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Inside NCR

I am writing this on March 13, as the countdown to war continues. This morning I spoke with Kathy Kelly, cofounder of Voices in the Wilderness, the group that, since 1996, has worked tirelessly and at significant risk in opposition to the sanctions against Iraq. In recent months, of course, that work has turned to opposing the impending war.

Kelly, along with 21 colleagues, is in Baghdad. This morning they were awaiting the arrival of seven to nine more people who intend to stay for the war’s duration.

The group is split among three hotels in Baghdad, all within walking distance, and their plan is to try to stay in touch should the bombing begin.

Until then, they wait. Like everyone else in Iraq. Kelly and the others have come to know quite a few people in the years since she first accompanied a delegation to Baghdad in defiance of U.S. law. Her concern then, as now, was with the people of Iraq, the ones who were most deeply affected by the sanctions, particularly in those early years, when nothing could get into the country. It was the children and women, not Saddam Hussein or the military, who suffered terribly under the most severe sanctions in history. The sanctions obviously did not work, apart from killing the better part of a generation of Iraqis under the age of 5.

So now we’re going to bomb them -- what’s the phrase, “shock and awe” or something like that -- into giving up.

It is difficult to convey the weariness one feels in a disintegrating culture. I experienced it briefly in Iraq in 1999 when I accompanied a Voices delegation. Saddam and his cronies no doubt live well. Someone always lives well, no matter how desperate the circumstances. During the Great Depression, after all, there was a significant layer of wealth in the United States. Not everyone suffers equally.

But the people of Iraq have been under the gun, literally, for some 12 years now. The war, really, has never ceased. They’re just preparing for it to get much, much worse than it has ever been.

Will they welcome the U.S. invasion? It’s difficult to say, said Neville Watson, a barrister and Protestant minister from Australia, who is also in Baghdad with the Voices group. In the “very controlled” circumstances in Iraq, people would undoubtedly like to see change. “But the idea of a foreign country coming in, which has no idea of the culture, history or tensions here, I don’t think that kind of occupying force is going to be too well accepted.”

Exactly what will be left to greet the occupiers is the most difficult question to ponder. “In all the wars I’ve seen, there are no generals killed, no politicians killed. It’s mainly women and children,” he said.

Kelly, meanwhile, said anxiety is growing even as the daily routine goes on. “I want people to know that the idea of the United States conducting a war of self-defense seems ludicrous from this side.” It is somewhat bizarre, she said, hearing reports of people in the United States stocking up on duct tape and plastic sheeting.

The war preparations in Iraq are acts of desperation, Kelly said. For a population that has been “brutalized and exhausted by 12 years of sanctions and warfare -- and they don’t even harbor hostility toward the United States -- there has been an agonizing uncertainty in these very long months. They want to protect their children, and there just isn’t any kind of protection from the kind of bombs we’re hearing about.”


That seems to be the watchword. It is not idle waiting. Kelly and others go to hospitals daily. One group goes to an orphanage to conduct arts and crafts programs for children.

She knows a family who has decided to try to make a run to Syria. The mother is afraid her children will suffer heart attacks when the bombing commences. She remembers the horror of the intense bombing in 1991 and this time it is supposed to be so much worse.

Earlier this week, said Kelly, she and others stood outside their hotels with signs bidding farewell to U.N. personnel who are abandoning the country. The United Nations’ leaving is “a pretty bitter pill” to swallow, said Kelly, first, because the United Nations recently released a detailed and specific report predicting horrific numbers of casualties, displacements, poisoning of water and on and on, in the event of war. More deeply, however, it is a bitter pill because the United Nations has had such a large role to play in creating what Kelly calls Iraq’s “forced dependency” on U.N. aid.

Waiting. One woman in the southern city of Basra told her, “It is very, very hard when you can do nothing but sit and wait for your city to be bombed.”

Back in Baghdad, Kelly and her colleagues wait. She emphasized that Voices people were not part of the “human shield” operation, an effort that some say is being manipulated by the Iraqi government.

Kelly waits with the 4.5 million to 5 million inhabitants of Baghdad. Sitting ducks waiting as “the world’s largest firing squad is assembling to take direct hits on a civilian population.”

Anyone wishing to obtain a copy of Fr. James Carney’s autobiography To Be a Christian is … to Be a Revolutionary (see story Page 8) should contact Joe Connolly at comcntr1@aol.com. Though the book is out of print, Connolly has copies available to anyone who donates to the Padre Guadalupe Carney Fund to Promote Justice in Central America.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003