Countdown to Cataclysm: Human Shields in Baghdad Wait for Bush to Bomb
by John Ross
February 28, 2003
Reporter, poet and activist John Ross is a celebrated chronicler of Mexico's indigenous Zapatista rebels. His 1994 book, Rebellion From the Roots received the American Book Award. His reports from Latin American have appeared regularly the Los Angeles Weekly and San Francisco Bay Guardian. In early February, Ross flew to Baghdad to act as a report and as a "human shield." He has vowed to keep filing reports "as long as George Bush allows me to live." This is the first of his dispatches.
BAGHDAD (February 22) - The Syrian-Iraqi border after midnight is a dimly lit No Man's Land. We sit in a smoke-filled caf¨¦ on the Syrian side, dining on kabobs and guzzling Turkish coffee on the house. When George Bush pounds a podium while multiple American flags unfurl behind him on the caf¨¦ TV, the truck rivers, low-rent travelers, and Human Shields in attendance convulse in waves of laughter and derision at the US president's cowboy schtick.
This trip has been filled with such media moments as viewed from the far side of the tube. In Ankara waiting on the Iraqi visas, we watch Bush brag that he will feed the people of that axis of evil republic that Washington has starved for the past decade, and once again the room collapses in hilarity. The Bush act plays very badly in this seething corner of a world he seeks to conquer with bombs and bribery and his yahoo demeanor makes it into one of the top comedy acts east and west of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
The Iraqi slice of the border is more congenial than the Syrian side where every one of one's names (mother, father, your own) is painstakingly inscribed in Arabic longhand. Here Saddam's portrait smiles broadly as dour immigration officials register and sometimes confiscate all cell and sat phones, laptops, video cams, and other electronic gear (I try to register my alarm clock which bears the insignia of an obscure Mexican football team but the Migra man waves me away.) By dawn the inventory is complete and the British Shields are kicking around a soccer ball with the Iraqi border guards. Godfrey, my 68-year-old compa¡¦ro as grandfather of this journey to the end of night is leafing through a dog-eared edition of 'King Lear', an appropriate text given who is at the helm of the nation we are about to plunge into.
The Caravan Enters Iraq
The Human Shield Action Caravan, 35 bedraggled anti-war warriors, entered Iraq in two battered but brave London double-decker buses on the morning of February 15th, a day set aside for unprecedented protest against the Bush-Blair war on this still-resilient republic. Although we are trying to reach Baghdad for a huge, wild mid-day rally, the rage is patent enough on the border, a dusty, fly-specked wedge of desert where the kids press up against the bus chanting and dancing so feverishly that you can feel the heat of their bodies even upstairs on the double-deckers. The frenzy feels dangerous as they wave portraits of Saddam and rain curses down on George Bush, and their youthful energies seem capable of dismantling our wheezing machines.
|Protestors in the US call the US-omposed sanctions against Iraq a "weapon of mass destruction." Credit: www.circlevision.org|
As we roll through the oil-splotched desert, we follow the world-wide marches on truck stop TV screens, the customers loudly dissing Bush and buying us jiggers of tea and fragrant coffee, a timely reminder of how fervently much of the world hates Yanqui Doodle imperialism but not necessarily the American people. Although for a few brief moments in the aftermath of 9-11, my fellow citizens seemed to grasp this universal reality, that understanding has faded to black in Bush's endless demonizing of Saddam Hussein as the henchman of Osama Bin Ladin, an accusation bereft of any shred of truth - indeed Bin Ladin once put a fatwa on the Iraqi kingpin's head.
Given 20 years of war and affliction, much of it manufactured in the USA, Baghdad is not what you would expect. Rather, it is a thoroughly streamlined capital of 6,000,000, skylined by modernesque high-rises with ample green space and boulevards broad as Texas, a sort of middle eastern Houston powered by great gobs of oil money (SUVs have become an increasing hazard here.)
The first Bush tried to bomb this metropolis back to the stone age but the Iraqi people built it all up again in record time and now Baby Bush seeks to re-flatten this city and let the construction contracts to Dick Cheney's Brown & Root (a division of Halliburton Inc.) Yet despite the evil Bushwa that envelops them, the residents of this wondrous burg repeatedly stop you on the streets just to tell you how much they love you. Yes, love you! In four decades of gallivanting the globe, that has never happened to this reporter before.
Ken O'Keefe: Lord of the Shields
The Shields are presently ensconced in a moderately priced hotel at government expense until we can figure out how to wiggle off this hook. The Tigris, a slow-moving Mississippi of a river meanders not a block from our balconies. We are busy plotting the logistics of how to keep Bush's bombs from creaming the civilian population on the ground and trying hard not to squabble amongst ourselves, a task made gnarly by the re-appearance of the action's very dodgy instigator, Ken Nichols O'Keefe, a seemingly suicidal once-upon-a-time Persian Gulf marine with dotted lines tattooed around his throat that read 'cut here.'
Miffed by a revolt of his passengers way back in Rome to which he diverted the caravan in a failed bid for the Pope's blessing, O'Keefe flew into Baghdad, hijacked the Shields' web page and finances, and tried to resume his summary expulsions of participants he perceived to be plotting against him, a ploy the survivors of the bus ordeal have apparently beaten off. As more and more volunteers pour into town, O'Keefe, now draped in a black djelaba that makes him look like a figment from the Lord of the Rings, has lost all credibility and control over the action and a fresh leadership forged from the travails of the road is now running the show.
Meanwhile, Slovenians and Japanese, an indefatigable Turkish contingent, busloads of Barcelonans and Germans, Italian brigadistas, Syrians, Estonians, a reported 60 Russians (still on the road), and multitudes of Scandinavians and Anglo pacifists stage daily marches, anti-war auctions, peace drum festivals, and die-ins in an outburst of creative outrage that must surely cause Saddam Hussein to wonder what all this unprecedented protest is leading up to.
A Vigil at El Amiriya
On February 19th, a handful of US citizens gathered outside the El Amiriya bomb shelter where on Valentine's Day 1991 Papa Bush's stupid but murderous 'smart' bombs incinerated 407 human lives whose shadows were forever etched into the structure's walls, to mourn this genocidal attack and contemplate the coming assault on the city (Baghdadians universally refuse to return to the shelters, preferring to risk it all at home.). 'Not In Our Name' our banner read and the neighbors, many of whom lost their loved ones in that inferno, came out to greet us. 'We love you' the young children chorused, 'we love you', and my eyes burned with their tears.
All week, the minders - not nearly as menacing as the New York Times would have you believe - have been bussing the Shields around from site to site in an undisguised effort to convince us to position ourselves near infra-structure such as power plants, water treatment facilities, and the Saddam Children's Hospital.
The press and the Shields are paraded through the wards of sick and dying kids at that last named facility where their floodlights and video cams and the unison click of cameras do not do much to improve the failing health of the babies. The moment is one of crass exploitation at this government institution where more than 1,700 babies have died from cancers caused by the depleted uranium shells the first Bush drilled down upon them in the last war.
Dr. Sefik Salam (not his real name) complains about the never-ending parade of journalists and pacifists and the manipulation of vital supplies made scarce by ten years of United Nations sanctions. Sand fly infections, sometimes called mountain leprosy or Leshmaniosis, a disease I first encountered among the Zapatistas in Chiapas, is one example. Because US-manufactured pharmaceuticals used to treat this disfiguring affliction are in short supply, victims are constantly being sent back to the countryside with incomplete treatments. Since most of the hospital's patients live in the desert outback, many die en route to the big city or arrive here so ill that recovery is impossible.
Although the Shields resist the manipulation and seek out less Saddam-related sites to install themselves, defense of the civilian population necessitates compromises. This weekend a score of Shields will move into a south Baghdad power plant bombed in the last war, paint huge logos on the roof, and inform their governments back home that they are on site in a campaign to prevent repeat demolition.
Also on the list of sites to receive human shields are archeological ruins like Ur in the south, the birthplace of the biblical Abraham, which was damaged in the first Bush war, and Ninevah and Nimrod around Mosul in the north. This Shield has proposed to settle in at Babylon, a cradle of civilization the US president seeks to erase from the face of the planet 90 kilometers south of Baghdad. What more could a poet ask for when the Bush bombs fall?
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