National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Iraq Diary
Issue Date:  April 4, 2003

The road home to Baghdad

Tuesday, March 25, 2003
Nightfall in Baghdad

I’m writing this as our Christian Peacemakers Team is in its 13-hour drive across the desert, now about an hour and a half short of Baghdad. Leah, Jonathan, Weldon and I are in the second van, together with our driver, Mohammed. Just ahead of us are Sis, Jerry, Kara, Sean and Dave, driven by Mohammed’s brother. We’ve been piercing a sandstorm for several hours.

As we encountered a bombed out bridge, we went around through a town where American forces were reportedly fighting Iraqis. They weren’t there. The customs building had been recently bombed. When we returned to the highway to Baghdad, we saw the burnt skeletons of trucks and a bus beside the road. We paused for a couple of minutes at a cratered rest stop, hit by U.S. missiles three days ago. Then came our first encounter with U.S. troops.

Just past a burning car on the highway, they were on a desert hill about 40 yards to our right. Some of the soldiers were aiming their guns at surrendering Iraqi troops; others were training their weapons on us. Four armored personnel carriers turned their barrels toward us. Our two vans came to a halt. Mohammed’s brother stopped slightly ahead of the hill, Mohammed directly opposite it. We had used duct tape to make black and white crosses on the doors and tops of the vehicles. Our Muslim brothers who are driving agreed readily to our putting the crosses on the cars.

The crosses may have saved our lives. The U.S. soldiers kept us in their sights as we waved white towels in our windows.

The Iraqi soldiers with their hands in the air began running toward our van. The U.S. troops motioned us forward, as the Iraqi soldiers neared us. Mohammed drove a few feet and stopped again. If the Iraqis made it to our van, the U.S. forces were likely to fire.

Leah, Jonathan, Weldon and I urged Mohammed, “Go on! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” He drove ahead, as did his brother, and the Iraqi soldiers fell behind us, back into the hands of the U.S. troops. It was a terrible scene.

Now minutes later, we’ve just hit an Iraqi soldiers’ checkpoint. We stop. Mohammed and his brother show the soldiers our CPT description, translated into Arabic.

The Iraqis also allow us to proceed.

We have been driving between the lines of battle. As Yahweh told us through the psalm we sang together at Sunday’s Mass in Amman:

Have no fear for I am with you
I will be your shield.
Go now and leave your homeland
For I will give you a home.

We have no other shield but Yahweh for this journey to Baghdad.

We are now a little more than one hour from Baghdad. Our goal is to enter the city before nightfall, and make it to the Al Dar Hotel before the night’s missile attacks begin.

We’ve been stopped at another Iraqi military checkpoint. Alongside us is a GMC whose left and right rear windows were shot out minutes ago by the Americans on the hill. The driver is a young Iraqi man, with an older gentleman beside him in the passenger’s seat. The two of them were our U.S. soldiers’ targets. Their shots hit the windows a foot behind the driver and the older man.

Now as we forge ahead, Mohammed and his brother race the two vans parallel to each other. We all wave our white towels at one another in the hope that we’re home free to Baghdad. Mohammed is shaking his head at having left his Iraqi brothers behind. On both sides of the road, black smoke is billowing up from the flames of burning petrol pipes. Mohammed turns up the taped music. We fly on into Baghdad, clapping our hands to Iraqi rock music. Mohammed is now grinning happily. He and his brother have made it home to Baghdad.

And so have we CPT-ers. Completing a circle, we’ve now come home to Iraq from our homes in the USA, Canada, Ireland and Britain (the citizenships represented by our team of nine). We’ve returned to the homeland where our father Abraham began the circle: “Go now and leave your homeland, for I will give you a home.”

Last night at our Amman hotel, our team, already a family, wrote a paragraph on why we were hoping to make it into Baghdad. Now that we’re here, we’ll try to live by it:

“Our Christian faith calls us to Baghdad. We want to be with the Iraqi people under our bombs because we know God loves them and weeps for them. Bombs cannot liberate them from violence. We believe in Jesus’ way of liberation, through the nonviolent cross of God’s love. The cross calls us to give life rather than take it. If our soldiers are willing to risk their lives to wage violence, then we as Christians should be willing to risk our lives to wage peace and reconciliation.”

Signed by: Jim Douglass, Deacon Dave Havard, Jerry Levin, Sis Levin, Weldon Nisly, Sean O’Sullivan, Kara Speltz, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2003

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