In January of 2004, two Palestinian college students visited me in Amman, Jordan, the evening before our small Voices in the Wilderness team traveled to Baghdad. “Please, if you can, help our friends,” they pleaded. “They have been in the Bucca compound, south of Basra. We were released from there after six months, but till now we have heard nothing of them.” The young men explained that they had been living in a student dormitory, in Baghdad, and had decided not to return to their families in Palestine when the U.S. threatened attacks against Iraq. Leaving Baghdad might mean losing all the years they had devoted to their studies. One was a pre-med student, the other an engineer. When U.S. Marines arrived in Baghdad, they decided to take over the students’ dorm, recognizing that it had the advantage of being one of the tallest buildings in the area. The students were swiftly placed under arrest and transported to a series of detention centers until they reached the Bucca Compound in a bleak, isolated area of Iraq called Umm Qasr. Our two visitors had been released, perhaps because they spoke English so well. But they were desperate to do something on behalf of the friends they left behind. We didn’t want to raise their hopes, yet we knew that we could at least ask the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) members to help.
Once in Baghdad, CPT members advised us about whom we could approach in the Bucca compound and then helped us connect with a young dentist who sought accompaniment to visit his brother inside the camp. Their advice worked; an official at the Bucca compound, upon hearing that we worked closely with the CPT, allowed us to visit the prisoners and expressed sympathy with their plight. Later, visiting CPT’s small apartment in Baghdad, I was amazed at how efficiently CPT volunteers maintained lists of people who were imprisoned along with careful notes assembled over months of research.
Since the beginning of the U.S. occupation, CPT members have quietly yet courageously worked on behalf of Iraqi detainees imprisoned by U.S. authorities. After collecting lists of prisoners, they translated the lists, formed data bases, met with communities and individuals seeking loved ones, documented human rights abuses, and wrote reports about their experiences living alongside ordinary Iraqis as Baghdad became the most violent city in the world.
Interviewed by Amy Goodman on the November 30th segment of Democracy Now, Seymour Hersh (who helped break the Abu Ghraib story) told about his first encounter with CPT members: “…they were on a cutting edge. …most of the things that I ended up writing about in Abu Ghraib, most of the general concepts, they knew a great deal about earlier…so, these are people toiling, really for the good of Iraqi people, and often in obscurity, in terms of the mainstream media.
Now Christian Peacemaker Team has entered the mainstream media with headlines telling about a previously unknown Iraqi group called Swords of Righteousness, which has been holding four CPT members since November 26th. The group demands the release all Iraqi detainees held in <U.S.-> and Iraqi-run prisons. They’ve threatened to kill the four CPT men if this demand isn’t met. A painful irony is that CPT has worked so fervently on behalf of Iraqi detainees.
Our friends in the CPT are learning first hand the agonizing experience of over 5,000 Iraqi families whose loved ones have been abducted over the past year. The lives of other westerners who’ve been abducted, a German archaeologist, a French engineer, and an American security contractor are also in jeopardy.
Throughout the past week, CPT made clear that their prayers include loving care and concern not only for their own team members but also for all of the people in Iraq afflicted by the sad and tragic realities of warfare, including those who call themselves Swords of Righteousness.
By living outside the Green Zone and traveling without armed guards, CPT has risked a great deal to educate us about the plight of people living through the strains of war and occupation. Now they are helping us learn at deep and challenging levels about embracing the teachings of Jesus, who urged his followers, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Their courage helps liberate the essential Christian call to take serious risks on behalf of bringing liberty to the captive, relief to the oppressed and good news to the poor. With CPT members in the public eye, and as we enter the season when people will ostensibly celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who was crucified under Roman Occupation, I hope we can still hear that call, above all, to pursue the works of mercy and end the works of war.
To sign a petition on behalf of releasing the CPT members, visit www.freethecpt.org
KATHY KELLY is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and author of Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org