Human Shield: A Diary from Baghdad

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 28, Advent 2003
by Donna Mulhearn

‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’ I breathe this prayer of St. Francis each time I go into meditation. I also prayed it on the streets of Baghdad during the war, outside a row of houses that had been blown to pieces. I prayed it feeling powerless. With bitter tears stinging my eyes and deep sadness in my heart. I screamed inside as I walked over puddles of blood to pick up a rag doll left in the debris.

An instrument of peace? As a contemplative Christian for five years now, this has been my sincerest prayer and my greatest challenge. How can we be instruments of peace against the might of the US military? Do we now live in a world which believes that ‘might is right’? Do we solve differences between nations with bombs? Do we respond to human rights abuses and the suffering they cause by inflicting more human rights abuses and more suffering? Do we allow the cycle of violence to continue?

I believe that Jesus teaches another way, a civilised, humane way. A way that, had there not been other motives for this war, could have removed a dictator without the blood on the streets. A way of peace that requires turning the cheek and forgiveness.

This way led me to Baghdad in an attempt to respond to the teaching of Christ on non-violence. My times of silence and the teaching of Fr. Laurence about discipleship and non-violence have challenged me greatly in recent times, inspiring me to join the Human Shield action in Iraq. I was part of a bunch of peace volunteers from around the world. All ages, backgrounds and philosophies, united by one belief: that life and peace is better than death and war. We lived in Baghdad stationed on civilian sites that were important to the Iraqi people, such as water treatment plants and power stations. It is against the Geneva Convention to bomb such sites. They were bombed in the 1991 Gulf war regardless, causing great suffering to the Iraqi people. The human shields were determined no bombs would fall on these sites again, so we placed our bodies in between. It worked! All the sites were saved in a remarkable act of non-violent direct action. Perhaps it is possible to take on the US military after all?

Jesus proposes alternatives to war. He teaches non-violent response to aggression. If we want to see peace in this world, it’s up to us to listen deep in our hearts and take this teaching seriously, both in our personal l8ives and in our communities.

The personal stuff is hard, too. As part of a peace movement in Iraq, I was astounded by the ability of myself and others to be angry and aggressive. Thanks to times of meditation in Baghdad, I realized that acknowledging my own capacity for violence is the first step in becoming a peacemaker. While I urged world leaders to reject violence, I knew that my own violence contributed to the cycle.

These were my first thoughts one night as the bombs dropped on Baghdad: I reflected on how I’ve failed to be at peace, with myself and others. I decided the next peace demonstration I should attend must be within myself, to challenge my capacity to be aggressive to others. It’s the self-knowledge that comes from silence that brings us to this painful point. Peace and prayer: Prayer and peace. In Baghdad amongst the bombs, the blood, the grief, I learnt that these two things go hand in hand.

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