The bright Collins St Café offers a stark contrast to the death, destruction and despair of war. The woman who sits opposite me appears the perfect image of a grandmother but for the rainbow badges demanding peace and freedom that are pinned across her grey cardigan.
Most people are willing to march for what they believe, some will write letters, others may even go so far as organising boycotts or partaking in illegal activities. Few will put their lives in danger.
Ruth Russell is one of ten Australians who travelled to Iraq as a Human Shield.
The Human Shields went to Iraq to protest against what they felt was an unjust war, to bear witness to the atrocities and to show the Iraqi people that there are westerners who disagreed with Bush. They harboured the dream of stopping the attacks on Iraq through their presence; shielding people from what could become a tragic war.
At 59 years of age, a mother of two and local counsellor, Ruth bought herself a ticket to the Middle East to join the human shield project ‘Become The Change’. The group subscribes to Ghandi’s philosophy, that you must become the change you want to see in the world.
“We went to oppose the war, to try to prevent it,” Ruth said, “and if war occurred, to help the people and speak out against Australia’s involvement.”
In the diary she kept in Iraq, Donna Mulhearn, a Human Shield from Sydney, wrote, “We don’t want a war. We believe we can settle differences with non-violent messages.”
Over 500 Human Shields from 52 countries registered in Iraq in the weeks leading up to the war. Including Australian Gordon Sloane, familiar to many for his participating in the first Big Brother series. 18 year old Nathan from England was the youngest of the Human Shields and on the other end of the spectrum was 85 year old Bertha from America. Bertha is legally blind.
In the build up towards the war the Human Shields established their presence in Iraq through meeting the people, visiting schools and hospitals, attending peace rallies and prayer ceremonies, even organising a mini-Olympics for children. The weeks preceding the war were an opportunity for the Human Shields to let the Iraqis know that they too were against the war.
The first bombs that fell destroyed not only Baghdad, but saw the failure of the Human Shield’s primary goal. They could not prevent the war.
The concept of a Human Shield conjures up images of people placing themselves where the battle was already rampant but in reality Human Shields located themselves to act as a deterrence for attacks. Human Shields went to live on humanitarian sites they believed were potential targets for American missiles. International law forbids destruction of facilities that provide essential services to civilians, it is these sites that the Human Shields endeavoured to preserve.
The Human Shields avoided the military bases and sites that were symbolic of Saddam’s regime. They were there to help the citizens of Iraq, not its government. “We didn’t go to military locations. That wasn’t why we were there,” Ruth said, “We were there to protect the people and the crucial humanitarian sites from bombing.”
Ruth spent the war living with Iraqis in the Taije Food Silo in North Baghdad. Donna was located in the Jaizert Water Treatment Plant, a site that provides clean water to three million Iraqis as well as to Baghdad’s hospitals. A world press release was sent to global media, embassies and governments to ensure their tracks were being covered. If any of these sites were attacked it would be under full knowledge that Human Shields would die along with the Iraqis.
A South African group guarded the Al Mamoom Communications Centre for the first two weeks of the war as bombs demolished most other communications facilities in Baghdad. Within 24 hours of their departure it too was destroyed. This served as a sign to the Human Shields that their actions were effective and they were contributing to the preservation of sites that helped Iraqis survive their daily lives.
The human shields sought to act as neutral observers to the war but their actions have been widely criticised and they have been termed puppets of Saddam Hussein. Through their defence of the citizens of Iraq they were accused of obstructing the ‘justice’ Saddam deserved. Critics denounced their actions as reactive and ignorant protest.
The politics of the Iraq war are a complex twist of oppression, violence and non-cooperation on both sides. Some find it difficult to imagine defending people who work directly or indirectly for one of the world’s most famous dictators. But for Ruth and Donna, politics were irrelevant. They argue that they were not demonstrating support for Saddam, nor were their actions spurred on by anti-Bush sentiments. To them the struggle was one of principle, not political power.
“We never asked them (the Iraqis) whether they supported Saddam, we made a decision not to talk about it because it could compromise them. We were there to protect the people if a ware arrived because we didn’t believe civilians should be killed”, said Ruth.
Their actions have been slammed as naïve but Donna dismisses this notion as coming from people who are not aware of what they did. “If I’m naïve, then so was Ghandi, Martin Luther King and all others who believe in non-violent resistance to aggression”, wrote Ruth.
The ‘Coalition of the Willing’ argued that the Human Shields were obstructing their mission. While the Australian government took no action against Australian Human Shields many Americans that travelled to Iraq were prosecuted. Faith Fippinger, a mid-60s Buddhist, and Kathy Kelly from anti-war protest movement Voices in the Wilderness, were jailed for their roles as Human Shields. Voices in the Wilderness faced fines of up to $10,000 USD for violating the Iraqi sanctions and distributing medicines to the people.
It is difficult to asses the impact of the Human Shields. They could not prevent the war but they saved the sites they set out to, they worked and lived in solidarity with the Iraqi people, they recorded the death and destruction of the war and they sent a strong peace message to the world.
Ruth believes her mission to Iraq was a success, at the very least she was able to demonstrate to the world that individuals are not invisible. “I want to motivate others to say ‘hey, we want a better world’, that’s my main goal now. I want to show people that they can do something if they have the courage to stand up — that’s what the Human Shields are all about.”