Kathy Kelly: Glimpses of a "Pious Pisshead"
by Ed Kinane

Kathy Kelly has been nominated three times for a Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: Voices for Creative Nonviolence

Kathy Kelly, just back from the Mid-East, will join the Peace Council on June 10 celebrating its 70th birthday . Kathy founded Voices in the Wilderness (VITW), a Chicago-based grassroots group that sought to end the genocidal US sanctions on Iraq and to prevent the invasion.


Between 1996 and the March 2003 invasion, VITW led over 70 delegations to Iraq. In 2005 VITW dissolved and Kathy and other Voices activists formed Voices for Creative Nonviolence - www.vcnv.org.

The following "glimpses" are drawn from remarks Ed made to the SPC Study Group in April. It had recently read Kathy's memoir, Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison [CounterPunch, 2005, $14.95, 173pp.].

The first time I meet Kathy Kelly we're at a small gathering of local activists here in Syracuse. Paul Frazier asks her, "Do you have any advice for us?" "Sure," she says, "cut each other slack."

Kathy loves to sing. One of her favorites is Sibelius' "Finlandia." She sings it in English…and in Arabic. She loves to teach "Finlandia" - in either language - to Iraqi kids.

When Kathy was a kid, her sisters would give her a hard time. Kathy used to be so taken with the nuns and the Church that her sisters called her a pious pisshead.

In Baghdad before and during the invasion Voices folks stay at the Al Fanar, a small hotel overlooking the Tigris. Several of us meet early each morning for reflection. Kathy usually joins us.

By default, Neville Watson, an Australian barrister and Protestant minister, often chairs these sessions. Kathy and Neville are kindred spirits and confidantes. Neville is in his seventies and thinks - with solemn equanimity - we will surely die during the coming invasion. At Voices meetings we call on Neville for his carefully calculated assessments of our chances of making it out of this thing alive.

I don't know what Kathy lives on - maybe peanut butter. I often see her in the hotel restaurant, but seldom eating. Her room adjoins the Voices' office on the 7th floor. The place is buzzing. Kathy sits with her old laptop and doesn't use a desk. Always she's a serene presence.

There's maybe 40 of us crammed in a hotel room. We're mostly from the US, but also from Canada, Ireland, England, and South Korea….It's time to discuss either staying in Iraq or getting out before the invasion, before it's too late. In her rapid-fire fashion, Kathy tries to paint a realistic picture of the risks. Referring to women, she notes that "indignities" may be forced on them. About 30 of us choose to stay.We try to figure out what part of the hotel is safer. The Iraqis and CNY's Cynthia Banas will sleep in the basement. Most of us move to rooms on lower floors - supposedly safer from the shelling and the bombs.

Syracuse Peace Council's
Birthday Dinner

Saturday, June 10
@ 6 pm
Featuring Kathy Kelly

St. Andrews Church
(124 Alden St.)
Donation $10-70 (sliding scale)

Reservations are strongly encouraged (by June 2). Call 472-5478 or see www.peacecouncil.net/bday
Childcare is available by reservation only (let us know by June 2).

People welcome at 7:30 pm just for the program.

For fear of shattered glass, we tape our room windows. We're amazed when we hear that there's been a run on duct tape in the States. To get further away from glass, when the bombing gets heavy Kathy, our friend Cathy Breen and I camp by the elevators on the second floor.

In early April, near the end of "Shock and Awe," our Iraqi government handlers tell us that there are too many of us; some must leave. Most of us have no desire to leave. We feel we are right where we belong. A few reluctantly volunteer to make the hazardous 10-hour trip through the desert by taxi to Jordan.

A few others - mostly from the Christian Peacemaker Team (who work with us) - are suddenly deported for having taken photos of a bombed-out building without permission. Since more won't agree to go, there are still too many of us.

Kathy must decide who stays and who goes. In announcing her preference for the several who can stay, I have never seen the unhierarchical and unflappable Kathy so tense.

On April 8 the US Marines shell the Hotel Palestine next door, killing two international journalists. The same day the US bombs the Al Jazeera headquarters just across the Tigris River from us. A Jordanian journalist is killed. The other Arab-language TV broadcast network, a block from Al Jazeera, is also bombed.The next day US Marines arrive and surround us and the Palestine with tanks and machine gun nests. They're here to "protect" us. To greet them, we drape banners ("Courage For Peace Not For War") and big vinyl photo portraits of Iraqis on the south side of the Al Fanar.

Kathy circulates among the soldiers with a tray of dates. It's the traditional Iraqi gesture of welcome.

Voices leaves Iraq in mid-April 2003. Several of us (including Kathy) return to Baghdad in August. We now stay in a row house Voices has leased in a commercial/residential neighborhood. Because of the heat, most nights we all sleep on the roof - a fitful sleep punctuated by choppers, gunfire and explosions

Kathy Kelly with a young Iraqi friend during a massive heatwave in Basra, Iraq, 1999. Photo: Alan Pogue

I tell Kathy, "I don't operate on adrenaline." She responds, "I only operate with adrenaline."

One day several of us go to the green zone to attend the weekly US military press conference. Security there is heavy. We have each prepared questions to ask General Sanchez, who is then the second-in-command.

I ask Sanchez how many US soldiers are being investigated for abusing Iraqi civilians. It's before the violations at Abu Ghraib had been exposed. Sanchez answers curtly, "Three or four," and turns away, making any follow-up question impossible.

At the end of the press conference Kathy and each of us from Voices who have asked questions are detained. Eventually two soldiers escort us out of the green zone at gunpoint.

A neighborhood woman cleans our house several times a week. Her daughter accompanies her. The daughter is about nine years old and very lovely. They live in cardboard boxes in a half-built row house next door.

One evening I come upon Kathy and the youngster dancing together. There's no music, but together they are luminous; such bliss - they are having the time of their lives.

Our house isn't very secure. Money and other things turn up missing. Kathy's laptop is stolen. It has all her correspondence and journaling. Crestfallen, Kathy says she needed that material for the book she has committed to write.

Kathy and a vanload of us drive to Basra to assess hospital conditions. One evening we're invited to visit a prominent mosque. Before Kathy and another Voices woman can enter they have to cover themselves in traditional black garb. The only flesh visible is their hands and part of their faces. They have become totally inconspicuous.

One afternoon Kathy and I go to visit several families she knows in the Basra slum where she lived one summer. There are huge puddles of green sewage in the streets. Everywhere we go crowds of boys gather around Kathy. At first friendly, they get increasingly aggressive, demanding money and trying to reach into our pockets.

The boys start stoning us. We duck into the compound of one of Kathy's friends. Because stones are being thrown over the walls into the courtyard, we have to meet with the families inside their cramped and dark quarters. At the end of each of these visits, Kathy discretely passes on to the family a packet of money. Then we go out into the street and once more face the urchins…and the sewage.

Back in the States, in November 2004 Kathy and others are arrested for "crossing the line" at Fort Benning. It's not her first time here. In the very earliest days of SOA Watch, in 1990, she fasted for 30 days with Fr. Roy Bourgeois at the base entrance.

Kathy writes from prison that she's reading Milton's Paradise Lost and studying Arabic. A former college English teacher, Kathy loves to read. Back in Baghdad I'd sometimes see her with the New York Review of Books (NYRB). She says the NYRB is her way of getting out of the "activist ghetto."

It's August 2005. Shirley Novak from Syracuse has recruited Kathy to keynote the Doctors for Global Health annual conference at Colombia University. I introduce Kathy to this assembly of progressive medical professionals.

Kathy describes Iraq's grim medical situation. During Q&A Kathy is asked about her recent time in prison. Kathy talks about her fellow prisoners and the heart-wrenching attempts of these moms to stay in touch by phone with their kids. I find myself in tears.

That same weekend the NYC Catholic Worker has its annual Hiroshima/Nagasaki procession. It's late evening. Scores of us walk silently past the bustling bistros and sidewalk cafes. When I last glimpse Kathy, she's holding a candle, bathed in its glow.

Ed is a longtime SPC activist.