I’m here because I hear the children cry

American activists in Baghdad brace for Consequences of War

BAGHDAD, March 12: If the invasion that the Pentagon has dubbed "Operation Shock and Awe" commences, Charlie Liteky is unlikely to feel either.He expects the United States to bomb Iraq. He expects noise and destruction more powerful and frightening than he has ever known. He expects the earth to shake and houses to go dark and children to scream themselves hoarse.

But Liteky sounds more determined than frightened.

Like 20 other members of the Chicago-based Iraq Peace Team who remain in Baghdad even as hostilities appear certain, Liteky abhors cluster bombs, cruise missiles and the civil unrest that combat causes. As a decorated Vietnam veteran, he knows firsthand the chaos and carnage of war.

That’s precisely why he sounded elated Tuesday morning when he told his wife that the Iraqi government had extended his tourist visa 10 days and is likely to extend it again, long enough for him to help Iraqi children through the difficult time.

Most of the peace activists who descended by the hundreds on Baghdad this fall and winter have fled. Those who remain have no intentions of leaving. They are anchored to the bull’s-eye despite the fact – or maybe because of it – that the World Health Organization predicts 1,00,000 Iraqis could die.

"I’m here because I hear the children cry," Liteky said. "In my mind … I imagine the bombing and the noise and the windows shattering and something coming down from the ceiling and children looking up and parents grabbing them and fear being transferred from parents to children."

Save yourselves

Washington has warned the activists to clear out. The Pentagon has said its assault will leave no place in Baghdad to hide. So the rundown hotels that enjoyed full houses as recently as February are shuttering their windows.

At the Hotel Al-Fanar on the Tigris river, the Iraq Peace Team is moving to the lower floors because the eight-storey building is old and seems unsteady. Its bomb shelter is a musty basement that stores the hotel’s chemical cleaning supplies.

Members of the peace team have signed an ominous-sounding contract: "In the event of your death, you agree to your body not being returned to your own country but being disposed of in the most convenient way."

They have had awkward discussions about what to do with the corpses that might collect around them. Wrap the dead in hotel drapes, they decided. Pray for help.

Iraq Peace Team founder Kathy Kelly had a photo enlarged that shows her with some of her dearest friends — the family of an Iraqi widow and her nine children. The photo is being mailed to Kelly’s mother in Chicago.

"She can see by that photo that I am very, very happy," Kelly said, sounding serenely calm despite the gathering storm.

On Monday, Kelly helped an Iraqi friend pack to leave. Teacher and artist Amal Alwan rushed her three young children into a taxi and paid $300 for the 10-hour drive from Baghdad to Damascus, Syria. Alwan doesn’t have relatives in Syria and couldn’t tell the cabbie exactly where to go.

"She doesn’t have a clue where she will stay, but she can’t possibly stay in Baghdad, not with children," Kelly said. "Her house is next to a communications centre."

As Kelly spoke it was almost 1.30 a.m. on Tuesday in Baghdad and she was awake reading "A Fine Balance," a novel about civil war in India. She planned to rise six hours later for a daily prayer meeting, then go with the peace team to the United Nations offices in Baghdad. They would hold aloft several enlarged photos of Iraqi families.

Each photo would carry a single question: "Doomed?"

"I don’t have the slightest sense of not belonging exactly where I am right now," said Kelly, 50, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. "The thought of leaving has not even crossed my mind."

The Pentagon says the presence of US pacifists will not deter the course of war. Although there are no plans to arrest them for violating sanctions on Iraq by travelling to Baghdad, officials throughout the US government, from the White House to the State Department to the Pentagon, sound confused about how to best to deal with them.

"There’s not a whole lot of precedence," said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Dan Hetlage. "It’s not like you had human shields protecting the Taliban."

Armed for war

Members of the Iraq Peace Team say they are as prepared for war as they will ever be. They have "crash kits" packed neatly and set by their hotel doors. Liteky’s is the size of carry-on luggage. It bulges with bandages, antibiotics, water-purification tablets, three litres of water, dried fruit, canned tuna, biscuits, power bars and a short-wave radio.

He hopes to ride out Operation Shock and Awe in Baghdad’s Orphanage of the Sisters of Mother Teresa. Or at least to rush there as soon as the bombing subsides. He’s compelled to at least try to quell the inevitable trembling of the children.

"I’d rather die doing something," he told his wife, Judy, "then die … in some old folks home."

Liteky, 72, is a former Roman Catholic priest and Vietnam war hero awarded the congressional Medal of Honor for crawling under volleys of gunfire in 1967 to rescue 23 injured US soldiers.

According to army reports, during the firefight near Phuoc-Lac the wounded became too heavy to carry so Liteky turned onto his back in the mud, pulled the men on top of him and crawled backward under gunfire, using only his heels and elbows.

He’s plenty scared of war, he said, but his fear is for the children.

When the attack comes, he said, "the most beautiful thing that can happen for me is if I am permitted to be at the orphanage. At least I could pick the children up, hold them, and try to let my calm and love transfer to them."

Liteky speaks every morning to his wife, 11 time zones away, in San Francisco. Since arriving in Baghdad three weeks ago, it has become increasingly difficult to hang up the phone. On Tuesday they spoke for 40 minutes, said goodbye twice, and kept talking.

"I don’t have a death wish," he said in an interview Monday. "I have everything to live for. I have a wonderful wife and a wonderful life back home."

Liteky and his wife have thought for a week that the invasion of Iraq would begin sometime between March 10 and 17. So when Judy Liteky, a math teacher at a community college, left for work on Monday, she put a bumper sticker on her car.

"Attack Iraq? No!," it read.

"The bumper sticker made me feel just a little bit better," she said

Kelly heard late Monday that the United Nations would evacuate most of its remaining office staff on Tuesday. Still, she sounded steadfast in her decision to stay in Baghdad, even if it meant dying.

"A lot of people are concerned for the foreigners who remain here; you wonder if anyone is concerned for these very ordinary Iraqi people who are going to die here," she said.

When photographer Thorne Anderson chose to travel to Baghdad with Kelly in January to document the people and the war, he informed his family of the trip in an e-mail.

Anderson, who has freelanced for Gannett News Service, Newsweek, The New York Times and other publications, said he expected a little preaching, lots of concern, and some pleas to reconsider.

Instead, his father, the Rev. Eade Anderson of Montreat, N.C., was succinct in his reply.

"I’ve always said life shouldn’t be wasted on the small things," he wrote in an e-mail. "Love, Dad."

( March 12, 2003, Gannett News Service, http://www.commondreams.org/

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2003 Year 9  No. 85, Cover Story 3



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