Turned Back at the Border

Amman, Jordan. We have just been handed a huge disappointment: no visas for Iraq for us, because of our past employment with the CIA. We received this word this morning at breakfast, almost casually, from a newly arrived member of our Iraq Peace Team who had just been on the telephone to Baghdad with Kathy Kelly, the founder and leader of Voices in the Wilderness, the sponsor of the peace teams.

Our entire delegaton arrived here without yet having obtained Iraqi visas, on the strength of assurances from the Voices people in Baghdad that previous teams had always received them. The other eight members of our delegation also don’t yet have their visas, but there is still some hope that, without the difficult past associations that encumber us, they’ll finally receive the go-ahead from the Iraqi government. Everything about travel into Iraq has been slowed down by massive uncertainty, and the entire trip may fall apart for them too. We’re definitely out. The disappointment is palpable, almost like being punched in the stomach. The other peace team members react the same way, all mournful for us, some teary. We’ve all bonded in many ways over the last several days, and the whole preparation phase has been extremely emotional for all of us.

All is not lost. We have very dear friends here, Palestinian Americans who live in Amman several months of the year, who can help get us past the emotional disappointment. More concretely, we can now attempt to go to the West Bank, although this could be difficult too. And we can still try, in a more limited way, to be the “witnesses” for the Iraqi people that had been our principal mission on this trip.

Last night, out to dinner with our friends, we met an Iraqi woman whose mother and two sisters still live in Baghdad. We talked about their lives under the sanctions, about the fact that the situation had improved a bit in the last two years_electricity and water are more consistent, life is a bit easier than during the previous decade_and about the new and very vivid fears of imminent war under which they now live. They are terrorized by stories, broadcast widely in the U.S. and throughout Iraq, of U.S. plans for saturation bombing of Baghdad and the rest of Iraq_800 cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs on Baghdad alone in the first 48 hours, nowhere to hide, no safe shelter.

“The thought of war and its consequences is more concrete when you know someone actually involved,” our Palestinian friend commented to us later. He has touched precisely on our principal reason for wanting to go to Iraq at this difficult time: the desire to make this war more concrete for Americans who have not focused on its probable consequences for those most likely to be hurt, the Iraqi people. Bush administration policymakers talk in grandiose terms about bringing democracy and prosperity to Iraq and even beyond, giving the impression to many, and perhaps most, Americans that this can be done in “a cakewalk,” as one of them has put it. But they slide over the death and destruction that will be wrought on innocent people on the way to this goal_never mind the utter absurdity of the goal. The very notion of imposing democracy through armed force and the slaughter of many thousands of civilians should stop us all in our tracks. But this is the kind of concrete consequence that so many Americans do not focus on, and that we had hoped to bring home to them through our trip.

We’ve received a flavor of this ourselves on our trip so far. In Chicago, where we stopped for a day to meet with Voices in the Wilderness at its headquarters, we looked through a stack of photographs taken by a couple who spent part of December and January in Iraq. Many of the pictures are devastating, and they made the conditions in which Iraqis live much more

real for us. Denied much medical equipment, many essential medicines, and the pumping equipment necessary for clean water and sanitation systems by sanctions that embargo anything possibly usable in the manufacture of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, Iraqis and particularly Iraqi children, are sickening and dying by the thousands and hundreds of thousands. Depleted-uranium shells used by the U.S. during the first Gulf war litter the landscape and create a fine dust in the atmosphere in some areas that has caused the cancer rate, again particularly in children, to skyrocket. In areas where U.S. and British aircraft have bombed Iraqi military targets, innocent civilians have been killed and injured by errant bombs that cannot distinguish between a radar site and a home.

We saw pictures of the consequences of some of this: of a distraught mother sitting on a hospital bed cradling a dying infant, of a bald little girl

dying of leukemia, of a little boy pockmarked by shrapnel wounds on his legs and buttocks from a U.S. or British bombing attack who needs surgery because the shrapnel is gradually traveling upward to his spine, of a armless girl caught in a bombing attack. There were happier pictures as well: pictures of Iraqis celebrating Christmas at a Christian church in Baghdad, others of Iraqis at a beautifully artistic mosque, shots of a wedding, pictures of

peace team members joining an Iraqi family for a meal. Pictures that show Iraqis to be ordinary people, and warm and friendly at that. We saw a preview in these pictures of what we expected to encounter when we arrived in Baghdad and had hoped we could describe to Americans at home. The pictures made Iraq a real place for us, not a target, not the home of the “evil ones” whom George Bush imagines.

Our mission was also made more real and urgent by encounters we had in Amman. Many on our peace team, for instance, have been wearing buttons saying “No War,” and these often bring enthusiastic greetings from passers-by on the street. Voices in the Wilderness has given us flyers to pass out to anyone interested that describe the Voices mission in English and Arabic. These unfailingly bring broad smiles and good wishes. A taxi driver, told by our Palestinian-American friend that we were two Americans heading for Iraq who had also spoken out against the Israeli occupation, expressed amazement that there were such people, saying he had thought all Americans fully supported the oppression of Arabs, and said he would have to go home and tell his brother the good news about these unusual Americans. We met a former Jordanian government official last evening whose first reaction upon hearing of our plans to go to Iraq was “God bless you.” Reactions like all of these tended to make us feel that continuing with our plans was essential, and have now made the abrupt termination of those plans all the more disappointing, as if we are forsaking an important obligation.

Our fellow peace team members were also an important part in strengthening our resolve to continue with the trip. Although we have known the other eight members for less than a week, and two of them for only a day, the uniqueness of the group’s mission and its peculiarly emotional nature created an almost instant bond that transcended all of our individual foibles.

We are quite a mixture_four women and six men, ranging in age from twenties to seventies, from all walks of life and diverse geographical areas and with a wide range of experience in peace work. We two, at 74 and 61, are the oldest and the least experienced in peace activism. We write a lot but are neophytes in the area of hands-on field work. Most of the rest are in their 40s and 50s, the youngest a mere 27. This is a remarkable young man, probably the most serene and mature among all of us, who has dedicated his life to directing an inner city ministry in Philadelphia. There’s a freelance writer from the San Francisco area who brought tears to all of our eyes when he very simply described his revulsion at the fact that his government is spending tax dollars to inflict pain and deprivation on an innocent people; and a Quaker from northern California who is obviously motivated by a powerful drive to do whatever he can to oppose the war. A young woman physician, who has foresworn a lucrative practice to focus her energies on paying house calls to a relatively few house-bound patients, says she was so horrified by the first Gulf war that she just could not sit home for this one. She stood before a bank of TV cameras as we departed Chicago and declared forcefully that war simply cannot be an option.

Three Canadians are with the peace team. One is a woman originally from Algeria who felt so motivated to oppose this war by her own experience of war, against the French when she was a child and in the 1990s between the Algerian government and militant Islamists, that she has left husband and children at home to spend a month standing for peace in Iraq. One Canadian is a Quebecois who has wide experience in this kind of witnessing and spent several years in Guatemala in the 1980s and ’90s with international monitors trying to stop atrocities against villagers. Even in his halting English, he makes a powerful case against the atrocities being committed now against Iraqis, particularly children. So many people are motivated by the plight of the children.

Everything combines to make the rejection of our visa applications a particularly poignant setback. We first applied to go to Iraq three and a half months ago, and the seemingly endless wait at various steps along the way, along with the extensive preparations, has made for enormous disruption in our own and our family’s lives and intense emotional ups and downs. But we’ll continue to do what we can from wherever we are to oppose the Bush administration’s crusade against the Arab people.

Bill Christison joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit.

Kathleen Christison also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979. Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.

The Christison’s can be reached at: christison@counterpunch.org


Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.