Amid Hostage Vigils, Peace Work Endures
I first visited the apartment of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Baghdad in 2003, during those optimistic days right after the invasion when things hadn't yet gone so wrong and the majority of Iraqis took a wait-and-see attitude toward armed resistance. CPT had arrived in Baghdad before the invasion, and having failed to stop the war, was preparing to deal with the occupation.
At that time, most Westerners in Iraq not attached to the US military or occupation were living in places like CPT's apartment: dwellings without armed guards or the concrete blast barriers now so common it's hard for me to remember what the city looked like without them.
CPT's work then consisted of trying to help families locate relatives who had been incarcerated by the US military, documenting the brutality of house raids and the increasing reports of torture and abuse coming from Iraqis who had been detained. It was accompaniment work, similar to what the group does in other countries, including the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where they walk to school with Palestinian children or follow farmers into their fields to protect them from violent Israeli settlers or harassment by the Israeli military. CPTers often refer to it as "getting in the way."
As the violence spiraled in Iraq, CPT was on its cusp. The group was among the first to catalogue accounts of torture at Abu Ghraib prison and other US prisons around the country.
"We wrote a report on seventy-two prisoners, which we took to top US officials in Baghdad with our recommendations for change and we sent this to the Bush Administration and a few months after that it came out into the general public," said Peggy Gish, a CPTer from Ohio who has spent eighteen months in Iraq.
The last time I visited the CPT apartment, in July of this year, they were virtually the last Westerners still living the way they had been two years prior. They were also still doing things that others eschewed: braving the route that had been nicknamed the "Highway of Death" to meet with Iraqi activists in Karbala, two hours south of Baghdad, or traveling to Falluja to chronicle the situation there after the city was mostly destroyed in November 2004.
As my colleagues were increasingly forced by their news organizations into secure hotels and to rely on foreign security advisors to tell them where it was safe to travel, I became one of the last foreign journalists willing to travel to places like Falluja or to drive to the south. The CPTers were the only other Westerners I could rely on for information on what I might expect. Going to visit CPT over the months in Baghdad often felt like finding an oasis of sanity in an ever-expanding desert of confusion, a light in the darkness. I was comfortable working the way I worked as long as I knew they were there as well.
Based on that, perhaps it was only a matter of time before some of CPT's members fell victim to the same fate as so many other westerners and Iraqis. On November 26, four CPT workers were abducted in Baghdad--James Loney, 41, a community worker and advocate for the homeless in Toronto; Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, an electrical engineer from Montreal now pursuing graduate studies in Australia; Tom Fox, 54, a Quaker human rights worker from Clearbrook, Virginia; and Norman Kember, 74, a retired professor of medicine from London. Since then, prayer vigils and events calling for their release have been held across the United States, Canada and Europe.
Gish and other CPTers in Amman and Baghdad have been working around the clock to keep pressure on the media to air the calls of various groups supporting the hostages and asking for their release. Initially, the kidnappers, who have demanded the release of all prisoners in US and Iraqi custody as well as the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, set Thursday as their deadline for executing the hostages. Thursday morning, the kidnappers released a video showing two of the hostages handcuffed and wearing orange jumpsuits--similar to the attire other hostages have worn when executed--but said they would extend the deadline forty-eight hours. As of this writing, the deadline has passed. There is no further news.
Gish says that the even if her colleagues are not released, she would like to see the group maintain a presence in Baghdad.
"We've always known that it was possible for this to happen. We're very realistic about the dangers, yet we choose to take that risk. If military personnel are willing to be there to take these risks for war, why shouldn't we be willing to take these risks for peace?"
More recently, the group had focused on documenting prisoner abuse and extrajudicial killings by the US-backed Iraqi government, as well providing non-violence training for local groups.
"We did our first non-violence training earlier this year with the Karbala Human Rights group, and they named themselves the Muslim Peace Team," Gish said.
Respect for the group's work has been evidenced by statements from various groups inside and outside Iraq--from Hamas in Palestine to the Muslim Scholars Association in Baghdad--calling for their release.
"I think there's a unique phenomenon that has emerged from this, that is the kind of consensus we've managed to achieve from extremes of the Muslim world," said Anas Al-Tikriti, the head of the Muslim Association of Britain, who traveled to Baghdad more than a week after the kidnapping and spent five days there appealing for the release of the four activists by convincing different Iraqi groups to release statements on their behalf and talking to English and Arabic media.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that despite so much American opposition to the war, there are so few people willing to take the same risks as CPT.
"If hundreds of people would go into a situation, it would have been safer. If more international organizations had stayed in Iraq, it would have been safer. But there's a lot of fear, it's a normal thing," Gish said. "Right now we're probably one of very few groups still in Iraq telling the truth about the situation. This summer we spent a lot of time in Sadr City (an impoverished part of Baghdad), and some of that was just being witness to the health problems being caused by the lack of reconstruction."