'Human shields' in tug-of-war

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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."

But when child cadets dressed in military fatigues began a common chant at half-time - "Yes, yes, our heart and soul for you, Saddam" - Mr. Houplina went to the group and implored: "Please don't sing that!"

"When you hear the chanting, that just made me think: 'That's it, I'm going. I'm not here for this,'" says Sands. "The tension and dilemma of it is horrible - we've been used by both sides."

"I don't really like the shouting for Saddam Hussein," says Marta Gregorcic, a 26-year-old sociologist from Slovenia. But she says that, in her mind, she has "no choice" but to stay. "I would rather be here than sitting at home and watching this war take place on TV."

Shades of gray

The experience has been an eye-opener for many Westerners here, unfamiliar with Iraq's authoritarian regime. "A lot of shields were thinking it was black and white, and that we were on the side of good like Che Guevara," adds Sands. "But it's not black and white at all."

Still, many human shields are determined to stay in support of Iraqi civilians - even as they rely on the watchful hospitality of Iraq's government, which has in many cases provided food, housing, and transport. Keeping focused is half their battle amid all the swirling politics, and negative press coverage about splits among the various human-shield contingents.

"If people want to leave, they shouldn't bad-mouth everybody else. If people come here, that is good enough for me," says Annette Lemont, a mother of three who works for Scotland's health ministry, and now beds down at the Taji Food Silo. "The longer I am here, the more horrible it is to walk along a street, and know it could be bombed. Nobody deserves that."

Among the "true believers" at the Doura Refinery is Faith Fippinger, a retired teacher for the blind, who daily visits the nursery school for the refinery staff. "They're beautiful children, like the children on my block in Sarasota, Fla."

Ms. Fippinger has not been pleased with how the antiwar message - often a protest of US and British policy - has been so often transmitted back to the West as a pro-regime message. But, she says, the Iraqis she meets are the reasons she will stay, no matter what happens.

"I've never thought about not staying - I still believe in why I came," says Fippinger, who protested the Vietnam War. "The biggest shock is that America continues to pursue war in this way, and that's just impossible to believe: to choose war, to choose death, to choose murder ... killing hope, killing future."

Wrapped in a blanket in her six-cot room, under a portrait of Hussein, Fippinger's eyes tear up when she talks about the risks she is taking, and why. "None of us are here as martyrs. I would love to be home playing tennis with my friends, but for me now this is home.

"If there is an evacuation, and there is one seat on the bus, it is not for me," Fippinger adds. "It is for my Iraqi neighbor next door, with her baby."

But the experiences of human shields already in Iraq aren't deterring others. Some 17 Egyptian doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers passed through Amman, Jordan, last week, on their way to Baghdad. And in South Africa, a group of nearly 40 shields is preparing to go on Tuesday. A majority are Muslims of Indian decent. They say they are unfazed by reports that some shields are heading home.

"I think some of the British guys realized the reality of the situation and were gripped by cold fear. Some ran out of money. Some did things that the Iraqi government didn't want them to do," says Abie Dawjee, national coordinator of the Iraqi Action Group, a 12-year-old South African organization.

"But it doesn't worry us at all. We're committed to going."

Nicole Itano contributed to this report from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...