John Ross

Back From Babylon


On the day that the Blix report was broadcast to an expectant universe, my Turkish comrade, ex-Greenpeace Mediterranean campaigner and Elvis Presley lookalike Tolga Temuge, and I were perched upon the rickety roof of the engine house at the Daura oil refinery in west Baghdad. We were marking the site with industrial black paint, when the Human Shield action finally fell irrevocably apart. We had already filled in the six-meter-long H-U and were outlining the M in the words that, when spelled out completely, would signal George Bush’s missiles that the refinery was a United Nations-certified civilian site that provides fuel and home heating oil to the residents of Baghdad and beyond. By blasting the plant off the face of the earth, the U.S. president would also be endangering the lives of his own citizens and those of many other nations. Suddenly a delegation from the Organization of Peace and Friendship, our hosts in Iraq, summoned us down to the ground to read us the riot act.

Under a fatwa issued by Dr. Abdul Al-Hasimi, the “non-governmental” group’s director, we were ordered to leave Iraq immediately, banished because we had usurped the function of an existing NGO by facilitating the deployment of over 100 Shields to five key infrastructure sites in and around Baghdad. Now the NGO and the government of Saddam Hussein would take control of such deployments. Among those who would be forced to leave were Gordon, a rangy, spike-haired Australian who was now coordinating the site assignments; Eva, an uppity lawyer from Slovenia who had led many of the unprecedented anti-war demonstrations on the streets of Baghdad that were an essential adjunct to our work; and ex-Desert Storm Marine Ken Nichols O’Keefe, the initiator of the Human Shield action whose confrontational style and delusions of personal aggrandizement had thoroughly disaffected the Iraqi government.

At a disturbing meeting the previous evening, Dr. Al-Hasimi had accused us of, among other heinous crimes, forcing volunteers to attend three-hour meetings against their will. The expulsions effectively decapitated an action whose autonomy had become a thorn in the side of Saddam just as George Bush was revving up his killing machine.

As Hans Blix was pronouncing his words to the UN Security Council, we gathered at the Meridian Palestine Hotel. My Turkish pal and I argued that we needed to depart quietly into the night so as not to hand Bush new ammunition for his crazed crusade to “liberate” Iraq. Saddam was a problem, as are all two-bit dictators installed by the CIA, but not the primary enemy of world peace. Now it was time to go home and deepen the larger movement, the one against Bush’s reign of terror, of which the Human Shields had always been just a sideshow.

Accompanied by four drum-pounding Buddhist monks who kept muttering about what a crazy world they had walked into, we were soon on the road. Out there in the dark of the desert only marginally illuminated by the sliver of a new moon, with an uncertain destination in our immediate future, my cohorts dozed while I eyed the thick necks of our minders. Would our hosts veer suddenly into the wilderness, order us out, strip us naked, and riddle our corpses with dum-dum bullets as payback for our gratuitous disobedience? Would the iron gates of Saddam Prison ominously yawn open to receive us?

None of the above.

They were genuinely embarrassed by the prospect of expelling us from a country we had come to protect with our lives. They treated us with kindly kid gloves, shaking our hands at the border, and inviting us back once the terrible deeds up ahead were done with and the Iraqi people could finally live in peace.

The illuminated sign at the Iraqi border featured the usual portrait of Uncle Saddam and the unusual inscription: “Isn’t it nice to come to the border of a country where no one has impeded your mission?” The gods of irony were working overtime in that frigid desert dawn.

The morning sandstorm blew furiously as we swerved up towards Amman, dodging the endless train of rusting tanker trucks that defy the unconscionable UN sanctions by ferrying fuel to the oil-less kingdom of Jordan. The blinding grit flew so thickly that our chauffeur was at times driving blind. Such weather will sabotage Bush’s war from the ground up. As the AP recently reported, sandstorms around Camp New Jersey, on the Kuwaiti border, have already caused the Yanqui troops to stray into the surrounding desert as they feel their way from the mess tents back to their own flattened quarters. Recruiting teenagers off ghetto streets and country farms to come fight under such inhospitable conditions is just as tantamount to premeditated homicide as was packing them off to the jungles of Vietnam three decades and more back down history’s tunnel.

Iraq will not be the piece of cake the Pentagon brass advertises it to be. I’m convinced that the Shields who replace us on sites like my oil refinery (never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would wax nostalgic over an oil refinery) have not gathered there to interpose their bodies between the Bush bombs and the civilian infrastructure. Many are hard-eyed fighters who have come to take the heads of the hated invaders. Despite the 3,000-missile blitzkreig of which Bush never tires of boasting, there will be a lot of street-fighting. (“We will fight them block by block just as our grandfathers fought the British colonialists,” warns Mr. Al-Karash, the general manager of the Daura refinery, who himself survived a 42-day inferno in ’91 to get this vital installation up and running again.

Meanwhile, Shield wannabes and recent escapees from Baghdad have gathered at Amman’s Al Saraya hotel, a cheesy fleabag with 24-hour-a-day internet connections. Many have been there for weeks trying fruitlessly to enter Iraq but will never get their visas together. Others have recently evacuated from Baghdad, exasperated by government manipulation, or propelled by their own fears of dying under the gringo bombardment as the war crescendos out of control. The ambience at the Saraya is smarmy with what could have been and never was. Now a mad Ken O’Keefe has belatedly arrived to preside over this lost tribe.

It is time I suppose to take measure of whatever happened to the Human Shields. Like the double-decker buses that have long since returned home to London, the action was merely a vehicle for inciting the massive movement against Bush’s planned genocide. We succeeded in making the bombing of civilian targets a frontline issue, and raised the stakes by daring George Bush to bomb us into oblivion. We even opened a thin slice of democratic space with our spontaneous street demonstrations, which may be remembered by civil society whenever their time comes round again. But the war will be on the world’s doorstep very soon, and the window of opportunity is closing rapidly.

It is time now to go home and return to our countries and communities, our loved ones and compañeros, and rejoin the bigger movement of millions and millions who have marched month after month against the prospect of this evil war. At least this is what I intend to do. But before I go, I want to thank the Iraqi people one more time for opening their arms to us, for feeding and housing us and telling us time and again that they love us. “We love you,” they smiled when we walked the streets of their cities, “we love you.” In four decades on the road, this has never happened to me anywhere before.

John Ross is now back in Mexico City.