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Good Americans in Baghdad

The Iraq Peace Team

by RAMZI KYSIA

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, it’s 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 like 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–4 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?”

Today, I know where the good Americans are: they’re in Iraq, and they’re organizing in the streets of America–laying their entire lives on the line to prevent the mass destruction of human life.

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 . He is co-coordinator of the Voices in the Wilderness‘ 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 ivoices@uruklink.net