Letters from Iraq- Dec. 4.1
The smell of diesel and car exhaust fumes fill the air and there is constant noise of cars and trucks blowing their horns in what seems to us westerners as a suicidal game of near-miss "bumper cars". Despite being inches away from the next car as our driver speeds down the street, I have yet to see an accident. This is amazing since most of the cars are pre-Gulf War and seem to be hung together with baling wire. If one doesn't notice the age and condition of the cars, on the surface one might not see the quiet desperation of the Iraqi people. But when one is followed several blocks by a 8 year old boy begging to shine your shoes to earn a 50 cent tip to help support his family, you start to see a more accurate picture. The veteran Voices in the Wilderness volunteers here handed us each a 1/2" wad of money in 250 Iraqi Dinar notes, informing us that it was worth $12. US. 2,000 Iraqi Dinars are equal to $1 USD. Prior to the imposition of economic sanctions, 1 Iraqi Dinar was equal to $3.30 USD. If any families had savings in the bank, it was all wiped out. Teachers are now being paid about $2.50 USD per month.
We are asked to tip all the staff in our hotel for every service provided. It was embarrassing not to have any Iraqi money to give the young men who insisted on carrying our suitcases to our room when we arrived at the hotel at 3:15 in the morning on Tuesday. Most speak very little English but we tried to convey that we would tip them "tomorrow". It is suggested to us that we limit our tips to "2 bills" (2- 250 dinars or 50 cents) for their bringing towels, soap, toilet paper, clothes hangers, or when we ask where we can empty our trash can or find a vacuum cleaner, they insist on doing the work so they can earn the tip and help support their families. Sattar, the wonderful man who drove us from Amman to Baghdad and helped us navigate the immigration checkpoints as we left Jordan and enter Iraq is a civil engineer. When I told him about my work for Habitat, he said he'd love to help with any engineering problems we might have. A man who has every right to be consumed by bitterness toward his own government and ours is a gracious and gentle soul. We have much to learn here about quiet dignity as we recognize our common humanity.
The Iraq Peace Team members are a wonderful, eclectic community. At present there are 3 here under the auspices of Christian Peacemaker Teams- Cliff Kindy, a 53 year old Indiana farmer who has also been on CPT delegations to Columbia, Palestine, and Chiapas, Mexico; Cathy Breen., a nurse who is a member of the NY Catholic Worker; and Peggy Gish, a 60 year old organic farmer from Ohio and member of Church of the Brethren as is Cliff.
Voices in the Wilderness has provided others, including Kathy Kelly, the founder and visionary of the organization- a woman who has poured out her heart and soul to the Iraqi people for the past seven years. This is her 17th trip to Iraq and she hopes to stay here indefinitely, if the Iraqi government extends her visa. (every 10 days- two weeks, one must go to a government office to seek to have it renewed.) Kathy served a year in federal prison in the US in 1989 for praying at a nuclear weapons missile silo, joined a group fasting to close the School of the Americas in 1990, was part of a peace encampment on the Iraq-Saudi Arabia border in 1991 that the Iraqis evacuated as the ground war started, and was in Sarajevo while that city was torn apart by war in the mid-90s. While she is clearly our guiding spirit, we make decisions collectively and cooperatively.
Also part of the team already here when we arrived are Cynthia Bannis, a member of the Syracuse (NY) Peace Workers who was a volunteer for numerous UN agencies before she realized the tragedy the UN supported sanctions were causing. Charlie Lietkey, a Viet vet who won the Congressional Metal of Honor for valor as a chaplain who rescued virtually his whole squad in the face of enemy fire and came back to the states and threw his metals back over the White House fence after a public fast to end the war. As a member of Veterans for Peace, he has been an outstanding example of a man committed to peace. Neville Watson, a 73 year old Aussie "lawyer by trade and a Uniting Church minister by calling" was also here in 1991 as part of the Iraq Peace Camp and was "evacuated against his will" so he feels he has "unfinished business" and wants to remain here to be with the Iraqi people during the war. Bitta Mostafi is the youngest in the group, an Iranian-American from Chicago where she is a volunteer staff member of VITW. She is taking a year off from school before going to law school to study International Human Rights. I think she already has a great start with her presence here! Nathan Mussleman, originally from Reading, PA and a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University has been in the Middle East since his college studies brought him here. Having lived in Palestine the past year, he also hopes to live and study in Syria before returning to the states, also to enroll in law school. May is a video maker from San Francisco who just shot some video interviewing a man from Mosul (in the northern, Kurdish section of Iraq) who lost a brother in the Iran/Iraq War. There are also two physicians, David Swan and Dr. Amir Khadir from Canada here investigating emergency medical procedures but I haven't had much opportunity to interact with them yet.
Joining Peter Thompson and myself are the other 3 who made the trek from Amman with us: Dean Jeffreys, 45, another Australian who is a documentary filmmaker was with Kathy and Neville in the peace camp in '91. He is married with 3 and 5 year old children back home. He is very interested in care for the earth and appreciating the spirituality of nature. John Evans, a 78 year old WW II vet and member of Vets for Peace is a former TV executive who helped start TV broadcasts in both Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the 1960s. He lived in Jordan 3 years and Saudi Arabia for one and two of his children were born in those countries. After 30 + years, his Arabic is rusty but much better than others in our fivesome. David Hilfiker, 57, is a member of Church of the Savior and a physician who is no longer practicing but rather writing at this point. He and his family lived and worked at Christ House and started Joseph's House in Wash., DC- working with people living on the streets and those with AIDS. In a worship service this summer was a refrain, "We are the Iraqi people". He came to incarnate that prayer.
Just being included with such a beautiful "cloud of witnesses" is a wonderful feeling. Knowing and sensing the love and prayers for us and the people we encounter here is a gift you have blessed us with- may we share that blessing with those of God's children here. Please pray and work to stop this impending war!
Love and Shalom,
Special greetings to Zach and Micah. I wish I could "IM" you and have a dialog about this experience but other than being 9 hours ahead of you, all of our e-mail is monitored by at least two governments and instant communication like IM is blocked here.