Iraq Journal: Whose “Voices”? Which “Wilderness”?
by Ed Kinane

Is it worthwhile for us to be here? Is it worth the time, the cost, the risk?

I believe a US peace presence in Iraq is a must during the US invasion/occupation. We must not avert our gaze from this illegal, immoral, brutal and thieving war. We need to keep tabs on the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) – the occupation – which is a structure of violence both direct and systemic. Hopefully the presence of peace activists, if only in some small way, helps restrain CPA violence. And the lies it tells about such violence.

Anti-war activists need to know firsthand what we oppose. More invasions and occupations are in the pipeline. Experience gained here will one day be needed elsewhere.

Given, then, that it’s useful to be here, what do we do here?

Since 1996 Voices in the Wilderness has had a clear vision: work to lift the sanctions – a tool of genocide that, according to the UN, has led to the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. A year ago Voices fielded the Iraq Peace Team in Baghdad to work to prevent the impending invasion. Failing to prevent the invasion, we felt duty bound to witness it and share the terror of “shock and awe.” As advocates of nonviolence we needed to be here to meet the US troops when they arrived.

Five months later the task is harder to define.

Sure, we should take our cue from the Iraqi people, which is easier said than done. The “Iraqi people” is no single body. Iraqis are diverse — there are many traditions, factions, and interests. Nor are things always as they seem.

Most Iraqis agree that that somehow Saddam had to go. Many think there was no way to get rid of him except through the invasion. Some derive hope from the US presence; others – delicately — say they are now “disappointed” in the US. They had anticipated “liberation.” But after months of tanks rumbling down their streets and choppers flying low over their homes, they know they remain a captive disenfranchised people. With every assassination, with car bombings killing dozens, with every massacre by scared and trigger-happy US soldiers, these Iraqis know they still live under a regime of fear. Under Saddam there was order, under the CPA there is chaos.

Some tell us they feel hopeless. Their hopelessness stems from both the occupation and from the homegrown rapine. There are the other men with guns – unknown shadows who cross Iraq’s open borders, stoking the hatred, keeping the pot boiling.

It’s not clear to me that there is much we can do to “help” Iraqis. Iraqis are a remarkably competent, articulate, resourceful and resilient people. They need to be able to put their own talents and energies to work. If the oil under their soil goes to Iraqis instead of to US corporations, Iraqis will rebuild their country. If Iraqis get reparations for the mayhem they have endured during this 13-year war against them, they will rebuild their country.

But I don’t believe we are totally useless here. One thing we can do is listen.

Most Iraqis are too young to remember a time when they were able to speak freely. Now they can…somewhat. Especially they can begin to speak about the past, the Saddam past. However, Saddam still at large remains, incalculably, a force to reckon with, which is a good enough reason for many Iraqis to guard their tongue…or to be unable to find their voices after decades of silence. Others, lots of others, had a stake in the status quo and so may not speak for fear of incriminating themselves or drawing attention to themselves: in the reigning anarchy, scores are still being settled.

And then there’s the new status quo. We know an Iraqi who works for the CPA. He’s found his voice, but it lacks any critical edge.
Some do speak about the current situation. It’s not entirely clear to me how candidly...or how tailored to the immediate audience.

Iraqis seem to want to speak to us. One reason, I suspect, is that some see US Americans as dupes needing to be set straight. How else to explain our being bamboozled into the war by Bush and company? Or our ignorance of the world outside the US? Or how readily we gave up our civil liberties in the wake of 9/11? An Iraqi woman tells us she likes Americans. “They are simple people,” she says. “Oh, you mean we’re stupid?” I say. She chuckles.

So, we listen. We express support for progressive initiatives. We write home about what we hear. Our writings, if they strike some chord, get put on websites or broadcast via email. If I have hope, it’s in ripple effects.

Undoubtedly, the “voices” in “Voices in the Wilderness” are those of our activists and staff, here and back in the States. But there are more urgent voices in the wilderness: those of the people of Iraq. Our job is to help them be heard.

Ed, a Syracuse, NY-based human rights worker, is a member of the PNL editorial committee. For more information on Voices in the Wilderness, see <www.vitw.org>. Ed returned to Baghdad in August with Voices in the Wilderness, which continues to witness firsthand the aftermath of this latest US war on Iraq. We just received this reflection on why he is there.