“You Are Safe With Us”: How Ordinary Iraqis Rescued U.S. Civilians in the Midst of War
In 2003, Iraqi townspeople, having just lost their hospital in U.S. air strikes, saved the lives of three wounded U.S. peacemakers. Seven years later, the Americans returned—to thank them.
In the lead-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, two dozen peacemakers from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia risked their lives to live in Baghdad alongside everyday Iraqis. They remained in Baghdad during the horrifying first days of the U.S. “Shock and Awe” campaign, leaving only after being deported by Ba’athist officials.
To leave Iraq at that time meant a hazardous road trip to Amman, Jordan. On March 29, 2003, seven hours into the 12-hour drive to the border, the rear tire of a taxi carrying four peacemakers exploded on an Iraqi desert highway. The car flipped, landing on its side in a nine-foot-deep irrigation ditch. All survived, only to find themselves stranded and bleeding in an Islamic republic that was under attack. This is their story.
They raced out of Baghdad heading west to Amman, an Iraqi driver, a Korean peace activist, and three American pacifists—friends and strangers, squeezed into a car the size of a Kia.
The 500-mile trip negotiated through checkpoints, customs, and Iraqi bribery was always a test of endurance. And this day, the last Saturday in March 2003, didn’t promise much better. Shock and Awe. No place to hide. That was the Pentagon promise. Vans, sedans, pickups, taxis, tanks, buses, even an ambulance, lay dead on the roads, in the desert, and alongside the highway, along with smoldering husks of fiberglass and steel.
Inside the taxi everything was silent. The Iraqi driver, middle-aged and twitchy, his hands fixed at 10 and 2, pushed the accelerator. Littered with pieces of metal and shrapnel, Highway 1 to Amman was an autobahn loaded and explosive. For 10 consecutive days Iraq had been showered with bombs. Any driver making a mad run for the border might not avoid all the leftovers—shell casings or ordnance from unexploded cluster bombs, some as small as D-sized batteries.
The driver touched the brakes, swerved, accelerated. He was less than 90 minutes from Iraq’s border with Jordan. Ninety-five miles to safety, 90 miles, 80 miles, 75, and then . . .
The left back tire exploded.
The taxi jerked up and forward, fishtailed, flipped, and slammed to a stop on its side, nine feet down in a cobblestone ditch.
The radiator hissed. The driver moaned. He was battered, bruised, hobbled, but otherwise okay. Same for the South Korean peacemaker Bae Sang-hyun, who at age 28 was so full of optimism he thought he could stop a war.
Shane Claiborne of Philadelphia, age 27, muscled a driver’s side door open and wiggled free.
But Reverend Weldon Nisly of Seattle Mennonite Church and Indiana farmer and Christian Peacemaker teams veteran Cliff Kindy were critically injured. Peering through a mask of blood, Cliff pulled himself up and out. He stood briefly on the cobblestone ground and then sat in the ditch.
Through Cliff’s thinning hair Shane saw skin peeled back like an open can, and looking closer he saw bone. Shane’s left shoulder was separated, his right leg cut, but something more urgent grabbed his attention: the realization that three unarmed Americans were now stranded in an Islamic republic under attack by the home team.
Rescued or Kidnapped?
The first vehicle to approach was on the opposite side of the highway, a pickup truck speeding east toward Baghdad. It slowed, stopped, reversed. The driver parked on the road’s shoulder. Three Arab men climbed out and craned their necks for a better view. They began jogging toward the ditch.
Weldon crawled his way to the driver’s-side door and was pulling himself up just as two of the Iraqis scrambled down the hill. Seeing Weldon struggle they gripped him under his armpits and hoisted him up. Bolts of pain fired from his broken ribs, broken sternum, broken thumb, and broken shoulder. He moaned and almost passed out. With one arm over each of their shoulders, they carried him like a wounded soldier up the embankment, across the highway, and to the pickup truck, placing him in the back of the truck’s bed with his back flush against the cab. Then they climbed in and sat like bookends—one Iraqi on each side. Cliff, Shane, and Bae climbed in behind them, and the taxi driver slid into the truck’s cab. In the hurried Arabic flying back and forth, the foreigners couldn’t decipher the deal. Had they just been rescued? Or kidnapped?
A couple of miles down the road, continuing east toward Baghdad, the truck veered onto an exit ramp and stopped next to an idling station wagon. Another flurry of Arabic and the foreigners were transferred to the station wagon.
For all they knew, they had just been sold.
A City in the Anbar Desert
Six or seven miles southeast of that hard ditch, some 270 miles west of Baghdad, there’s a desert town named Ar Rutba. It’s the only city of any size between Ramadi, 195 miles to the east, and Iraq’s western border with Jordan, 83 miles in the opposite direction. Dingy, dusky Rutba was the westernmost outpost for Saddam’s Ba’athist Party; scrappy and Sunni, it had the reputation of a journeyman fighter. Short of an emergency, foreigners didn’t stop there.
Entering Rutba from the south on Business Route 10, Iraq’s Anbar desert springs suddenly to life. Eyes have to adjust. What was a dusky blank canvas moments earlier sharpens into congested streets and neighborhoods, with women in abayas, men in Western clothes, military garb, and long, flowing dishdashas. Apartments, markets, offices, hotels, homes, all are in earth tones constructed from the very mix of sand, mud, and clay on which the city sits. The whole of Rutba looks dressed in desert camouflage.
As the station wagon made its way through Rutba’s streets, an oil tanker, pickup trucks, and a Red Crescent ambulance sat on the roadside charred and twisted; several downtown buildings were missing roofs, windows, or walls.
Downtown Rutba housed the region’s only hospital, Rutba General. Or it had until three days earlier, on March 26, 2003, when a Special Forces unit from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, bombed the hospital, killing an Iraqi father and son.
The station wagon slowed and turned through the entrance of a rusty iron gate. The hand-painted sign above the green-gated door read in Arabic, “The Heath Care Center in Rutba.”
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A Clinic Instead of a Hospital
A line of locals waited to see the only doctor, nurse, and medical assistant who had shown up to work in Rutba on March 29, 2003. Despite the loss of the hospital and no assurance of a paycheck, they had been working almost nonstop. One week after the start of Shock and Awe, this is where the locals of Rutba and of the western desert of Al Anbar now could come when they were sick or injured—a cramped, poorly stocked, poorly ventilated health clinic.
Sa’ady Mesha’al Rasheed, a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested ambulance driver and retired Iraqi soldier, was the first to reach the station wagon. He opened the car door before the engine shut off. The driver told Sa’ady what Sa’ady already knew just by looking. People were badly injured; two were in desperate need of help. On that particular day, Sa’ady was hurting also. A nasty case of asthma was complicated by extreme fatigue. His aging body had been weakened by the back-to-back shifts that he had worked since Rutba General closed March 26. All but a few members of the staff had gone home with no immediate plans to return.
Sa’ady leaned into the bed of the station wagon, and if he saw Weldon’s light complexion, brown hair, and blue eyes, it didn’t show. Years later he would recall only that he saw someone injured. He placed his bear-sized hands beneath Weldon’s back and legs, shifted him forward, and then tried to lift him without putting too much pressure on the spine, limbs, and joints.
Sa’ady, a devout Muslim, cradled the Mennonite pastor to his chest and carried him inside the clinic.
As Iraqis crowded into the clinic’s courtyard, Shane gripped his only tangible protection and played it like a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. The Magic Sheet, as peacemakers called it, explained in English and Arabic why these foreigners were in Iraq’s war zone. In short, it said, “We are here to work for peace and to stand as brothers and sisters with Iraqis in this time of war.”
The director of Rutba General Hospital approached as the Magic Sheet circulated in the crowd. He gave it the once-over. When he opened his mouth, a question fired from it as if it had been spring-loaded since March 26, 2003, the night his trauma ward, maternity ward, and children’s ward were gutted.
“Why, why, why?” Dr. Farouq Al-Dulaimi demanded in English. “Why is your government bombing us?”
He handed the Magic Sheet back to Shane and looked up at the tall, lanky American. Shane saw tears welling in his eyes.
“Sir, I wish I knew,” Shane responded in his native East Tennessee accent. “But I don’t know either.”
All around them Iraqis were moving furniture and equipment to make room for the injured foreigners. A hospital bed was found for Weldon; a table for Cliff.
“You are safe in Rutba,” Dr. Al-Dulaimi told Shane. “We will take care of you. We take care of everyone—Christian, Muslim, Iraqi, American. We are all human beings. We are all sisters and brothers.”
Word spread that bloodied Americans had breached the town’s border and that these Americans were unarmed and civilian. Locals turned out armed with blankets and bottles of water.
A nurse and medical assistant bandaged and stitched them, prepping the critically injured Americans for a long ride to the modern health care of Amman.
Afterwards, the staff refused payment. “No, no,” Dr. Al-Dulaimi told them. “Just go and tell the world of Rutba.”
Seven Years Later: A Return to Rutba
In 2010, the three peacemakers returned to Iraq. Ignoring kidnapping warnings from the embassies and militaries of Jordan and the United States, they traveled to Rutba to express their gratitude for the kindness that saved two of their lives, and to escort a journalist (myself) and a filmmaker into a story they hoped would seed reconciliation.
When we arrived at the director’s office of the rebuilt Rutba General Hospital, on January 15, 2010, I wasn’t sure if we’d parachuted into a meeting, or an interrogation. The office was crowded; men stood quietly in the corners, along the walls, in the doorway.
Cliff began to explain our presence; Sami Rasouli of the Muslim Peacemakers Team interpreted: “It is an honor to be back in the city of Rutba. We were here in March 2003.”
Seated at a desk at the head of the room was a 30-something Iraqi man, clean-cut with a goatee, blue jeans, and brown leather coat. As Cliff and Sami volleyed English and Arabic, he stared straight ahead or down at the desk, his jaw muscles clenching.
Cliff told the story of the accident and the care received at the makeshift clinic. Weldon said his life was probably saved in Rutba and that “ever since that day, I have looked forward to coming back to thank you.”
Shane echoed the sentiment and spoke of two members of the peacemakers’ team who had named a newly founded charity in Durham, N.C., “Rutba House.”
The mood of the room lifted. The men jamming the doorway, the men against the wall, and even the clenched-jaw guy seemed to relax.
The story of Rutba “is so powerful,” Shane said, his enthusiasm and southern accent filling the room, “not because it is exceptional, but because it exemplifies what we’ve experienced from the Iraqi people. But it’s not what many people in the U.S. see.”
Finally, the man whose jaw muscles had been clenched introduced himself as Dr. Nizar Jameel Yaseen, originally from Baghdad. “I was not here in 2003, so I did not see you and you did not see me,” he said slowly. “We want to offer you the best that we have at the hospital and in the city. … For the Iraqi people, I say to you, ‘Welcome.’”
A Familiar Face
It was some days before we met any of the people the peacemakers had met in 2003. But on Sunday morning, January 17, 2010, Tarik Ali Marzouq walked unannounced into our quarters at Rutba General Hospital just after 10 o’clock. For a second, the peacemakers weren’t sure who he was. Then a smile shot across Cliff’s face. His hand went over his heart in greeting, gratitude, love, and respect. Shane’s face lit up.
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On Tarik’s heels strode the medical assistant, the tall, classically handsome Jassim Muhammad Jamil. Cliff immediately recognized the man who had pulled his scalp back together and threaded him with stitches.
Everyone began pointing fingers. Cliff at Tarik, asking if he’d helped sew his head. Jassim at Weldon saying na’am, na’am, “yes, yes,” I remember you.
Weldon explained that he had felt immediate relief when Tarik and Jassim began to help him despite the fact he had multiple fractures and Rutba had no anesthesia to offer. “I knew that you would take care of us.”
Shane explained why he thought it was important to keep Rutba’s story alive: “When people hear it, the power of it to transform hearts is unbelievable.”
Jassim and Tarik looked at each other speechless.
“You came thousands of miles,” Jassim said. “I am so impressed that you did not forget this.”
Shane wiped at a tear. Jassim looked to Sami, who nodded as if to say, na’am, “yes, it’s okay.” Jassim stepped across the room and gave Shane a hug. Then he hugged Cliff, and then Weldon.
“We have not forgotten, and we will never forget,” Weldon told them.
“At this very moment,” Jassim said, “as much as you are happy to see us, we are even happier.”
“As you do when you go back and you tell your people about Rutba,” he said, “we also are committed to tell our people about your visit and your noble mission.”
BOOK TRAILER to The Gospel of Rutba from Greg Barrett on Vimeo.
Greg Barrett, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is also the author of The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions & Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok.
Excerpted and adapted from The Gospel of Rutba by Greg Barrett. Copyright © 2012 by Greg Barrett. Excerpted by permission of Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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