It is ironic that my most treasured Christmas moments have come in a largely Muslim country.
It is December 1998 and after an intense and illegal bombing campaign at the very beginning of Ramadan, we have spent a week with children in Baghdad learning to sing “We Shall Overcome” in Arabic. The sweet voices of those children sustain me to this day.
It is December 1999, and in a particularly run-down area of Basra, a little boy pulls a milk crate by a frayed rope. Inside the crate, bundled in a muddied, ragged blanket, an obviously malnourished baby gazes calmly at me, undisturbed by the flies that surround him. This is a nativity under siege. That child’s innocent, suffering gaze, drives me to this day.
Each Sunday in the Christian season of Advent, church goers anticipate arrival of the innocent one, born into impossible poverty, who will bring forth justice for the poor, liberty for captives, sight for the blind. “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is sung in churches worldwide. I hear the tune now and feel haunted.
A modern-day Herod, deadly, vengeful and reckless, pursues the children of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have already been slaughtered in 11 long years of the most devastating siege in modern history. Instead of confronting the failures of this policy, the US seems to be gearing up to compound them with the greatest failure of all: war.
In hospitals, schools, mosques, churches and homes, people here ask us why the American people want to punish them even more. For 11 years they’ve been told that sanctions were a more “peaceful” alternative to open warfare. Now they’re being told that war is the solution to the suffering caused by sanctions. It would seem that the message from the US to the Iraqi people is in a twisted way at least consistent; and that is to please remember that they’re being killed with the very best of intentions.
But the truth is that war is not peace. We must not allow ourselves to be governed by a cruel and merciless world order that relies on siege and warfare to accomplish goals that violate human rights and international law. Around the world, people of conscience must begin to non-violently resist and challenge the movement towards intensified warfare with actions commensurate to the crimes being committed and threatened.
The barriers to peace may seem overwhelming, yet hope springs forth from the most surprising of places. Hope lives in the forgiveness shown by Umm Hassan, a young Iraqi mother I met last year. Moments after her child died for lack of an antibiotic, she murmured: “I pray this will never happen to a mother in your country.” Hope lives in Amber Amudson, a young American mother whose husband, Craig, was killed in the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Amber helped lead a walk for peace from Washington DC to New York City earlier this month, and she wrote to President Bush: “If you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality by perpetuating violence against other innocent human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband…. find the courage to respond to this incomprehensible tragedy by breaking the cycle of violence.”
It is Christmas 2001, and we are in Basra again, visiting the families we came to love when we lived with them two summers ago. Then, we tried to understand the effect of sanctions by learning what it was like to live without electricity for 14 hours per day in 49-degree heat, to share meals made from meagre rations, and to be cut off from communication with the rest of the world. Today, we’re cherishing the hope of peace and pledging to defy the call to war.
Four days ago, we visited Mar Yusuf Church in Mosul, which was hit by a US bomb in 1991, killing four guests at the church and severely burning one of the priests. The damage has long since been repaired, and inside stands the most beautiful of Christmas trees.
Riad Hamza dresses up as Father Christmas every year to pass presents out to the children. He made the tree for them as well – fashioning the ornaments from cigarette and matchboxes wrapped in brightly coloured paper and ribbons. He made the tree branches from shredded rice bags dyed a deep green. “Here in Iraq,” Riad told me, “we make something from nothing – especially the peace.” And isn’t that the most precious gift of all?
Kathy Kelly is director of Voices in the Wilderness, the first US grassroots organisation to bring activists into Iraq to witness the effect of sanctions, to violate the sanctions by bringing medicine and toys into Iraq, and to educate the US public upon their return.