Letter from the Road #10

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


If Only I Had Wings to Fly


I woke up at 5:30 this morning to go out to the U.N. headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad with my friend Mohamed, an Iraqi driver and helper-with-all-things. He and I spent the last few days preparing an encampment for the Iraq Peace Team across the road from the U.N. We were expecting Peace Team members to arrive there by 7:30 AM, in time to greet the U.N. inspectors as they left for their rounds. It’s also an ideal time to receive the attention of the international press who come there every morning.

We made a 40 foot-long banner to stretch between two palm trees over our tent, the same tent we had used for a press event for Sean Penn’s visit two months ago. The beautifully lettered banner read, in Arabic and English: “INSPECTION – YES. INVASION – NO.” Mohamed put one end of the rope tied to the banner between his teeth and shinnied up the palm trunk. It wasn’t easy. Mohammed’s 53 years old and had been badly shot up in the war with Iran. Once he past the rope around the tree he threw it to me, and I pulled to hoist the banner tight.

It was a moment I will not easily forget. Here were two grey-haired men, one Iraqi and one American, one clinging precariously to the trunk of a tree while they both pulled with all their might to lift this banner appealing for peace up into the first rays of sunlight. It was, at the same time, both something absurd and splendid – splendid because while our two countries glared at each other menacingly we were like happy brothers putting up tents and hanging flags, and absurd because it was such a small, meaningless moment in the terrifying political storm enveloping us and our people.

Later several TV crews came to interview the Peace Team. I told Reuters we were there appealing to the community of nations to continue the inspections process, and that an American-led invasion would murder countless Iraqi civilians like those whose pictures we had hung throughout our tent. The camera panned across the photos of their faces – children, mothers, old uncles, working-men – just normal people. Each of them has a name. Each of them breathes in the world as we do, each one a miraculous subjectivity like ours, unique and worthwhile. Those of us over here on the Peace Team cling to the belief that if the war-makers could just see the actual nature of the people who will suffer the atrocities of this war they would simply stop in their tracks. Or would they?

Yesterday, driving around the city, we were stopped in traffic and I watched as a young Iraqi soldier stood by a vendor’s cart trying to decide if he should buy a certain pair of socks. He picked them up, pulled at them, put them down, picked them up again, and listened while the vendor encouraged him. I watched his face as he tried to decide. He wasn’t any older than my own son, and just as sweet looking. As we drove on I had to wipe tears away.

I have to admit that in between the sadness and love I feel here, I’ve find myself getting angry. It’s not an emotion I feel comfortable confessing to – I know anger is a fuel for violence – but the enormity of the cruelty about to land on these people is nearly impossible to bear. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said yesterday to some assembled soldiers that the war may take six days, or six weeks, but surely not more than six months. Six months! Can you imagine what six months of bombardment by the U.S. military will do to the individual lives of the people of this land?

Please, dear friends who read this, this coming Saturday, February 15, please go out from your homes or from wherever you are, and join one of the actions planned in cities and towns around the world to say no to this war! Millions of people will be marching! Join them! Make your voice heard and your presence felt. If you think, “What difference will one more body make?” remember, it makes ALL the difference! Give the leaders of the world courage to resist American manipulation and pressure toward war.

Here in Baghdad we will be holding our vigil each morning this week outside the U.N. At 11 AM each morning we will leave to go to a different vulnerable site of civilian infrastructure – a water treatment plant, an electrical generating station, a hospital, a school, a bomb shelter – all of which were targeted here in the ’91 war. We will hang a large banner at each place that reads, “BOMBING THIS SITE IS A WAR CRIME, Geneva Conventions, Article 54.”

Team members here are each contacting their home communities with this same appeal to join demonstrations on February 15. In addition, we are suggesting that people go this week to similar sites of civilian infrastructure in their home towns – to hospitals, water treatment plants, electrical stations, schools – and hang banners which read: “BOMBING SITES LIKE THIS IN IRAQ IS A WAR CRIME, Geneva Conventions, Article 54.” Our hope is that actions like these will bring attention to the indiscriminate killing done in our names. In Iraq during the ’91 war, 28 schools were bombed.

A few days ago we met with Amira, an Iraqi-American woman leading a delegation here. She had just visited her family who lives near Babylon. She spoke for a while, and then began to cry. In between her sobs she said, “I may never see my family again…it’s going to be a terrible disaster…it’s going to be a terrible disaster…my family, all the people here, they only talk about how to survive…how to save their children…the only thing that keeps them going is their faith…what they have in their hearts…as they face this disaster.”

As I typed that last sentence I assumed it would be the end of this letter. But, as it’s Sunday evening, Rabia and I decided to join a few other Peace Team members who were going to the evening Mass (said in English) at St. Raphael’s Church about a mile from here. We walked. There was a tender light reflecting off the Tigris River. Father Vincent, the priest, spoke about fear and faith in his homily. And then he had us sing this song:

O God please listen to my cry and give me an answer. I am afraid of what the future holds for me. Let me hide in the shadow of your wings. If only I had wings to fly, I would escape Lord. I’d fly as far as I could go to find some peace of mind. Let me hide in the shadow of your wings. All of this I can survive if you are with me. My life is here, my life is now, and I must carry on. Let me hide in the shadow of your wings.

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