By Cathy Breen
The media coverage on the war in Ukraine is, I find, relentless. Personal stories of the victims abound in grim detail; Putin’s war crimes are delineated; we see ongoing updates on the effects of sanctions in Russia and the billions of dollars in weapons being sent to the Ukraine.
As I listen to the news I am flooded with memories.
I was in Baghdad as part of a small peace team with Voices in the Wilderness for some months leading up to the US war against Iraq and remained there during the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign in March of 2003. Throughout the U.S. aerial attacks, we were able to visit sites that had been destroyed and spend time with hospitalized survivors. We listened to the accounts of victims, several of whom allowed us to photograph them. For months, years actually, the voices of keening and grieving family members plagued me at night.
When I returned to the U.S., four fellow peace activists, all members of the Ithaca Catholic Worker, were on trial for an action they did on St Patrick’s day, March 17, 2003, at a military recruiting center to protest the impending invasion against Iraq. Tragically the bombings in Baghdad began three days after their action, on March 20th.
The “St. Patrick’s Four” asked if I would take the stand as a witness. I had prepared photos and testimonies of victims and wanted to tell the jury about orphaned children, bereaved parents and displaced families. I wanted to tell them about misery and suffering which should never have happened. I was not permitted, however, to take the stand. The judge instructed that there was to be no mention of war. All that seemed to matter was if the accused activists entered a recruiting station and poured their blood.
If it is not about war, then what is it about?
Where was the media coverage these last decades about the crippling sanctions and war against Iraq? Or Afghanistan, or Yemen for that matter? The disparity shows with such clarity our double standard and hypocrisy. One had to search for alternative media sources to hear about the refugee crises in our wars of choice against Iraq and Afghanistan. World Tribunals on Iraq with expert witnesses were held around the globe after the US led invasion of Iraq, not only to hold the United States to account, but also the media.
How can we in the United States dare speak of war crimes in the Ukraine when we have never acknowledged our own war crimes? To quote a dear and trusted Irish friend and colleague, Denis Halliday, who resigned as Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq over the sanctions: “…but you appear to have forgotten the war crimes committed by American and other mercenaries under the leadership of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush along with Blair. Or do you apply racism and find the outrageous war crimes of Putin to be somehow worse because the Ukrainian victims are white, blue-eyed, blond Europeans?”
From 2004 until 2012, Voices in the Wilderness did not travel to Iraq, fearing that we would put any drivers, translators, guides, or host families in grave danger as we were from the country whose foreign army occupied Iraq. As part of Voices I spent the next years visiting Jordan and Syria, sometimes for 6 months at a time, to hear the stories and witness the reality of Iraqi refugees.
If stories were to be told, I could tell you of a mother running to a hospital with half of her child in her arms. Or another mother holding her headless boy in her arms, not even able to bury him as she had to flee.
For years I noted daily in my calendars the number of Iraqis killed in Iraq. Then it became too heavy for me. In looking through some of my papers recently, some of the headlines in 2017 read: 4,928 Killed in Iraq During June; 3,799 Killed in Iraq during July; Is the World Not Outraged at Mass Civilian Death in Mosul? Uncounted Bodies Float Down Tigris River.
And to those who expose US war crimes? In 2010 Julian Assange, Australian founder of Wikileaks, published a series of leaks provided by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. He is now confined to Belmarsh prison in maximum security in London. The US seeks his extradition to this country saying he faces a 175 year prison sentence. Chelsea Manning, former US Army soldier, was convicted by court-martial in July of 2013 for violating the Espionage Act and was imprisoned from 2010 until 2017. Edward Snowden leaked classified information from the NSA in 2013 and subsequently fled and found asylum in Russia.
What happens when the stories are told? One evening, I went to visit an Iraqi family in Syria. The family father was so excited, he was literally beside himself. “You have come,” he said, “someone has finally come to hear our story!” Another time I was in Karbala, in Iraq. It was evening and my host took me to a gathering of men in a neighborhood. I remember that it was awkward for me, and I think for everyone. I could feel the reticence and tension in the room. One by one the men began to speak and tell me their stories. As they spoke the tension lifted. By the end of the evening I think they would have embraced me had that been allowed in their culture.
Oh, if only their stories could have been told. Maybe they still can be.
*Cathy Breen is part of the New York Catholic Worker community. She lived in Iraq prior to and throughout the 2003 U.S. Shock and Awe bombing and has remained in close touch with numerous people seeking refuge from war.