An activist, clown, trainee lawyer and writer from England. I was in Iraq several times, most recently Nov 03 to May 04, still writing about Iraq and passing on my friends' stories from there.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

An Open Letter to British Troops Serving in Iraq

The US has asked the British government to send you north to free up forces for another offensive against Falluja. I’m writing to ask you to refuse any orders to deploy to Baghdad or other areas currently under US control.

I was an ambulance volunteer in Falluja during the April siege. I went because my friend Salam, a doctor, said US troops were stopping medical supplies getting in, cut off water, food, electricity and had closed down the main hospital and controlled the road to the smaller one with snipers.

Salam was evacuated with bullet wounds; a missile from a US plane destroyed the ambulance in front of his. He and his crew were under fire, pinned inside the vehicle while their colleagues burned in the other one. He thought the marines wouldn’t shoot us because we’d look like their brothers and sisters. He was right: in daylight we moved medical supplies, evacuated people from the second hospital and homes in the firing line, picked up sick and injured people.

We went to bring two sick women from a house in US territory. Outside a man of about 60 was lying face down in the road, shot through the back. You don’t need me to tell you what it looks or smells like when a man’s chest isn’t inside his body any more.

We could see the lines of marines along the tops of the houses. Only when we got there did the family dare to come out, the sons screaming that he was unarmed, he just went out to get the car to take his wife to the clinic. The daughters whispered, “Baba, baba” [Daddy] as we walked them to safety.

Our clinic received countless sniper casualties, the US’s preferred method of controlling its areas: a small boy, trousers wet, shot in the head; an old woman carrying a white flag; a young woman shot in the jaw, all attempting to flee their homes in US territory. Aircraft pounded the town with missiles and cluster bombs. I think they denied using cluster bombs but there’s no mistaking the rhythmic sound of them exploding.

As it got dark we were asked to pick up a woman in premature labour in a US-held area, giving birth without light, water or medical attention. We were not visibly foreign any more and my ambulance, clearly marked as such in English with flashing lights and siren, was fired on by US marine snipers. We never got to her. I don’t know what happened to her.

Cars packed with families queued at the edge of town. Marines were firing at the cars. Troops inside the town had been threatening people to leave by sunset or they would be killed. As we left we were taken prisoner by Iraqi gunmen, afraid that we were spies. They, like the fighters near the clinic, were local men, fighting for their homes and families. If there are foreign fighters (other than US soldiers) in Falluja now it is because that space was created for them by the last attack. Another will only attract more.

An unnamed US official promises a “very bloody and nasty” fight within what another official indicated would be “the next few days” (Washington Post, Sat 16/10/04). Throwaway platitudes like “War is hell” are not good enough. There are choices. The choice to be complicit, to free up US troops to repeat that attack must be consciously made. Each one of you has to decide whether you accept that role.

I get quite a few e-mails from soldiers, US and British, who are angry at what’s happening. They, and you, didn’t risk your lives to go and make things worse.

In April, when Falluja was attacked, there were uprisings across the country, in Shia and Sunni areas alike. In Shuala, Baghdad, there was fighting all around the squatter camp where hundreds of homeless people are living. Even Iraqi organisations couldn’t help them and throughout April they got no aid supplies at all.

Even in Thawra, where US troops once had something like a welcome, there was fighting in the streets, in Najaf, in Nasariya, in dozens of towns and villages that never became news. Another attack on Falluja emphatically won’t make the country safer for elections.

British troops in Baghdad will sustain higher casualties than in the south, will take the brunt of the uprisings caused by US misjudgment and brutality. The UK government will not be there for you or your families when you are killed, maimed or poisoned by depleted uranium weapons.

Please, don’t go. Please don’t make yourselves complicit with the atrocities which will undoubtedly be committed against ordinary Iraqi people in Falluja. Please don’t put yourself closer to harm for the sake of an ill-advised attack that will only make things worse.


Jo Wilding

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

October 13th 2004
Clowns to Kurdistan

We made a load of plans for the Boomchucka Clowns to go back to Iraq this autumn, compiled an info sheet for people who wanted to join the circus, planned for some fundraising, made a list of useful stuff and people to blag it off, agreed who was going to do what.

And then Ghareeb was dead; Ghareeb who took me to Falluja, who took countless foreigners to the places he thought we could make a difference, Ghareeb with the fiery temper that drove me nuts, who sometimes liked to exaggerate, who always loved to gossip – Ewa used to say a big bird told her everything, Ghareeb whose cigarette end lit the way through the pitch dark streets of Falluja, who drove the ambulance that was shot at with us in it, who I called Azzam in the stories from there, who doesn’t need a disguise any more, who seemed to know everyone, who’d fled his native Palestine after working for freedom there, making his home in Iraq instead, is dead.

Surely someone so big couldn’t die, but it seems like bullets don’t discriminate. He was driving with the convoy that included foreign journalists and activists and Italian Red Cross workers in late August. Enzo, a Red Cross volunteer, freelance journalist and blogger, was kidnapped and killed. Even though I spoke to him on the phone only a couple of weeks before and he was fine, all it took was a bullet and now he’s dead.

And then the two Simonas, Mahnoaz and Dr Raad were kidnapped, seized in broad daylight by unmasked, smart, well-fed men, apparently working on some kind of covert operation rather than the usual chaotic opportunistic roadside bandit episodes, and we knew there was no way the clowns could go back as planned.

The current Iraqi government, under Ayad Allawi, is aping the last in terms of information control. Foreigners are to be kept away, their interactions controlled. Visas are coming back into use not to protect national security but to filter the opinions of those admitted. Journalists who write the wrong thing are shut down or threatened and NGO workers who consistently make sure medical supplies get through sieges to the populations of Falluja and Najaf are to be forced out.

Allawi was a Baathist, turned CIA operative sent back to Iraq to destabilise the Saddam government with covert bombing campaigns that included a cinema and a school bus. He hasn’t changed. My friend Abeer, one of the Baghdad University girls, wrote me a desperate e mail. Confined to her home, she begged me to call the embassy and find out if, having been born in the UK while her mother was a student here, she can come and live here.

Even Zaid, the King of post-occupation optimism, e mailed today to tell me things are very bad. Zainab, his sister, got married two weeks ago, he’s got a job with a newspaper, Mimi is in pre-school. They carry on as best they can. Farah we haven’t heard from and can’t reach.

Waleed is out and safe. He got a scholarship to Canada, as did Majid. For months the Canadian embassy in Jordan refused him a visa, for months until he missed the start of term and we all bombarded them with phone calls and e mails. The objection was primarily that he’d been in a metal band. I’m sorry. A teenage boy band might be a bit noisy, might even be slightly bizarre when it can only play in a bingo club with streamers on the ceiling but it’s not a threat to anyone’s national security or public order.

He says Canada is quiet. It feels all the time like it must be the calm before the storm but the storm keeps on not coming. There’s water everywhere and loads of animals. Waleed isn’t keen on little animals. He’s worried about waking up one morning to find that a raccoon’s peed on his desk.

Layla says the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq is getting a lot of threats from political Islamist groups. The squatter camp at Shuala – the one the circus went to a lot, where we built the drain and still hope we can build a school – is in the middle of a lot of fighting, helicopter gunships and tanks from the US side, Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers from the resistance.

So the clowns are not going back to Baghdad and the south but we will be despatching two, maybe three, to Iraqi Kurdistan in early November. Anyone who’s been reading a while might remember the villages near Erbil and the refugee camps of Iranian and Turkish Kurds, the deaf boy at Maxmur who had never heard music in his life till he felt the sound of Luis’s didgeridoo. Things are not as desperate in Kurdistan as elsewhere in Iraq but they still suffered a lot under sanctions and Saddam and we still found a lot of kids and adults who needed to remember what it felt like to play and laugh.

The plan, initially, is that Peat and Luis will go there for a month, perform, teach and identify projects and solidarity work the circus can usefully do. It might end up going on for longer, as it did last time, if the results are positive and it’s – relatively speaking – safe to work there, both for them and the local people who work with them.

If anyone wants to help – yes, it’s time for the blag – what we want is as many parachutes as we can get for parachute games, ideally so they can leave a few in appropriate places with instructions translated into Kurdish, as well as some magic tricks and such like. Peat tells me it’s £66 a parachute. They’ll travel in through Turkey and it’s relatively cheap to get there – about £180 per person for a one month return flight, more by train. The cost of living in the Kurdish area is pretty low and the main expense over there will be paying translators and drivers.

We also want them to be able to identify and fund small scale projects created by local people – like the drain in Shuala – which allow people to empower themselves and improve their own living conditions. If possible they’ll also train some local folk to teach circus skills and look into setting up a youth centre or two through other organisations which can give the kids a chance to play all year, not just in Boomchucka season. OK, it’s possible that this is all going to take longer than a month.

I won’t be going this time, sadly. I’m in university now, for a year. I’m studying to be a barrister and rally really enjoying it, really appreciating being alive in a gorgeous autumn and having the chance to be a student. It’s fully full-time though, which is why you’ve heard nothing from me in a while and, typical student, when you do I want money, but the circus last time around was incredible so please be part of it this time. Check out some of the pictures and stories on www.circus2Iraq.org if you missed it.

Speaking Dates:

October 16th – at the SchNews conference, Camden Centre, near Kings Cross station

November 5th – Peace Party in Bristol, fundraiser for Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq and Union of the Unemployed in Iraq. I’m talking about 9pm. Not sure of venue.

November 18th – London, evening. Not sure of the venue and time yet.

December 5th – Iraq Occupation Focus one-day conference, London

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