Madame Cynthia's Travels:
From Griffiss to Baghdad and Beyond

by Paul Frazier

Cynthia and Kathy Kelly at the recent Geneva (Switzerland) Fast for Economic Justice in Iraq. Photo:Cathy Breen

"I rembered a funny little section of a dream about Cynthia Banas. She was driving us somewhere in a big old car with such fierce determination and fearlessness. She slid into impossibly tight spots, using fenders and bumpers to 'nudge' the vehicles around her. For my part, I was in awe, impressed and amused."
My dream-sharing friend had encountered Cynthia but once: we had met in Ithaca to hear an Iraq presentation and be with Cynthia. After the presentation we shared a simple bread, cheese and juice picnic, then found a quiet Ithaca bar for glasses of wine. We may have walked Cynthia to that trusty, large, old car that gets Madame Cynthia from here to there, when busses aren't an option and when she is not on a jet heading to places of discomfort.

A woman of fierce determination and fearlessness, sliding into impossibly tight spots, and nudging those around her. Is more of a description necessary to reintroduce Cynthia Banas to readers of the PNL?

I asked Cynthia about her start-up energy for these last twenty or more years of consistent risk-taking for justice and for an update on Mideast justice campaigns. Cynthia walks us back to moments that stay stuck in her memory bank, near the shoreline for easy retrieval.
"I remember when the bomb was dropped in 1945 [Cynthia was then a teen]. I remember being happy the war was over, but had no idea about the horror of the bombing. I read John Hersey's description of the bombings on Japan, and I'll never forget that description. My brother was a soldier then and he remembers being taken on a trip to Nagasaki after the bombing. Japan had been sending out feelers to surrender, but the US pushed ahead, believing that bombing would save American lives."

Cynthia, the librarian from Vernon, NY, ties the threads together between the horrors of atomic bombs, her Army brother's stories of Nagasaki, protests at the former Griffiss Air Force Base and calls to action for disarmament.
She tells us "I live only seven miles from the former Griffiss Air Force Base and have been against nuclear weapons. When Cruise missiles were placed at Griffiss in the early 1980s, I met up with college students and other activists protesting these missiles with nuclear warheads on them. My sister and I attended the first and second disarmament sessions of the UN, and we met 500 Japanese who were also at those sessions.


"I had gone to Washington often in the 80s and would stay at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker. I would take part in their vigil's call for the release of Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli who became a whistleblower in 1986 by exposing Israel's production of nuclear bombs, in clear violation of UN resolutions against making nuclear weapons. I met the late Sam Day who coordinated the efforts to free Vanunu. Through these connections I became part of the delegation that met at the prison gates in Jerusalem when Vanunu got out of prison in 2004. Given sanctuary at a church, but restricted from speaking with foreign reporters and from traveling, he now has charges against him for allegedly breaking these restrictions, imposed after eighteen years of imprisonment, twelve in solitary!"

Cynthia, what brought you to Mideast activism?
"My work as a UNICEF volunteer over the years, selling greeting cards, attracted me to the Mideast. Iraq no longer needed help from UNICEF after the quality of life rose in the 1990s. But in 1996 I learned of the sanctions' effects on Iraqi children - a half million dying. Sanctions - a polite word for siege. The goal of the sanctions placed on Iraq in 1990 was to starve the enemy to death. The sanctions - the siege - against Iraq went on for 12 years, until the US invasion. I wanted to find out what I could do to call attention to this crime.

"While lobbying in Washington, DC, I came into contact with Voices in the Wilderness after hearing Kathy Kelly [founder of Voices in the Wilderness] speak. Since that time I have been active with their fine work - first to try and lift the sanctions through education, and then to try to prevent the illegal and immoral war."

Cynthia talks passionately about her numerous trips to the Mideast.
"I have made eight trips to the Mideast, first with Pax Christi, then with Voices in the Wilderness. I made several trips between 2001 and 2003 to Iraq. I was in Iraq during the invasion of 2003. In 2004 and 2005, I traveled to Israel and the occupied territories. I haven't gone back to Iraq since 2003 because the Iraqi people tell me it is too dangerous to go there now.

"In all, I spent about a year in Iraq and the Mideast at different times. And because of my past work in Haiti and Guatemala, I have come to the conclusion that the issues are similar - the US overthrows governments, overtly or covertly, or attacks or invades to further its domination of the world's resources."

Cynthia was asked to comment on groups with which she works.
"I connect with Voices in the Wilderness, the local Pax Christi groups in Syracuse and the Mohawk Valley, the Syracuse Peace Council, School of the Americas Watch and the campaign to free Mordechai Vanunu. I also encourage people to look up the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, which is doing great work in investigating prison torture in Iraq. The allegations of torture may very well be true because the people who are now policing in Iraq have been trained by the New York City Police Force, which trained the brutal Haitian army.

"We used to train people at the School of the Americas...to be used as death squads. I see that the Israelis and the Americans are not bringing the Iraqis here to be trained but are training the Iraqis, in Iraq, to be policemen - but you see that more and more they are killing their own people.
There will be no peace in that land until there is security and there is no security by killing everyone."

Cynthia demonstrating in Isreal with nuclear whistle blower and longtime political prisoner Mordechai Vanunu. Photo:Kathy Boylan

Without prompting, Cynthia offers these suggestions to the readers of the PNL.
"The Syracuse Peace Council has been a strong voice for peace since 1936 and will continue its vital work. I urge you all to support the work of the SPC by educating people and by speaking truth to the powers.
"Continue to give priority to counter-recruitment work. It is only when young people know enough to resist illegal, immoral and cruel wars that there will be a chance for peace.
"About Iraq? Any time you hear something not the truth, call up the radio station and tell them what the facts are. The government is whitewashing; things are not getting better in Iraq, they are getting worse by the hour.
"Make a continuing effort to educate people about how illegal and immoral this war is. The attack on Iraq was an act of aggression against a country that never attacked us. This needs to be emphasized over and over again. The cruelty of the war itself against a defenseless nation and the continuing cruel occupation of the Iraqi people is a crime against humanity and a betrayal of the United Nations Charter. I refer readers to the website of the World Tribunal (www.worldtribunaliraq.org) which has an excellent analysis of the War against Iraq and the crimes of the United States and its 'coalition of the willing.'
"Readers need to keep informed by checking out these websites regularly:
Democracy Now! (www.democracynow.org);
reports from 'unembedded'reporter Dahr Jamail (www.dahrjamailiraq.com);
Voices in the Wilderness (www.vitw.org);
Electronic Iraq (www.electroniciraq.net);

Truthout (www.truthout.org);
Common Dreams (www.commondreams.org); and
University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole's blog on Middle East issues (www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole).

"There are signs that the United States Empire is crumbling. The US spends more than all other countries combined on its military budget. More than two years after "Shock and Awe," the 8-mile road between the center of Baghdad and the airport has not yet been secured. There will be endless war in Iraq as long as the United States does not change its policy of world domination to control natural resources. This is the message that we must communicate. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs to take place in the United States. The United States needs to acknowledge its crimes against Iraq if there is any chance for peace."

What should the future hold for Iraq to see significant, healthy changes?
"The Iraqis need to rebuild their country. During the last two weeks of June I took part in a fast and vigil in Geneva, Switzerland with Voices in the Wilderness. As a means of working toward economic justice for Iraq, we presented demands with these three key elements: (1) A new UN Security Council resolution which cancels all unpaid war reparations already imposed on Iraq. (2) No economic conditions to be imposed upon Iraq by the international community. (3) Full funding for the reconstruction of Iraq which focuses on the social needs of the Iraqi people, is directed by Iraqis, and has no strings attached.
"These conditions are needed for economic justice and there is not peace without economic justice. I encourage peace and justice people to advocate for these conditions."

So what is it, Cynthia, that keeps you going? What is the source of your energy?
"I have been around for a long, long time and have come to the conclusion that compassion is the meaning of any religion. Every person in this world is my brother or my sister, and I believe that love is the strongest force."

To know Cynthia is to stand in awe, not unlike the awe of dreams, and bow to her tenacity.


Paul lives in Slocum House (site of Jail Ministry and long-established hospitality house on Syracuse's west side) and continues his support of and for Cynthia Banas.