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Diary of a Human Shield

by KEN O'KEEFE Gulf War I Veteran

Finally, after a long delay in Rome and a few passport hiccups in Turkey, I arrived in Baghdad yesterday on a flight from Jordan. It’s been a long and winding road, but we human shields who started out from London on 25 January are all in Baghdad now and doing what we set out to do.

Not all of us made it, of course. Some had to go home. Others plan to go back soon, for good reasons of their own. And, as many British newspapers gleefully reported, there were disagreements and difficulties along the way. One of the three double-deckers we left London in–mine–broke down in Italy and we were stuck there for some time. I was thrown out of Turkey when the authorities refused to recognise my “Citizen of the World” passport. For everyone, the journey was long, cold, exhausting and not much fun. But now we are here, in Baghdad. And, as I had hoped and expected, that has put everything in perspective. The in-fighting and the politics has diminished and now we’re focusing on what we’re here for.

The only thing that still upsets me about the politics and the conflicts that broke out on the way here is the amount of energy it drained away, energy that would have been better used for more important things. I did the best I could to try to avoid it, but what can you say? As for the press focusing on the negative–well, that’s their job, to downplay the power people have to effect a better world. Trust the experts, trust the politicians, that’s their message. To me, that’s all good. Keep writing that rubbish, I say, because our power is growing.

Tuesday 18 February

I’m staying in a double room at the two-star Hotel Andalus in the middle of Baghdad. By Western standards it’s below par–the carpets are really dirty–but as far as I’m concerned it’s pretty comfortable, especially after sleeping on the floor of a freezing bus. The Iraqi government has supplied us all with accommodation at one of three city-centre hotels: even though some people had brought tents, the government wouldn’t allow us to use them. It costs those of us who are paying our way about $30 a night, an expense none of us wanted to incur; we didn’t come to Iraq to stay in hotels.

More human shields are arriving every day. People are coming who never even contacted our office in London: they have just driven or flown into Jordan and then made their way across the desert to Baghdad. I don’t know how many we are now, but it’s certainly in the hundreds; there’s no way of working out a more concrete number, because part of the strength of this movement is that it’s not centralised–you don’t have to go through a central office to join in. So there are people here I’ve never spoken to and who have never formally contacted us; I keep running into them on the street.

And they come from everywhere. A group of Slovenians has just arrived and a few days ago I met a delegation from South Africa. The group of human shields includes Spaniards, Turks and Italians, as well as Brits and Americans. There’s even a group of American Baptists who call themselves the Voices in the Wilderness.

I’m glad that southern people from oppressed places such as Turkey are joining the movement because these are the people that I relate to best. After leaving the US Marines in 1992, I lived in Hawaii where I became an environmental activist. The Hawaiian people are thoroughly oppressed, but they became my true family; I relate to them far better than to wealthy, white Westerners.

Thursday 20 February

I get up at about 8am every morning, but after that, every day is different. There could be a press conference, interviews, or meetings with other protesters; I’ve even spent one afternoon playing football against some locals. In the evenings there are either more meetings or we try to go out and have some fun: we go out to juice bars, have dinner, or play soccer. But we don’t have complete freedom of movement, of course.

We’ve been making our plans for the next few days. The idea is to spread out across the country, deploying human shields at power and electricity plants around Baghdad, with big banners pointing upwards. to the sky. I’m thinking of sending the GPS co-ordinates to Bush so he knows exactly where we are.

There’s been talk in Western newspapers that the US intends to defeat Iraq while leaving the infrastructure intact. But I fought with the US Marines in the first Gulf War and I know one or two things about war. Every soldier knows that if your water is running and your electricity is functioning and you are well-armed, you are going to be much more willing to fight than if you don’t have those things. Any soldier knows that in order to win, and win fast, you need to demoralise and crush the civilian population.

So I don’t believe for a second this idea that the US military will leave the electricity and the water intact. What are they going to do, send in 50,000-100,000 ground troops into a city where everybody’s armed and there’s a sizeable military force? That would be the military disaster of all disasters, and could destroy America.

No, the Americans and the British know how to fight this war. People who understand even the basics of war know that they’ve got to do basically what they did the first time. The Americans know that the chaos and mayhem that follow when the civilian population has been crushed and demoralised will make their job much easier. The difference is that, this time, groups of 15 or 20 white, Western humans shields will be out there across Iraq, deployed at the electricity plants and the water treatment facilities, making it much more difficult for the US to attack.

Friday 21 February

We’ve just had a load more TJP (“Truth, Justice, Peace”) T-shirts printed up out here for the shields to wear. They have the words “human shield” on them in English and Arabic, and also a quote form Gandhi: “Peace will not come out of a clash of arms, but out of justice lived and done by unarmed nations in the face of odds.” We get a good reaction when we wear them: the city, though not as bad as many people would envisage, is pretty downtrodden, but the people are wonderful. They greet us with smiles and genuine appreciation, and I definitely believe they know why we’re here. There are lots of cars on the streets–many American cars, strangely enough–and they honk their horns all the time. But I can’t be sure whether they’re doing that for us or not. As for the Iraqi authorities, well, most of the human shields have had minimal contact with them, although us organisers have had some dealings with them. They are quite relaxed and friendly towards us, and seem very happy to have us here.

Our power is growing: more people are coming–by Sunday there will be 130 of us. The fact that the US administration and the British are talking about human shields–the Foreign Office gave out a warning the other day saying there is a chance that people will be used as human shields–you can see they’re worried. They are frightened.

I conceived the idea of human shields because the British Government does not make decisions according to the wishes of the voters but at the bidding of those who are pulling the politicians’ strings. And they are threatening to lead us directly into the Third World War and that’s why it’s so important that we act now to stop this insanity. I came to these views through years of independent study, Noam Chomsky being a pretty important influence. And it became obvious to me that the United States is anything but a friend of freedom and democracy. I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that if people knew the truth, especially the American people, they’d be sick to their stomachs. Being an activist by nature I’ve simply applied that knowledge in the direction that I have and in what I’m doing today.

Sunday 23 February

The atmosphere amongst the human shields is generally very positive, but there are some conflicts, and I haven’t decided yet at which installations in or around Baghdad we will take up positions. In fact, I’m not sure which one I’m going to.

So that’s one of the things we will be doing in the days ahead. Another priority for me is to go to Basra and document some of the direct impact of depleted uranium on the communities living there.

During the first Gulf War depleted uranium was standard issue for tank rounds. But it’s nuclear waste. From the standpoint of both the military and the nuclear industry, it’s a happy solution to a big problem: there’s really no way to dispose of depleted uranium that isn’t going to be hazardous, so to use it for tank rounds is a brilliant get-out for then. But the genetic damage to communities living in areas where those rounds exploded has been devastating. One of the things we want to do urgently is to hold a press conference in Baghdad on this issue, with some doctors or scientists who can answer some of the technical questions. Ideally, it would be great if we could get some non-Iraqi sources to show their evidence as well, because there is a lot of credible literature about the effects of depleted uranium. But in the circumstances, I don’t know if such experts will be available.

Beyond those goals, my main mission is to try to make the West understand that the Iraqi people are people, just people. I want to share that with my countrymen. I would like to start a book on that subject on our website, writing about 100 Iraqi people who are just like you and me. It would show the world that these are people who have their own desires, their favourite foods, their goals in life and so on. I’d ask them, how do you feel about George Bush? How do you feel about the American people? Anything to humanise the Iraqis. Ideally, it would encourage more people to come here as human shields, or, if war does break out, to come to help the Iraqi people recover when it’s over.

Monday 24 February

People ask us how long we can hold out. Won’t we run out of money? Well, it’s cheap here. Food is really cheap. I’m a vegetarian, and I’m eating humus, pitta bread, salad, potatoes. I’m committed; I’m not leaving here until there’s nothing more I can do. And even then I might stay. People are wonderful here. And though it would be a frightening place for me with a puppet gov- ernment put in by the US, I think it would be very useful to document what really happens if they get their puppets in here.

Another thing I’m asked is whether I’m frightened of being killed. Of course, there’s a possibility that I could be arrested, prosecuted for high treason, made an example of. That would be fine with me. I can see that day might come. Some of the best and greatest people our world has ever known have been imprisoned for their beliefs. I think going to prison is almost an inevitability for somebody who’s really serious about effecting a better world and fighting for justice and freedom. So if I go, I will be a bona fide political prisoner, that’s for sure.

People will continue to mock and vilify the human shields, the way the press has been doing since we set out. It’s true we were not well organised: ideally, the whole thing would have been planned long in advance. But that wasn’t the way it happened: it spontaneously came together in a big rush. So of course it is messy. But that’s not important. It’s not like a military operation, a surgical strike, a human smart bomb. What I’ve been talking about is a mass migration, persuading thousands of people to come here.

The buses were only the start of it, a good way to publicise what we were doing. After that it obviously makes more sense for people to fly in. And that’s what they are doing now. We are using the fact that for America and the West, a white, Western life is worth hundreds of times more than a brown, Middle-Eastern life. And if there are hundreds, even thousands, of us spread across Iraq, it will simply be impossible for this war to start.

Ken O’Keefe is a former Marine and veteran of the first Gulf War.

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