Palm Sunday Peace March Speech, Sydney Domain, 13 April 2003

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 28, Advent 2003

‘Arson, anarchy, fear, hatred, hysteria, looting, revenge, suspicion.’

This is the description by one journalist of Baghdad today. This war is every bit the disaster we thought it would be. For those who doubted this war – you were right! Your concerns were legitimate. Your fears about the devastating impact of this war have been realised.

While those concerned about human rights welcome a regime change, we knew there was another path to such a change.

a path that was democratic

a path that did not flout international law

a creative, compassionate path

a better path

a peaceful path

A path that did not leave more than 5000 people dead and thousands more maimed, injured and devastated for life.

I had the privilege of being in Baghdad for six weeks as a human shield. The human shields went to Iraq to protect important civilian sites in Baghdad from aerial bombing by placing themselves, physically, on these sites. Sites such as power stations, food silos, water treatment plants. ‘But would they bomb such sites?’ We were asked. Well, they did in 1991, causing great suffering to the Iraqi people. They bombed the water treatment plant where I was stationed. The lack of clean water afterwards caused the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children from dysentery.

This was a war crime. A crime against humanity. The human shields were determined this would not happen again and so placed ourselves on these sites. I’m proud to say that it worked! None of the sites protected by human shields were destroyed in this war. Unfortunately, we were not able to send human shields to Iraq’s second largest city, Basra. There the power stations and water treatment plants were destroyed. An example of the success of the human shields is Marmouk Communications Centre. We had human shields stationed there for the first five days of the war. During this time, all the Communication Centres in Baghdad were destroyed except for one, the most important one. Marmouk, where human shields were stationed, was spared.

Some human shields had to leave, leaving just one woman. We withdrew her so she was not alone at the site. Within 24 hours of her evacuation, the site was bombed and devastated, cutting off vital communications to the people of Baghdad. We retained that facility for five days, a dramatic example of the power of the human shields. Another important role for the human shields was to observe and witness the events during the war. I endured 11 days and 10 nights of bombing in Baghdad.

What I witnessed was horrific.

I walked through civilian residential areas, where ordinary families lived. These were scenes of devastation, with fresh pools of bloods on the ground, the people screamed in grief. I walked through the debris of what was one of seven houses. I picked up remnants of the lives of the people who lived there: shoes, books, tennis racquet and a rag doll. We walked through the hospitals – I met children who’d lost their arms, their legs and little Omar who lost his Mum and Dad. But he doesn’t know it yet; with his severe internal injuries the nurses fear the grief will kill him. When they do tell him, I wonder if they will also explain to him the meaning of the word ‘liberation.’ I think he’d prefer to have his parents back.

I met a man who lost every member of his family, his parents, wife, his three children when his house was bombed. I met pregnant women who lost their unborn children after suffering intense shock. The grief and suffering this war has caused is profound, deep and long-term.

I challenge anyone who supported this war to spend 24 hours in a Baghdad hospital ward. I challenge John Howard to spend 24 hours in a Baghdad hospital ward. I challenge all media commentators to spend 24 hours in a Baghdad hospital ward. I guarantee, without a doubt that you will leave questioning, not only this war, but humanity’s ability to inflict suffering on itself.

You will leave thinking – There must have been another way.

There was and there is! I watched the subdued celebration in Baghdad the other day. There were about a hundred at the statue (we had five times more than this at the human shield soccer match a week before!)

Baghdad is a city of five million people – where were the millions this day? Tens of thousands, of course, had fled the city in fear of the coalition forces. Many other, it was reported by non-American networks – stood by with solemn faces. One man held a sign: Liberation, Not Occupation.

A large group of Iraqi women were weeping out loud – they said they were frightened because ‘the future is uncertain now.’ The others were at graveyards burying their dead or at the hospitals with their injured relatives. So while we celebrate with the happy crowds, we must also mourn with those who grieve heavy losses.

Around 5000 people have been killed in this war, 5000 too many and that figure will grow. Some of us believe that we could have had the dancing in the street (but with millions instead of hundreds of Iraqis) without the grieving of thousands at the hospitals and graveyards and without the chaos that reigns today.

The other way is the way of peace. For the sake of humanity we must chose this path.

On this Palm Sunday, we pray with St Francis: ‘Lord make us an instrument of your peace’ … as individuals, as a community as a nation.

As they in Iraq: ‘Is salaam alaykum.’

‘Peace be with you.’

Donna Mulhearn, a former advisor with the Carr government in New South Wales, five years ago chose a new lifestyle. She now describes herself as a pilgrim and storyteller.A member of the Cana Community in Sydney, she spent several weeks as a human shield in Iraq. In September she launched her book Human Shield: A Diary from Baghdad. For further details, see www.pilgrimstoryteller.com

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