the crossings at Erez and Rafah must be opened as well. This second breaking of the siege means a lot, actually. It's the second time in two months that people have come to Gaza without Israel's permission, and that tells us that Gaza will be free."
For over forty years, Israel has occupied the Gaza Strip. Despite the so-called "Disengagement " in 2005, when they shut down their illegal settlements here, Israel maintains absolute control over Gaza's borders and airspace, severely limiting the free movement of goods, services, and travel. Israel is still an occupying power.
For over two years, Israel has maintained a brutal blockade of Gaza. Less than twenty percent of the supplies needed (as compared to 2005) are allowed in. This has forced ninety-five percent of local industries to shut down, resulting in massively increased unemployment and poverty rates. Childhood malnutrition has skyrocketed, and eighty percent of families are now dependent on international food aid just to be able to eat. An hour after we arrived, I watched a teenage boy digging through the garbage, looking for something he could use.
Israel's siege isn't simply illegal -- it's intolerable.
Renowned human rights activist Caoimhe Butterly also sailed aboard the Dignity, and will remain in Gaza for several weeks as Project Coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement. But, said Butterly, "My feelings are bittersweet. Although we're overjoyed at reaching Gaza a second time, that joy is tempered by the fact that the conscience of the world has been reduced to a small boat and 27 seasick activists. This mission is a reminder of not only the efficacy of non-violent direct action, but also of the deafening silence of the international community."
Our first voyage in August, the first voyage of any international ship to Gaza in over forty years, showed that it was possible to freely travel. This second voyage shows that it is repeatable, and this sets a precedent: The Siege of Gaza can be overcome through non-violent resistance and direct action.
Today, the Free Gaza Movement has a simple message for the rest of the world: What are you waiting for?
You get what you pay for in life. What are you willing to pay for peace?
With George Bush as president, it doesn't seem to be a problem any of us will ever have to face again, but you can't be a pacifist only in peacetime. You can't be a pacifist by yelling at your tv set, or forwarding a million emails to everyone you know. Pacifism isn't that passive, it isn't that easy. It is, and always has been, by definition, a radical challenge to every element of worldly power and violence.
I'm in Iraq with a handful of other Americans: Eric Edgin, an Indiana college student; Nathan Mauger, a recent journalism graduate from Washington State; Farah Mokhtareizadeh, a Pennsylvania college student; Jon Rice, a history teacher from Chicago; Henry Williamson, a paramedic from South Carolina; and Joe Quandt, a writer from New York. More are joining us. By the end of October, we'll have over 30 people on our team. By December, our numbers will be over 100. We're here to tell the stories of the Iraqi people; to put our lives on the line to stop this war.
Living in Baghdad, you wouldn't know there was a war. The streets bustle with people on their way to work or school. In the evenings the parks are full of kids playing soccer, people visiting with family and friends. There are no tanks in the streets, no soldiers marching, no civil defense drills, and -- other than foreigners like us -- no one here seems to be stocking up on food or water. Is it denial? Disbelief? Some inner despair? I honestly don't know.
It's painful that Baghdad is so beautiful. There's a unique and striking blend of traditional and modern architecture. I love the city's parks, its wide, tree-lined boulevards -- each avenue sprouting date palms and poplars. This is truly a green city. I told a cab driver that Baghdad was a beautiful city. He just looked hard at me. "No," he said, "Baghdad is not beautiful. Baghdad is tired."
We hear it over and over again -- just below the surface -- a melody of melancholy, resignation, and fear. People quietly complain, "What more can America do to us?" We visit a high school, and the kids want to make absolutely sure we really understand that they're not natural-born killers or terrorists. A teacher lets us know that his 8-year-old asks him every day if today's the day he's going to die.
Ask an Iraqi about "liberation," and they'll laugh at you. It's bitter mirth. If the U.S. doesn't bomb the civilian infrastructure again, and if the government falls fast, and if the army doesn't break-up along ethnic and religious lines -- then only a few thousand innocent people will be killed when George Bush starts his war. But if Bush bombs the water and power systems as his dad did in '91 -- tens of thousands will die from the resulting epidemics. If the army falls apart, there could be a civil war that makes past conflicts in Lebanon or Bosnia look like schoolyard brawls. And if food aid distributed by the Iraqi government under the Oil-for-Food program is disrupted for more than a few weeks, UNICEF is warning there will be country-wide famine.
When will Americans wake up to the fact that we are not the only real people on this planet; that our security cannot depend on the insecurity of everyone else?
George Bush seems to be living out some comicbook fantasy, never sure of whether he's really the President, or just Alfred E. Neumann doing a poor impersonation. Donald Rumsfeld angrily denounces Iraq for having an "insatiable appetite" for weapons. This from a man whose budget for war is over 50 times the size of Iraq's entire economy. And Colin Powell criticizes the UN for forging an agreement to return weapons inspectors -- four days after Bush demanded that the UN do it or become "irrelevant."
Have we failed to notice that the inmates are now running the asylum?
Some accuse us of being "fools" or "apologists" for the Iraqi government. We don't often have the opportunity to speak with officials here, but when we do we always raise concerns about prisons, extrajudicial killings, and state-directed violence.
That isn't to toot our own horn. Our status as Americans gives us this luxury, in a way that Iraqis do not have for themselves. That's uncomfortable and troubling, and if it strikes some as hypocritical for us to be here as pacifists, I can understand that. But it strikes me as much more hypocritical to speak out against a foreign government for killing innocents -- while facilitating the killing of countless more by our own government through our silence and our tax dollars. We apologize for no one but ourselves.
According to Human Rights Watch, Iraq has roughly 3,000 extrajudicial killings a year. According to UNICEF, U.S. policy kills over 50,000 Iraqi children every year. Both are terrible. They aren't equivalent.
My government may not care, they may be intent on war no matter what -- but I refuse to be "irrelevant." I'm here. I choose to believe that if Americans knew what was being done in our names, we wouldn't allow it. The alternative is madness.
It's disgusting that millions of people being threatened with massive destruction isn't "news," and Americans joining them is. But if the only way to get anyone to pay attention is to be in Baghdad when the bombs fall, so be it. We're here.
Our hotel isn't fancy, but at least it isn't close to anything "strategic." Our risks are the same as the other 5 million people in Baghdad, the other 24 million people in Iraq. As our team's numbers grow, we'll turn the hotel into our own hostel - living 5 or 6 to a room.
We're volunteering with NGOs already working in Iraq, and we're doing regular writing and journaling. Some of that writing will be carried in alternate media and small-town papers, and, even after the U.S. destroys the electricity and phone lines, we'll get reports out through the local press center on a satellite phone. We won't let folks back home forget the human consequences of what they do here. Milan Kundera once wrote, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." We're here to be part of that struggle.
Mohammed Ghani Hekmat is perhaps the most prominent artist in Iraq, and one of the kindest men I've ever met. His sculptures decorate the country. He's proud to be the first Muslim artist ever commissioned by the Vatican. In 1991, he was working on a series of life-size reliefs of the Stations of the Cross, when the Gulf War happened. The windows in his studio were blown out by the explosions. We asked him what he thought of the American people, and his voice filled with anger: "They're innocent," he accused, "Innocent! Like children."
We're here because we know we're not innocent. Being here is our part in the war against terrorism: humanizing Iraqis in the eyes of Americans, humanizing Americans in the eyes of Iraqis -- taking direct responsibility for what's done in our names.
Our government, our country -- our people -- have killed hundreds of thousands of human beings in Iraq since 1990. We're about to compound that atrocity with another war that, if it goes badly, will likely kill hundreds of thousands more.
In 1945, when the Allies liberated the death camps, the entire Western world was absolutely shocked. We asked, "how could this have happened? How could the German people have allowed this? Where were the 'good' Germans?"
We get what we pay for in this life. I don't want to die. I am scared for my life. But this storm is fast upon on us. This is the moment when we all must ask - what are we willing to risk for peace?
Ramzi Kysia is a Muslim-American peace activist, working with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (www.epic-usa.org). He is co-coordinator of the Voices in the Wilderness' (www.vitw.org) Iraq Peace Team (www.iraqpeaceteam.org), a group of American peaceworkers pledged to stay in Iraq before, during, and after any future U.S. attack. The Iraq Peace Team can be reached at email@example.com.
When I first visited Iraq in the summer of 1999, I wrote that nothing could have prepared me for my trip -- for the incredible hospitality of the people, or for the incredible brutality of the sanctions. Since then, I've seen reports that sanctions against Iraq were crumbling, and I had hoped that the lives of the Iraqi people were much improved.
I was wrong.
Chronic unemployment, underemployment, and hyperinflation are still the rule, and most Iraqis are still struggling in terrible poverty. 11 years after the Gulf War, the electricity has not yet been fully restored, and much of the country's infrastructure remains in disrepair. The hospitals here are just as crowded, and almost as poorly stocked, as I remember from 1999. The doctors complain just as much about not having enough medicines, or the proper medicines. And the children are still dying by the thousands every month.
Walking the streets of Baghdad you do notice more shops today, with more goods in them, but then you also notice the young children, in torn and dirty clothes, searching through the garbage by the side of the road -- looking for treasure, or maybe just for a meal. Street children are a new phenomenon in Iraq, a country where, before the war, childhood obesity used to be the biggest problem pediatricians complained about.
Walking the streets of Baghdad you notice the architecture -- the boarded-up and shuttered buildings, the crumbling sidewalks and other evidences of 11 years of economic ruin. But you also notice the new, box-like structures being built, with huge archways, intricate brickwork, and jutting columns, balconies and facades. There's a striking mix of old and new, of socialist sensibility and Babylonian splendor -- Frank Lloyd Wright meets Lawrence of Arabia. These buildings are beautiful, and you have to wonder how many of them will be standing in six months if the U.S. does decide to massively bomb this country.
People here don't seem too worried about the U.S. expanding the "war" to Iraq. Everyone agrees that after Afghanistan, America will bomb here next, but, as one man put it to me, the Iraqi people are "used to the voice of American bombs." Iraqis are celebrating Ramadan, and going about their lives as usual. They say that the future is out of their hands, so why bother worrying about it? They point out that the U.S. has bombed Iraq repeatedly for 11 years -- almost every day in the North and South -- and that they're still here.
I don't know. This time seems different: much more serious, much more frightening.
On Sadoun Street, in one of Iraq's main shopping districts, Mr. Moyab has a supermarket brimming with Western goods, but priced far out of reach for most Iraqis. He insists that things haven't changed for people here: "There's not more money. We must finish this blockade."
At the Inaa art gallery, proprietor Ala told me that, "People are people in every place in the world. We are people who love peace, and we don't want war." He wanted me to ask the American people "Why they are bombing Iraq and everywhere in the world everyday and we don't know why? There is nothing between the Iraqi people and the American people -- only politics."
But politics has consequences. One out every four Iraqi children is severely malnourished, and thousands die from malnutrition and disease every month. Though the UN food ration has steadily improved over the last five years, it still contains no fresh fruits or vegetables, and no animal protein, a fact that Dr. Mahmoud Mehi, the director of al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad complains bitterly about. "In this hospital -- and this is a teaching hospital, in the capitol," said Dr. Mehi, "we have a child die every day and sometimes two. Imagine what it is outside of the capitol, in the rural areas."
Off the record, UN officials explain that a handout will never substitute for a normal economy, and that the food ration represents not only the primary source of food for most Iraqis, but their primary source of income as well. As a result, many people sell parts of the ration to raise cash. The UN also complains about the terrible number of "holds" placed on contracts by the U.S. At this moment, there are over $4 billion in contracts on hold at the UN Sanctions Committee, representing 25 percent of all the supplies shipped to Iraq over the last five years of the program. Even though Iraq has sold almost $50 billion dollars worth of oil since the Oil-for-Food program first began in December 1996, they've only received a little over $16 billion in supplies. This works out to an average of $140 per person per year, which -- despite its oil wealth -- puts Iraq among the poorest nations in the world.
As the United States moves toward a massive, military intervention in Iraq, we would do well to look at the devastation that's already been wrought here, and listen to people like Dr. Mehi who asks Americans to, "use wisdom, and think in a better way for other countries."
Back on Sadoun Street, Mr. Najeb runs a new photography studio. Colorful pictures of modest adults and smiling children line the walls of the entrance. The studio itself is freshly painted with starscapes and tropical motifs. Najeb has worked as a freelance photographer for many years, but only recently was able to afford his own shop. As such, he represents the first, stumbling attempts to return Iraq to something approaching a normal economy. After welcoming me and offering tea, Najeb wanted to tell me that the Iraqi people understand the difference between the American government and the American people. He said to tell Americans that, "We're all human beings. We're all the same." Expressing concern over the increasing likelihood of war, Najeb related an Iraqi saying that, "The people in the top of the mountain look to the people in the valley, and they look small. But the people in the valley look to the people in the mountain as well, and they look very small to them too."
Indeed. At this critical moment in history, Americans would do well to heed the example of forgiveness being offered by these people of the valley and ask ourselves: How small do we really feel?
Ramzi Kysia is a Muslim-American peace activist, and serves on the board of directors for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. He is currently in Iraq as part of a Voices in the Wilderness peace delegation trying to stop the war.