Endgame in Baghdad
by John Ross
March 21, 2003

US weaponsmakers share George W. Bush's worldview: Attacking Iraq is good for business. Credit: Northrup Corp.
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 America have appeared regularly the Los Angeles Weekly and San Francisco Bay Guardian.

In early February, Ross flew to Baghdad to act as a reporter and a "human shield." He had vowed to keep filing reports "as long as George Bush allows me to live" but, on March 11, Ross became one of several Human Shields expelled from Iraq for refusing to obey every wish of the Iraqi government.

This is his report.

AMMAN JORDAN (March 11) - This past Friday, March 7, the day the fatal Blix report was broadcast to an expectant universe, my Turkish comrade - an ex-Greenpeace Mediterranean campaigner and Elvis Presley lookalike named Tolga Temuge - and I were perched upon the rickety roof of the engine house at the Daura oil refinery in west Baghdad.

We were marking the roof with industrial black paint. We had already filled in the six-meter-long letters "H-U" and were outlining the "M" in the words that, when spelled out completely, would signal to George Bush's death-dealing missiles that the refinery was a United Nations-certified civilian site providing 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 US president would also be endangering the lives of his own citizens and those of many other nations.

It was at that moment - on mid-letter - that 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.

Rebellious Shields Ordered to Leave
Under a fatwa issued by Dr. Abdul Al-Hasimi, the "non-governmentalEgroup" (NGO) director, we were ordered to leave Iraq immediately - 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 included:

  • 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 had thoroughly disaffected the Iraqi government.
The eviction order had actually been called out by Dr. Hasimi at a disturbing 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.

While Hans Blix was pronouncing his weasel words to the UN Security Council that evening, us 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.

Saddam was a problem (as are all two-bit dictators installed by CIA fiat) but he is 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.

A Midnight Drive through the Desert
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 wilderness, 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?

Before the bombs: Iraqi children gathering springtime flowers. Credit: United Nations
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 US Murder Incorporated. 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 compass, one of them a nun from the San Carlos Hospital down in the Zapatista zone of southeastern Chiapas. They were all on their way to Baghdad to relieve us as "escudos humanos."

The illuminated sign at the Iraqi border featured the usual portraiture 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.

A 'Piece of Cake' Covered with Sand
The morning sandstorm blew furiously as we swerved up towards Amman, dodging the endless train of rusting tanker trucks that defy the unconscionable UN sanctions by ferrying fuel to the oil-less kingdom of Jordan. The grit flew so thickly that our chauffeur was at times driving blind. Such weather, as I have had occasion to note in these erratic dispatches, will sabotage Bush's war from the ground up.

An AP dispatch found in Sunday's Saudi Gazette reports that sandstorms around Camp New Jersey, on the Kuwaiti border, have already caused the Yanqui troops to stray into the surrounding desert as they feel their way from the mess tents back to their own flattened quarters. 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.

Iraq will not be the piece of cake the Pentagon brass advertises it to be. I'm convinced that the new Human Shields who replace us on sites like my oil refinery (never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would wax nostalgic over an oil refinery) have not gathered there to interpose their bodies between the Bush bombs and the civilian infrastructure.

Many are hard-eyed, pro-active fighters who have come to Iraq to take the heads of the hated invaders. Despite the 3,000-missile blitzkrieg of which Bush never tires of boasting, there will be a lot of street-fighting in the very near future. "We will fight them block by block just as our grandfathers fought the British colonialists," warns Mr. Al-Karash, the general manager of the Daura refinery, who himself survived a 42-day inferno back in '91 to get this vital installation up and running again.

Up ahead in Amman, wannabe Shields and recent escapees from Baghdad have gathered at the Al Saraya hotel, a cheesy fleabag hard by the bus station, with 24-hour-a-day internet connections. Many have been there for weeks trying fruitlessly to enter Iraq but will never get their visas together. Others have recently evacuated from Baghdad, exasperated by government manipulation, or propelled by their own fears of dying under the gringo bombardment as the war crescendos out of control.

The ambience at the Saraya is smarmy with what could have been and never was. Now a mad Ken O'Keefe has belatedly arrived to preside over this lost tribe.

The Success of the Shields
It is time, I suppose, to take measure of whatever happened to the Human Shields. In a very real sense, we fulfilled our mission. Like the double-decker buses that have long since returned home to London, the action was merely a vehicle for inciting the massive movement against Bush's planned genocide and honing the commitment of our own combatants.

We succeeded in making the bombing of civilian targets a frontline issue, put hundreds on those targets, and raised the stakes by daring George Bush to bomb us into oblivion. In this small light, we may have indeed made the White House more cautious about leveling the civilian population it lies that it is liberating.

We even opened a thin slice of democratic space with our spontaneous street demonstrations, which may be remembered by civil society whenever their time comes round again. But the war will be on the world's doorstep very soon, perhaps as early as tonight, and under such circumstances the window of opportunity is closing rapidly.

It is time now to go home and return to our countries and communities, our loved ones and compa├▒eros, and rejoin the bigger movement of millions and millions who have marched month after month against the prospect of this evil war.

But before I go, I want to thank the Iraqi people one more time for opening their arms to us, for feeding and housing us and telling us time and again that they love us. "We love you," they smiled when we walked the streets of their cities, "we love you." In four decades on the road, this has never happened to me anywhere before.

There is no question that I have left a good chunk of my heart back in Baghdad under the roar and whistle of the stacks at the Daura refinery. May it survive Bush and his bombs in fighting style in the awful days to come. Inchilah.

John Ross will be back on the streets of North America in the next week to deal with George Bush's intended genocide of the Iraqi people. He invites you to join him.

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