Amal's Birthday

Since the mid-1990s, Kathy Kelly has been a frequent visitor to Iraq, visiting hospitals, making friends with ordinary Iraqis, and defying UN sanctions by bringing in medical supplies.

Kathy Kelly with children in Iraq. Photo by Alan Pogue
As a founder of Voices in the Wildernerss, Kathy Kelly was in Iraq as part of the organization's delegation, called the Iraq Peace Team. YES! senior editor Carolyn McConnell spoke to her after she returned to the U.S. about what life is like in Bagdad, and how she became an international peace activist.

Carolyn McConnell:What did you experience on your most recent trip to Bagdad? How did the bombing and occupation affect the lives of the Iraqi people you had gotten to know?

Kathy Kelly:When the U.S. tanks rolled in, we watched our friends adjust to occupation. We didn't see thanksgiving or jubilation. One mother of two little girls looked out the window with tears streaming down her face, and said, “Never did I think that this would happen to my country, and I feel very sad, and I think that this sadness will never go away.” And yet people treated us as kindly and as hospitably as they always had.

We stayed in a family-owned hotel. When the bombing began, the whole extended family moved in. They were Muslim, but they invited their neighbors, a Christian family, to move in as well. It was a full house. When the electricity went out completely, we all sat in the hotel tearoom and, because the television didn't work, just talked and talked with one another. A group of teenagers obsessively played the game “Risk,” which is a board game of military domination. My friend Cynthia wanted them to go downstairs into the bomb shelter. She said, “You know, you could always finish the game tomorrow.” These kids just looked at her. Little Dima said, “Madame Cynthia, we might not be here tomorrow.”

A friend of mine, one of the other 13 members of the Iraq Peace Team, likened the bombing to 11 San Francisco earthquakes in a day, and then again the next day and the next. The buildings sway back and forth and the windows tremble and doors shudder.

We celebrated the 13th birthday of a girl named Amal, which means hope. We thought, there's no place that's safe, so we're just going to go right out on the riverfront and have this birthday party. The skies were overcast with thick smoke from the oil fires all over the city and bombs periodically ripped through the atmosphere, but we were outside with plastic chairs and barbeque and party favors and balloons and duck-duck-goose and somebody who knew how to do hand stands. At one point, a bomb exploded nearby and we didn't know where the youngest of the family, Mahmoud, was. There was a moment of panic, but he was fine. I saw on his mother, Karima's, face first anxiety, then relief, and then a perfect mother's expression of disgust at the bombing: “Look what these big children are doing.”

We went out every day to try to get the stories of the Iraqi victims of the bombing. In hospitals we saw people whose limbs had been shattered or organs ripped open. One teenage boy's stomach was torn open, and he had no morphine. When we went back to the hotel television and heard President Bush declare that the war had been a success, it felt like reality had become disjointed.

We also talked with U.S. Marines in the hope of bringing back their stories, stories that might not otherwise be heard in the United States. Every one of the many Marines we encountered in Iraq expressed remorse for the suffering they'd seen. Some expressed disgust for the suffering they'd caused. One guy said, in a southern accent, “We wasn't sure, was they military, was they civilian. We got to one place 'cause we saw fatigues on the ground, we shot everybody.” Then he pointed to his head. “I hope it never registers here.”

A commander said to us, “Don't blame these young guys for what happened. In the heat of battle I made some hasty decisions and it is I who will have sleepless nights.”

Almost every night, soldiers on rotation came into our hotel to watch TV, but they also wanted to talk. A couple of times guys said to us, “You shouldn't be trying to do this 'cause you can never influence the U.S. government. They'll never listen to you.” And we'd say, “But in a democracy, information should be shared and heard.” They said, “Oh, no, no, no, they'll never listen to you.”

Carolyn: What in your personal history would prompt you to go to Iraq in the middle of a war? How did you come to political consciousness?

Kathy:When I was in high school I saw the film “Night and Fog.” The European filmmakers went to the concentration camps at Dachau and Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz to film the remains of the camps. There's a haunting narrative on what each aspect of these remains means—of blankets made of human hair and lampshades made of human skin. In a shot of tracks leading up to a camp, you can see they went through a residential neighborhood. I thought, “Didn't they smell the burning flesh?” Somehow that thought made deep roots in me. I never wanted to be a person who stayed on the sidelines and was an observer in the face of some unspeakable evil.

Yet I managed to go through the Vietnam War like Brigadoon in the mist. I just never got involved. Later, when I was studying for a masters degree in theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary, some people from the Catholic Worker came down to where I lived. I wasn't home, so they left a note that said, “We've been getting checks from you. We know you exist. Why don't you bring yourself? It's nice of you to send a check, but we'd rather have people.”

On February 24, Kathy Kelly and Voices in the Wilderness members carried photos of Iraqis near the Kuwait-Iraq border to represent who would be killed when the bombing of Iraq started
I finally went up to their soup kitchen and almost overnight I moved to the Uptown neighborhood and became part of a wonderful community of people. I met people who took it for granted that you can live your life in accord with your ideals. They made it attractive to live simply, share resources, and attempt to serve people. I moved into an apartment situated between the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality and the parish soup kitchen. All I can say is that life got awfully easy after that. I no longer have that hungering for where I can belong, for a community that wants to do some good.

Many of us in the community just couldn't imagine paying our taxes when our immediate neighbors were living on the streets, or in abandoned buildings, and coming to the soup kitchen. Everywhere we looked there was sheer need. The Francis of Assisi Catholic Worker House of Hospitality always needed funds. So why would we send the money to the government, half of it going to defense expenditures and some of it maybe trickling back down to the human needs that were right there?

A bunch of us stopped paying our taxes. I never did start paying again. This disciplined me. The IRS has become my spiritual director. They want to attach penalties and fines to anything I own. So I don't own anything. When the feds attach penalties to me for violating the sanctions by bringing medicines and supplies to Iraq, I can say, “Add it to the tab.” That feels liberating, oddly freeing.

Carolyn:How did you come to start Voices in the Wilderness? Why does the group use the particular strategies it does?

Kathy:In the 1990s, the British medical journal The Lancet printed a letter to the editor that calculated how many Iraqi children under age 5 had died as a direct result of the economic sanctions. The number was 567,000. One night in 1995, some friends and I decided we wouldn't leave my kitchen table until we had created something to do about Iraq. And then it was a bit like moving into Uptown; it got really easy. If the problem is economic sanctions, we will break the sanctions. We won't do any harm to anybody. We'll bring medicine to people there. If there's any harm it will fall on our heads. The purpose was not to bring huge volumes of medicine, but to challenge the economic sanctions, then return to the United States and report what we'd seen. Maybe one way to help prevent the next war is to tell the truth about this one.

Carolyn: What are your future plans for Voices in the Wilderness?

Kathy:We hope to bring over to Iraq a three-cassette Arabic version of the PBS documentary “A Force More Powerful” about the philosophy and practice of nonviolence. It's possible, I think, that if Iraqis chose to organize along the lines of nonviolent resistance to the occupation they might touch the heartstrings of people in the United States. That's why I want to get this video there, to show them the possibilities of nonviolence. If resistance continues to be random violent attacks, then they won't win sympathy in the United States. People will say that these are terrorists, so we have to smash them again. But if Iraqis start to use nonviolent tactics of strikes, boycotts, sit-downs, fasting, walks, and effective slogans that communicate to the people in the U.S. that they're not trying to bring harm to anybody, I think it could have a very strong impact.

Voices in the Wilderness also has a Wheels of Justice tour that is going across the U.S. to see what more we can do to uproot the roots of war in our own lives. We estimate $2900 per person in the United States gets spent on the military. We will talk about opposition to military recruitment, advocate war tax refusal, and do education on nonviolence.

Carolyn:The corporate media have largely ignored Voices in the Wilderness, or in a few cases written dismissive articles. Are those soldiers who said no one would listen to you wrong?

Kathy: In 1991, as the first Gulf War began, most people in the U.S., including me, could barely spell Kuwait or find Iraq on the map. But this time around the smaller groups like Voices in the Wilderness helped galvanize more mainstream peace groups like the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action, Veterans for Peace, Pax Christi U.S.A., and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Because of that, many more religious and peace and justice people knew a lot about Iraq. That made a difference, I think. The international peace movement came close to the critical mass that could have stopped the war before it started. This was partly because of these steady efforts of education undertaken by so many people at the grassroots level.

Carolyn: Were there any alternatives to war that would have addressed the human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein's regime? How might we address other situations where there are abusive regimes?

Kathy: I do believe there are alternatives. There is the example of the people of Iran who overthrew the Shah of Iran and a ruthless, efficient police state backed by the United States. There was also Romania. I don't mean to approve of the assassination of the leader, Ceaucescu, by his people; I don't advocate killing. But the Romanian people themselves overthrew, again, an efficient, ruthless police state. There are many other examples.

Before the war, I was often in touch with the Iraqi technocrats at a low level of government. Many of them were decent people. You wouldn't call them collaborators with an atrocious, evil government. They were people trying to solve a myriad of problems. I think that people like that, given time, would have been able to wean the government away from the control of the human rights abusers. They would have needed some measure of prosperity to maintain a middle class. And they would have needed to have social services sufficient so that people had time to think about their government. And they would have needed communication. But 11 years of economic sanctions did precisely the opposite. They wrecked social services, the education system, and the communications infrastructure. Iraqis didn't have communication within the country nor from outside Iraq. They couldn't analyze their situation as well as we could because they didn't have access to the materials we were reading. So they kept blaming whomever was closest, which was their affluent classes and Saddam Hussein, but they didn't even realize the extent of what was being done to them at the hands of the United Nations and the U.S.-led sanctions. At the same time, Iraqis didn't have any sense of anybody really wanting to help Iraq.

In 1999, 60 Minutes reporter Carolyn Stahl visited Iraq and then interviewed U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright. Stahl referred to charges that over a half million Iraqi children had died because of the economic sanctions and asked Ms. Albright if she thought it was worth it. “It's a difficult choice to make,” Albright said, “but we think the price is worth it.”

An accurate view of what the United States has done to Iraq shows such a bullying and cruel posture that most people in the United States, if they saw it, wouldn't stand for it. I don't think your average person in the United States wants to adopt the role of a bully who will practice child sacrifice in order to get what he or she wants. It's not who we are, but we don't get the chance to look in the mirror. I believe this war and occupation are going to leave a bad aftertaste in the mouths of many people as they begin to realize what we did. There's a big teaching moment, an opportunity for the Iraqis now under occupation if the Iraqis could somehow realize it.

Since World War II, we've gone through hot war after hot war after hot war. It's Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq again and I haven't named them all. Groups like Voices in the Wilderness try to build a different culture. I think it's happening. It's not happening at the pace that's necessary to feel any assurance that this planet will survive. It's not happening at a pace commensurate to the needs of the people being ground up by these wars. But I do sense that increasingly people are questioning our culture and saying, “I could change it. I could live in a different way.”

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