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When the Battlefield has No Borders

Given its small population, the rural northern California county where I live is home to an extraordinary number of successful artists. Two of these artists, Jan Hoyman and Doug Browe, also participate in a remarkable organization, Potters for Peace (www.potpaz.org), which began twenty years ago when a group of US potters sought ways to support the work of Nicaraguan potters while simultaneously opposing US aid to the Contras. While this support has grown to involve a wide range of cultural, artistic, and technical exchanges between potters, the organization is increasingly involved in providing the technical expertise to establish ceramic water filtration projects, a “high technique, low technology” system, as Doug puts it, for purifying water.

Last year, as untreated sewage continued to flow into drinking water supplies in Iraq and outbreaks of bacteriological diseases such as cholera and typhoid were reported in Basra, Najaf, Sadr City, and elsewhere, Doug was returning from two months in Thailand, spent in a refugee camp on the Burmese border, assisting residents of the camp in the final stages of a ceramic water filter project. It was his second trip to the refugee camp. During the first trip, he had located a source of accessible local clay, supervised the construction of an adobe kiln, and trained several residents in basic pottery techniques.

This second trip focused on the manufacture and firing of the water filters. Ceramic water filters, as Potters for Peace designs them, are essentially urns created from a careful mix of clay and a readily available “fibrous” material–sawdust, rice hulls, straw, etc.–and lined with colloidal silver. The fibrous material, when sized precisely and mixed with the clay in the proper portion, produces a porous urn that will allow the passage of water, but not bacteria–the bacteria are trapped by the fibers in the clay. The colloidal silver, which coats the outside of the urn, provides an additional anti-bacterial barrier. When poured into the filter, water polluted with a bacteriological disease such as e-coli, typhoid, or cholera, emerges bacteriologically clean.

It was my twelve year old daughter who, during a slide-show presentation by Doug of his experiences in Thailand, first suggested the obvious application of ceramic water filtration to Iraq. Clearly, low-tech water filtration is no substitute for reparation of Iraq’s water and sewage treatment systems; but while the US occupation focuses on military goals, and “rebuilding” seems permanently stalled in the planning stages or utterly undermined by corruption and violence, a project which provides clean water to people can prevent illness and save lives, albeit on a small scale. This at least was our thinking. Doug and I met several times to discuss our interest in traveling to Iraq, and the basic raw material and equipment needs of the project, and I began to do some research.

The project, however, has never gotten beyond preliminary inquiries because neither of us can quite imagine leaving our families and traveling to Iraq given the reality of violence and kidnappings. The news coming out of Iraq is unremittingly bad. Two years ago, I visited Iraq in the months leading up to the US invasion. While in Basra, after spending the morning visiting leukemia patients in a hospital and having lunch in our semi-air-conditioned hotel, I waded back out into the sickeningly hot day with two other members of Voices in the Wilderness (vitw.org). Hassan, one of the shoeshine boys who slept on the lawn outside the hotel, flagged us down. He was exultant. “Look what we’ve got,” he said. Inside the box, of all things, lay an injured pigeon, captured with a slingshot. The terrified pigeon lay on its side, struggling to breathe and futilely trying to right itself and escape. “We’ll keep it alive until later,” the boys told us, “and then meat for dinner!”

I thought at the time that the abject pigeon was a bloody symbol for Iraq itself. As difficult as it may have been for people to imagine scaling the sanctions wall to visit Iraq, it wasn’t in actuality that difficult to do. But the occupation wall is another thing altogether. The battlefield in Iraq has no borders. As a result, Iraq today is even more isolated than it was during the sanctions regime, when isolation was decreed by fiat.

The news is not only bad, it is also demoralizing. Who hasn’t felt worn down by the unremitting violence? Who doesn’t know others–people who had been empowered two years ago by worldwide opposition to the invasion–who now feel powerless and are immobilized by it?

It isn’t only the lawlessness in Iraq, the daily reports of people killed or injured by violence, it is also the ongoing pictures and reports of conditions at prisons which give a nightmarish quality to popular images of Iraq and work to keep people at a distance. Consider the recent news from US-run Abu Ghraib prison. Last week we learned that Manadel al-Jamadi, a prisoner who died last year in what was labeled a “homicide,” actually died during a CIA interrogation, while suspended from his wrists.

We also learned that medical care at the prison has been so haphazard that “Physician’s assistants and general practitioners amputated limbs, [and] a dentist did heart surgery Sometimes the hospital ran out of chest tubes, intravenous fluids or medicines. Medical staff members improvised, taking tubes from patients when they died and reusing them, without sterilization” (NYT, 2/4/05). Despite the availability of psychotropic drugs, the hundreds of people at the prison who are mentally ill have gone without treatment, because no psychiatrist has been available to work with them and prescribe the medication. In at least one case, staff used a leash to restrain a prisoner..

While opposition to the US occupation is the central contribution that we can make to the welfare of people in Iraq, its flipside, concrete and productive exchanges with Iraqi people, is also vital. For many people, supporting a worthy humanitarian project is a doorway into Iraq, a way to make a contribution and to connect positively with people there; for others, it is a way to revitalize, leading to greater political involvement. Apart from their intrinsic value, humanitarian projects can be a focus for education about the effects of US policies, and they can be rallying points around which political actions are organized.

In this regard, an opportunity is about to present itself. Over the next six weeks, US citizens in cities from Boston to Seattle to Los Angeles will have an opportunity to talk with and learn from Gino Strada, co-founder of an extraordinary international medical relief agency, Emergency – Life support for civilian war victims, currently operating medical facilities in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Angola. It has conducted and concluded projects in Rwanda, Eritrea, Algeria, and Palestine (www.emergency.it). Emergency builds and runs surgical hospitals, rehabilitation centers for landmine victims, and medical clinics; and it builds them in places where no one else will, places which need specialist medical and surgical services: for example in Anabah, in a remote and dangerous region of Afghanistan.

Strada is in the U.S. on a book tour (www.emergencyusa.org), after the recent translation into English of his book, Green Parrots – A War Surgeon’s Diary, a journal of his experiences as a surgeon for Emergency. Green Parrots is named after the antipersonnel landmine that looks like a toy and has maimed or killed many of the children Emergency has seen in its clinics in Afghanistan, where an estimated ten million anti-personnel mines and innumerable unexploded cluster bombs dot the landscape. Strada comes to the US directly from work in Afghanistan.

Strada’s training as a surgeon and his wide and very personal experience of war and its immediate consequences give him a unique perspective on modern war and a powerful incentive to oppose it. He writes “Today there are many possible causes of war, but there is only one sure outcome: death, injuries, refugees, orphans. Wherever a war is fought, whatever weapons are used, it no longer consists of a clash between armies in a well-defined, limited battlefield. There is no official battle front. The front is the road, the marketplace, the village: the people who live there are the victims. 90% of them are civilians. 34% are children. Many armed groups deliberately mix with the population to avoid identification. Sometimes they actually use civilians as shields. Quite often, targeting and terrorizing large civilian groups are part of an army’s primary military strategy.”

Emergency has been in Afghanistan for five years and in northern Iraq–Erbil, Sulaimaniya, and Choman–for ten years. It has hopes of staffing a medical facility in Karbala, in South-Central Iraq. Strada’s visit to the US is an important opportunity not only because of the critical medical care his organization provides, but also because of the information he can share about the causes and consequences of war around the globe. Perhaps his visit can be a catalyst for individuals and groups to initiate or deepen their commitment to people in war-torn countries such as Iraq, and to oppose US militarism. For information about Strada’s tour, visit http://www.emergencyusa.org/GP/tour.php.

DAVID SMITH-FERRI is a member of Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end U.S. economic and military warfare abroad and at home. He lives in Ukiah, CA. He can be reached at: smithferri@pacific.net

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David Smith-Ferri is a member of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org) and the author, most recently, of  Where Days Are Stones, Afghanistan and Gaza Poems, 2012-2013. He recently returned from a VCNV delegation to Helsinki, where he visited with Iraqi friends who fled their country and are seeking asylum in Finland. He can be reached at dsmithferri@gmail.com

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