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'Human shields' in tug-of-war

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 2003


By day, the "human shield" volunteers have no shortage of antiwar activities: they march, light candles, give kites to kids, and play soccer with their Iraqi hosts.

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But at night, for some, the doubt begins to gnaw. Hunkered down at nine sites around Baghdad waiting for American bombs to drop, they pray their presence will spare Iraqi civilians. They are gathered around oil facilities and food silos, as well as water-treatment and power plants.

Now idealism, state propaganda, and the reality of a coming war are beginning to collide.

President Saddam Hussein late Saturday reorganized his defenses onto a war footing, dividing Iraq into four military regions, with his younger son Qusay in charge of the Baghdad region. As war draws near, the human shields are wrestling with being manipulated by Iraqis and critics alike, who paint their presence as support for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Their numbers have thinned to less than 100 people, with more packing up and leaving each day, down from a peak of 250 or so from 32 countries.

"In a way, it's unfortunate ... because in this case my goal - stopping the war - coincides with the goal of someone else [Mr. Hussein], whom I don't want to be supporting," says Phil Sands, a former banker and journalist from Britain who gave up his job to come to Iraq. He now changes his mind daily on whether to stay or go. "It would be nice if there was clear blue water between us and them, and there hasn't been."

Why they came

The reasons such volunteers came to Iraq are as many as those who now have the words "human shield" written on their Iraqi visas. Some among them estimate that a quarter are "true believers" who will stay "until there is peace."

Other say they have done what they could to prevent war, and may head out. Yet others have been critical of Iraq's decision not to allow the shields to stay at hospitals or schools. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that five volunteers, including two Americans, were forced out of the country. "They removed us from the sites we had chosen because we were critical of the integrity and the autonomy of the Iraqi authorities," said Ken O'Keefe.

When asked about human shields last month, Gen. Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, cited the Geneva Convention, saying: "It is a violation of the law of armed conflict to use noncombatants as a means of shielding potential military targets - even those people who may volunteer for this purpose."

However, it's not clear that any law is broken by Iraq or the volunteers if they are protecting United Nations-designated civilian - not military - sites.

Still, Mr. Sands is troubled by the conflicting goals and propaganda. "In all our rooms, there is a picture of the great man - we sleep under him," says Sands, whose cot is in spartan staff residence house No. 37, at the Doura Oil refinery on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. Painted on the front patio in large letters are the words: "We are here."

"I don't want to die, I really don't," he says. "But every time I think I'm leaving, because I don't like the way things are slipping out of our control, you meet a few people in the street and think: 'That's the reason I came here.' "

But there is no shortage of reminders of how the image of the human shields - to the chagrin of many of them - has been tied to that of Hussein. During a friendly soccer match on Saturday, at which shields wearing boots and tennis shoes tied 4-4 with a well-cleated Iraqi squad, Belgian human shield Jean-Michel Houplina released a white dove to "symbolize peace in every man's heart, all over the world."