Letters from Iraq- Nov. 30
The journey to the heart of my "enemy" has begun. The Iraqi people are not my enemy but have been designated as such by our President. More accurately, their "leader" has been singled out as the enemy- the Iraqi people, already victimized by Saddam's brutal regime, become potential and probable victims again as "collateral damage" as our "leader" has declared the need for "regime change" once again. We've seen this pattern before when the CIA or other covert US operatives changed regimes (assassinated heads of state or forced into exile) in Guatemala (Arbenz in '54), South Vietnam (Diem in '61), Chile (Allende in '71), ... . Replacement governments we have installed or supported have not been know for their love of democracy or human rights. Remember the Shaw of Iran? The string of "strong men" (military coup leaders) in Vietnam? Pinochet in Chile?
If we are to live in a democracy, we must learn from our past and not allow our "elected" officials to continue its pattern f trying to make the world safe for corporate exploitation. It is our responsibility to respond as world citizens rather than allow others to act in our name through acquiescence or ignorance. Because the mass media has been so compromised by corporate control, we need to discover alternative sources for information about what is happening and being planned.
From the reports of others who have made this journey before, (Marie Braun, Lisa Ammon, John Maus, Kathy Kelly, Cliff Kindy, ...) I have an idea of what I'll see. Their stories and reports of the hospitals without equipment or medicines, destroyed water treatment plants, raw sewage in the streets, and mothers watching their children die of malnutrition, diarrhea, or leukemia which used to be 90% curable before sanctions are things I'm likely to encounter as well. I've never experienced the other side of war before.
The "good-bye"/ sending process began for me on Tuesday when I took Maurice out for lunch He is a Habitat homeowner who is on the staff and I used to be his supervisor years before. He handed me a very nice note of support and stated his admiration for my convictions. Wednesday morning at the weekly witness against weapons and war at Alliant TechSystems in Edina (manufacturers of cluster bombs, landmines, and depleted uranium weapons), we had a brief song led by the McDonald sisters as a sending/blessing for me (and Peter, in absentia). Wednesday evening, at the conclusion of the vigil for Iraq on the Lake Street bridge, we had another sung blessing after Peter and I addressed our fellow demonstrators. It is clear we are going as representatives of a much larger group of supporters. Friday evening, the Community of St. Martin hosted a blessing/send-off service where 50-70 folk gathered, including CSM folk, people from the bridge and Alliant vigils, friends from Koinonia, Habitat, MIST, WAMM, and the Twin Cities Campaign to lift the sanctions. It is wonderful to feel all the love and support- especially for the families we leave behind.
After arriving at Chicago's O'Hare airport at 8AM (having gotten up at 4:20 to arrive at the Minneapolis airport by 5:30), I had a 4 hour wait for Peter to arrive, followed by another hour wait until Ken, from the Voices in the Wilderness "office" met us at the International terminal. The Royal Jordanian counter was to be open at "noon". After no one had showed up to check our bags by 1:30 PM, we decided to go to the food court and go over our orientation with Ken. He is a volunteer with VITW who comes to Chicago for 3 months every year. He is married with 3 grown kids and he and his wife have adopted two additional kids with special needs. They are both members of a Catholic Worker community in Worcester, Massachusetts. He heard Kathy Kelly (founder of VITW) in 1998 and has traveled to Iraq 3 times since then.
Orientation consisted of going over some handouts containing information about what to expect and who to contact when we arrive in Amman. We talked with Ken about Eric, an IPT member who got his passport seized by US Immigration officials in the layover at Shannon airport in Dublin on his return from Iraq earlier this month. We discuss how to respond to the question on the customs declaration about where we have been and how we might answer that question on our return. We talk for 2 1/2- 3 hours before checking the airline counter again. After knocking on the door behind the counter, we finally get an employee of RJ to respond and he says he'll open up in "15 minutes". We are able to check in and he allows us to include a bag full of food, medicines, discs, ... from VITW for staff in Baghdad to be included with the bags we already checked through in Minneapolis. This saves them the $138. they would normally charge us for an extra over-weight and over-sized bag. It will be a big challenge for us to haul it around when we arrive in Amman. We are told the 8 PM flight will be leaving at 9:30 PM - that is the time printed on the boarding pass so the departure schedule must have changed in the past 5 days since our tickets were issued. Ken bids us farewell for our next period of waiting.
As Peter is finishing up a call home, I hear our names paged over the loudspeaker and go to the information desk to find Gabe Huck and his wife Theresa. It is good to put a face to the person who I've been talking with about this trip for the past almost two weeks, when he first called me just after I had returned from the trip to close the School of the Americas. Gabe told us they will be coming over in mid-December so we might cross paths in Amman. He gives us helpful suggestions and encouragement. Theresa, a public school teacher really wants to help her students grasp the realities of the situation with Iraq and around the world. She is stunned as the other faculty discuss whether each class should have its own video camera while Iraqi children are lucky when they have pencils. They live very close to Reba Place Fellowship and know some of the folks that I have met there in the past.
We board the Royal Jordanian flight to leave at 9:30 and are ushered into what I tell Peter is "sardine class". The plane is nearly full as we head out to Detroit and then Shannon Airport in Dublin, Ireland for refueling, before arriving in Amman. As we approach Dublin, the grass is still green but it is rainy and very windy. We are allowed off the plane "for 10 minutes" and are allowed to use the rest room and stretch our legs for a good 20 minutes before getting back on board for another 5+ hours. I could see some of the English countryside from 33,000 ft. but it clouded over before we hit the English Channel. Parts of Belgium and Germany were visible, then clouds again. The Alps were so high, they were visible above the clouds, gloriously basking in the sunlight. Again, parts of Austria were visible but darkness fell before we reached Bulgaria. We flew over Turkey, Crete, and flew across Israel from Tel Aviv to land in Amman.
We changed $50 USD into Jordanian Dinar in order to buy visas and to tip the baggage "helpers". After clearing immigration and customs, an hour later than scheduled, we were greeted by John Evans, one of our team members, and Jamil, a guy who works for the El Monzer Hotel. Driving in Jordan is a scary proposition. I think the traffic lanes are merely a suggestion as Jamil usually is strattling one or another. As we speed down the highway into the city, about a 45 minute drive, Jamil tells us that about 15% of Jordan is Christian and he is engaged to a Christian girl. When they marry, he will give the children his name and raise them as Muslims but apparently they have found a way to more than co-exist together here.
John warns us that the El Monzer is a "1/2 Star Hotel" but after arriving there at 10:10 PM on Sunday night, after being enroute for 33 hours, anything with a bed looked nice- and a toilet with a seat! We planned to meet the others at 7 AM so we could get an early start in securing the Iraqi visas. Peter called Kathy Kelly in Baghdad to find out what to do about the satellite phone we were asked to bring by the Chicago office. When she heard we had not gotten our transit letter from the embassy, she reluctantly said it should be stored in Jordan until the letter arrived rather than risk it being seized when we crossed into Iraq. Kathy asks us if we can leave for Baghdad tomorrow rather than Tuesday morning so we can arrive with plenty of time before the 3-day celebration of the end of Ramadan, called EID, which may begin on Thursday or Friday and shut down many businesses and offices during its duration. We were "serenaded" to sleep at 11:30 with the call to prayers from the nearby mosque, a huge one built by the new king, Abdullah. At 3 AM we are awakened by the call to prayer again only this time it must also include a sermon as it lasts for 45 minutes. Peter and I can't sleep after that so we begin a fascinating conversation on God, violence, Jack's book, and other related topics. I can see this trip is going to provide a lot of opportunity for input and (hopefully) reflection.
We get up and use the lukewarm shower and are ready to encounter Jordan in the daylight. I had seen a mosque and a church lit up last night across the street from each other so we decide to walk and check them out since we have an hour before we are to meet for breakfast. There are actually two Christian Churches within a stones throw of the mosque- one obviously Orthodox as seen by its distinctive cross.
At breakfast in the Toledo Hotel, a 4 or 5 star hotel just up the street, we hared some of our stories over our plates of hummus, honey, cheese, a whipped cream, tomatoes, cukes, and a hard boiled egg. It was served with a delicious pita-style bread, but with no pocket. I've briefly described John, David, and Dean in another e-mail but suffice it to say, we'll be an interesting group. When we're asked to share why we are going to Iraq, Dean takes out his video camera to shoot some of the responses. We'd love to keep chatting but decide to continue it in the car on the ride to Baghdad so we can go get the visas and other shopping needs before the trip. Peter and John join Sattar, our Iraqi driver, in going to the Iraqi Embassy for the visas. Dean heads off with Jamil in hopes of finding a CD burner for his Macintosh computer. David and I trek up the street to find the internet cafe. On the way there, David and I talk about Koinonia and some of my journey. I ask him about the Church of the Savior and how he got involved there. At the internet cafe, David has some trouble opening an attached file and, since the instructions are in Arabic, it takes him and the guy running the place some time to figure it out. Since we are to check out of the hotel before noon if we can get the visas today, we don't have time to stop for the water and toilet paper we were to take on out trip.
Peter and John were successful in getting the visas and our entry letter which hopefully allow us to bring our laptop computers with us (but not the sat phone). We pile into 2 taxi cabs for another harrowing ride across the city to where Sattar has parked his Suburban van. Iraqis are not allowed to drive into Amman. At the transit stop, we are mobbed by dozens of men who want us to hire them as our driver. Thank God (Allah) for Sattar, a wonderful, trustworthy civil engineer who is reduced to driving for a living to support his family. He makes this trip sometimes two or three times a week! We are loaded and on the road by 1:45 PM, hoping to arrive in Baghdad by 2AM (inshallah, if Allah is willing)