Glimpses of Life in Baghdad

This is a historic moment. I have never felt so much hope and so much uncertainty. We stand on the eve of perhaps one of the most horrifying violent acts ever committed in human history (US war plans call for the “Shock and Awe” launching of 3000 cruise missiles for Baghdad in the first 48 hours, and Pentagon officials have said civilian casualties are inevitable, comparing it to Hiroshima). And yet I wish you could see what I see on the streets of Baghdad. There are banners crying out against the war hanging from the buildings and bridges. There are marriages and babies being born. Two nights ago we attended an Iraq folk festival! Tonight we will go to a huge soccer game (and perhaps have an Iraq Peace Team vs. journalists vs. neighbors game!) Hundreds of people have gathered here in Baghdad as a global presence of peace. I have personally met people from all over the world–Spain, Brazil, France, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Ireland, England, all over the US, Korea, Japan, China, Philippines, Algeria, all over.

Hundreds. And dozens more are trying to get in every day, including two of our dear friends from Eastern University. As you can imagine, the people remaining here are not just your everyday goofballs. But what’s crazy is they are not simply radical protestors. There are veterans, students, grandparents, Orthodox priests, Parliamentarians, Franciscan monks, evangelical Christian missionaries, lawyers, authors, professors, doctors, revolutionaries and moderates together proclaiming that another world is possible. It is clear that the global groaning for peace has reached a new scale. This global community, Dr.King’s beloved dream, which the European press has begun calling the Other Superpower, is literally standing in the way of a war on global democracy. The Iraqi government has had (well-founded) reservations about letting hundreds of foreigners flood their streets during a war (many of us being from the aggressor nation, imagine the US letting in Iraqis if we were being attacked), but they have been courageous to let so many of us in accompany their people during this terrifying time. Hopefully this will set a precedent for the future as the movement’s momentum builds. What if anytime human rights are violated in our world ? as in the past by the Iraqi government and in the present by the US government–there is an international presence (both in Spirit and in physicality) of solidarity with those being marginalized or attacked throughout the world (isn’t that what the Church is?). Perhaps this is the new face of global missions within the Church, in an age of omnipresent war.

Our movement must become mobile, fluid, nomadic. Our movement must MOVE. And it must also have permanence in the credibility of our lives, not only in crisis but in our daily rhythms. We must not be reactionary, but proactive, working peacefully against tyranny and war, inequality and marginality. Just as the body’s cells confine bacteria, we must confine and smother tyranny, greed, and militarism. These are indeed diseases haunting our world. They are unnatural, and foreign to what we have been created for ? to love and to be loved. They can only be smothered by love not by force. Our alternative must be more attractive, and perhaps more effective than the counterfeit freedom and imposed peace of Pax Americana.

A few glimpses of life in Baghdad

*We went out to a street called “Booksellers Row” where Iraqi intellectuals and scholars, desperately trying to survive, have brought their books onto the sidewalk to sell as desperate attempt to survive amidst US sanctions and impending war. It was a tremendous privilege to meet them, learn from them, mourn with them. If you enjoy reading at all, you can imagine how discouraging it was to see this Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Marcuse prostituted on the streets of Baghdad. Most books you could buy for a dollar. I couldn’t decide what to do ? hating to buy someone’s treasures, but hating even more to see such desperate poverty I went to buy one. As I got out my money, I was swarmed by beggars. How could I buy a book?

*The Iraqi economy has been devastated by the last 12 years of economic sanctions and US military aggression. Prior to 1991, Iraq was not a “third world” country; it was a developed country. In 1991, the Iraqi dollar (a 250 dinar bill) was worth about $75. Now that same bill is worth less than 10 cents. You can fill your car with gasoline for less than one US dollar (for 25 gallons). But how many Iraqis can afford a car?!

I just heard the most startling statement by Air Force Brigadier General William Looney, head of the US Central Commands Airborne Expeditionary Force: “They know we own their country. We own their air space We dictate the way they live and talk. And that’s what’s great about America right now. It’s a good thing especially when there’s a lot of oil out there we need.”

I got to go to the hospital today. A banner hung from the entrance: “To bomb this facility is a war crime.” The nurse told us there are nine new children the others all died. None of these children will live. Because of the US sponsored sanctions they cannot have basic medications. 5000 children die each month here from the sanctions, and have been for 12 years. What are they dying of? Nearly all of them are dying of cancer from exposure to depleted uranium that was dropped on them in the Gulf War. Today the statistics became a face. We laughed and we wept. We blew up the medical gloves and made balloon animals. We juggled, and colored. One 13 year-old child named Yassir drew us a picture–it was a snake with huge fangs eating something that looked like an egg. When we asked what he had drawn he said, “The snake is the United States and the egg is our world.”

Nearly every day we are invited to a worship services by Iraqi Christians, Catholic, Protestant, evangelical they feed me so much hope. One pastor has dual citizenship (in Iraq and Egypt), and he said he could take his family and go safely into Egypt, but that would betray the Gospel. He is committed to his congregation to stay with them through this scary time. What must it feel like to be bombed by fellow Christians who claim to have God’s blessing?

*We heard the news that now 100 US cities have passed resolutions opposing a US led attack on Iraq that lacks official UN support. As NYC passed their resolution, one councilmember said: “Is 30 million still a ‘focus group’?”

*One of my IPT members has hundreds of heart-shaped letters written by kids in the US, which are now being delivered to children in Iraq. One of them reads: “Not all Americans are bad. Please accept my apologies for what my leaders are doing.”

*I would rather not die, but when I do die I would like my death to have integrity. And if I die here I will be in good company when we get to the Gate. Moreover, if I die that means all the children around me have likely been killed too–the shoeshine boys in the alley, the children in the orphanage around the corner and I figure they’ve got VIP passes into heaven I’ll just say, “I’m with them.”

*Yesterday we had a picnic at one of the water treatment facilities (which provides water access to Baghdad, but is likely to be bombed in an attack). We invited the workers and other friends in the neighborhood to join us for lunch. I taught one of the kids to juggle and he taught me to sing, “We Shall Overcome” in Arabic.

A Theological Reflection “Remembering Rizpah”

The other day I went to a Christian worship service led by Iraqi women (yes a Christian service led by women in Iraq!). These women led about 100 of us in singing “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” in Arabic (only about 3 of us spoke English). Then they preached from the Scriptures about heroic women in the Bible. They led us in prayer as they prayed for peace, and for their children not to die in war again. They prayed for God to heal our world and for the Church to be one Body. And they wept, and wept. I remembered Rizpah.

Before coming to Baghdad, many of us studied, over and over, the hidden story of a heroic woman named Rizpah (2 Samuel 21). Now it has completely new meaning as I live amongst the women of Iraq who have seen their loved ones killed in war, and face the reality of yet another attack. Rizpah lived in a time like ours. Kings were making treaties and breaking them (v.2). The land was stained with the blood of war. In order to try to “make amends” and heal the famine that cursed them, David makes a deal with the Gibeonites. The currency he uses are human lives, as with our present war–100,000 body bags just arrived in Baghdad. He hands human being over to be massacred of course, they are not his own children, but children of the poor. He takes the sons of a concubine named Rizpah, and the children are “killed and exposed before the Lord.” Not only were they killed, but they were left on the hill without proper burial, left to be devoured by wild animals. And yet, despite David’s best efforts, it is interesting that God does not heal the land yet.

With the reckless love only a grieving mother has, Rizpah takes sackcloth and spreads it out on a rock beside the bodies. She sets up camp. The text says she stays from the “beginning of the harvest till the rains poured”, implying she was there for the season. Day after day, week after week, she protects the bodies from the animals. And word of her encampment spreads across the land making it all the way to King David. When he hears of her courage, he remembers Saul, and his friend Jonathan. An incredible thing happens next: he is moved to gather up the bones of all the dead. Human suffering has the power to move even Kings to FEEL again. Rizpah pricks the humanity of a King who had become so dehumanized he could exchange children like currency and kill them without remorse. Then, as Desmond Tutu says, “The oppressed are freed from being oppressed and the oppressors are freed from being oppressors.” And this is when God heals the land (v.14). I pray that if lives are lost on this hill in Baghdad, mothers would set up camp beside the bodies of their dead, and wail so loudly that word of the travesty spreads throughout the earth. Maybe people from around the world will hear, and come out with them on the rock beside the bodies. And we will groan together so loudly that even the Kings will hear. Perhaps the Kings will be moved to be human again and then God will heal our land.

SHANE CLAIBORNE is in Iraq with the Iraq Peace Team.


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