Having spent a year in Iraq, I remain continuously startled by the things I see and feel here. Perhaps I shouldn’t still be surprised by the resilience of these people. Perhaps I shouldn’t still wonder at their ability to absorb incredible amounts of suffering and go on with their lives. Or marvel at their determination, in the midst of suffering, to maintain a spirit of hospitality and generosity–with strangers and within their common lives–that is unsurpassed in any of my travels. But I am surprised. I remain in a state of perpetual amazement.
To my shame, I cannot imagine my fellow Americans being able to cope with even a fraction of what Iraqis have had to cope with over the last 30 years. How would America meet brutal dictatorship, 3 terrible wars resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, the devastating impoverishment and isolation of 13 years of sanctions resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands more, military occupation, massive unemployment, out-of-control crime, and months without electricity or sanitation in 120+ degree heat? September 11 was only a flirting shadow of what Iraqis have experienced, and only time–and our active resistance to the Bush Crusade–will demonstrate if our democracy can manage to survive its aftermath.
People sometimes ask me how I feel about our “failure:” the failure of the anti-sanctions movement over long years of struggle, the failure of the anti-war movement over short months of protest. But that question is itself a lie.
It can be overwhelming to stare, wide-eyed, into the crushing weight of a $400 billion-a-year killing machine fed by fear-mongering politicians, headed by a fool, protected by a captive media, only existing to protect an entrenched corporate-capitalist system that is eating our world alive. But if we would wonder at our inability as yet to fully overcome the death sellers and fear merchants, let us also wonder at how hard they have to work to keep their system running.
There is always enough money for war, and never enough for peace. We are always scrambling to fund our projects, or–on a larger scale–to fund schools and public transportation, health care, child care, job training and other human-centered needs– while the Pentagon builds all the million-dollar cruise missiles its black heart desires.
We cry, “O Lord, when will we have peace?” And the answer is always tomorrow: after this war, we’ll have peace; this killing spree will be the last and then we’ll finally be free to succor the creative energies of all of God’s children, instead of simply killing them off. Today is always for war, and tomorrow never comes.
Since the end of this most recent war, the U.S. government has imposed a $20,000 fine on Voices in the Wilderness for illegally taking medicine and toys to children’s hospitals in Iraq before the war. We will never pay this fine, and we will never stop resisting violence.
Since the war, Voices has been continuing our educational work in the U.S., and we’ve been building a home in Baghdad. In the U.S., the “Wheels of Justice” bus tour may soon be coming to an area near you–come out and join us. Speakers who have been to Iraq, and who can give presentations against war and violence are available for venues large and small–invite us to come out and join you.
In Iraq, we’re renting a modest place from which to base our work. We’ve named it “Beit Al-Bacher”–Iraqi slang for Tomorrow’s House. Here, we’re helping a group of young Iraqis start their own newspaper, called “Al-Muajaha,” and publicly tell their own stories, in their own words, for the first time in their lives. We’re helping Palestinian families, made refugees in the aftermath of war, to secure permanent housing. We’re helping Iraqis who’ve had family members killed by U.S. forces to seek justice and compensation for their losses. We’re accompanying non-violent Iraqi activists, such as the Union of the Unemployed, as they struggle for their rights beneath an indifferent and increasingly violent Occupation that’s seemingly only here to loot the country blind. And we’re continuing the work we did before the war, visiting schools and hospitals and families, fostering friendships and practicing love–and it needs practice–which can stand in the wake of violence and killing.
Let us cherish our victories, large and small, and live our lives informed with the knowledge–proven true time and again–that the greatest of tyrannies can crumble in the blink of an eye.
Outspent and out-shouted a-million-to-one by the killers and their apologists, we persevere. This isn’t testament to some special talents or condition unique to us–peace workers suffer from, and struggle through, all the same faults and challenges that all people face. Our victories are testament to the fact that war and killings, despite being with us from our birth, are not the natural state of humankind.
Peace work isn’t naïve or ineffective–it’s very effective, and it’s informed by the spirit of what it truly means to be human. Its only problem is that not enough people are doing it.
The war against Iraq brought out the biggest protests in world history. More than 30 million people worldwide publicly demonstrated against war, and hundreds of millions more silently opposed it. But protest isn’t enough. Instead of letting the killing machine disempower and devour us, we must strike back in peace against the killers.
What might be created if the countless millions who dream of peace stopped paying their taxes, defunded and broke the back of the military-industrial complex? What might be created if millions risked arrest in non-violent civil disobedience, and broke the back of the prison-industrial complex? What might be born if we disengaged from our culture of materialism, ignored the fear merchants, and began to build direct connections with our brothers and sisters around the globe?
How many Arabs and Muslims do you know personally? How many Iraqis can you call, “friend?”
Peace is not an abstract idea–it is a living and tangible reality that takes practice, that must be practiced, to be real.
Beit Al-Bacher, Tomorrow’s House, doesn’t really make sense in Arabic. It’s a nonsense phrase. And in helping to build this house, the one word I’ve come to truly hate is “bacher”–tomorrow–because in Iraq “bacher” is a way of saying that something will never happen.
When will we have electricity? Bacher. When will we have water? Bacher. When will we have safety, and peace–an end to a thousand consecutive humiliations and the million lies that sustain them? When will the killing be done? Bacher, bacher–we’ll practice peace in a tomorrow that never comes.
And yet, blessings be, there crumbles the true lie– for here we are, in the wake of war and killing, in the midst of continuing violence and pain, living in and building tomorrow’s house.
RAMZI KYSIA is a Muslim-American peace activist and writer who has worked in Iraq for over a year with Voices in the Wilderness. Since April 2003, Kysia has been helping a group of young Iraqis establish their own independent newspaper: Al-Muajaha, The Iraqi Witness. Kysia can be reached at: email@example.com