an american in baghdad cover

By Melinda Welsh

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This article was published on 03.13.03.

An American in Baghdad

It’s likely that our country’s bombs will fall on Iraq, and when they do, a Northern California peace activist will stay with the people

After an early-morning prayer session and a breakfast of bread, jam and one fried egg, Charlie Liteky jumped on his bike and rode a few blocks to his morning job. He has chosen to volunteer three hours a day at the Mother Teresa orphanage in East Baghdad. The 72-year-old ex-priest, with the trim gray beard and blue eyes, picked up children with cerebral palsy and held them in his arms. He also sang to them.

A few hours later, on his way home to the modest Al Dar Hotel, Liteky waved hello to the Iraqi shopkeepers and merchants he has come to know along the route.

He spent the rest of the day getting ready for Armageddon.

Liteky and the crew of mostly religious men and women he has joined in Baghdad are there to take a personal stand against war in the most dangerous place on Earth, at its most dangerous hour. With thousands of bombs poised to rain down on Baghdad, logistics are suddenly very important to Liteky.

For example, he is now in charge of shovels. “That’s in the event that we have to bury anything,” he told SN&R during a conversation in a series of recent phone hookups from Baghdad.

A lifelong handyman, Liteky also was charged with finding and fixing a gasoline-powered backup generator. If an early bombing campaign destroys the electrical grid in the city as expected, a generator could provide nominal energy to light a few rooms—perhaps run a computer. He also takes good care of the bike he purchased in Baghdad for 100,000 dinar (U.S. $50) because it could help people get around after the roads are blocked off or blown away during the violence expected to come.

“Everyone here goes to bed at night worried about whether they’ll be awakened to the sound of war,” he said. Recent thunderstorms in the nearby desert alarmed some people because the clap of thunder sounded just like bombs.

And then there are the “crash bags.”

Members of his delegation each have assembled a duffel bag full of items including water, candles, matches, food (dried biscuits and canned tuna), a blanket, personal items and a first-aid kit outfitted with compression bandages.

One item considered for inclusion has caused them to pause: personal body bags. “We’ve discussed that we may need something to wrap us up, should we get killed,” said Liteky. Indeed, one morning, he and the others filled out a 14-question survey asking, among other things, whether it would be OK if their remains were buried in Iraq.

Still, Liteky is glad to count himself in the company of 20 or so seasoned, nonviolent activists from Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based organization that has opposed economic sanctions and has sent delegations to Iraq since 1996. The group is also strongly against the pending war. Some members of the group already have risked their lives to protest war and violence in Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Palestine.

“I’m the least experienced of them all,” Liteky said.

But “least experienced” is a phrase that doesn’t easily come to mind when describing Liteky, a former Catholic priest known for carrying dozens of men to safety under heavy gunfire in Vietnam; for winning the Medal of Honor and then returning it in a brown paper bag to protest war; for fasting to near death as an act of defiance against American foreign policy in Central America; and for spending 18 months in jail to express similar sentiments. (See “Prisoner of conscience”; SN&R Cover; May 10, 2001.)

Liteky simply explained what members of the Voices group were now doing in Iraq. “We’re here to stop a war,” he said. “If war should come, we’re here to be with the people.”

Indeed, hundreds of protesters from America and other countries have traveled to Iraq in these last months; most of them have now abandoned the country for obvious reasons. But Liteky plans to stay until “things are resolved one way or another,” through a war or an end to the threat of war. Members of Voices remain at the will of the Iraqi government and are forced to renew their visas every 10 days. Liteky’s visa comes up for extension next on March 19, and he doesn’t anticipate being forced to leave. But if he were, he said, he would go to Amman, Jordan, and begin immediate efforts to get back to Baghdad.

“This is where I’m prepared to be,” he said.

After President George Bush’s prime-time press conference last Thursday, few in America doubt that war is coming; 250,000 mostly American troops are amassed at Iraq’s borders with the high-tech weapons of war at the ready. For months, Baghdad has anticipated a so-called shock-and-awe attack, a massive bombing assault that will focus, according to the Pentagon, on the “psychological destruction of the enemy’s will to fight rather than the physical destruction of his military forces.” The United Nations estimates that at least 500,000 people could require emergency medical treatment in the event of such a bomb-heavy assault. The all-out attack to follow likely would create 2 million refugees, sweeping food shortages and a severe humanitarian crisis.

“I’m frightened and terrified for the people,” said Liteky. “It’s unbelievable, what could happen next. It’s not going to be a war; it’s going to be a massacre.”

Still, Liteky has been amazed to see life move forward in Baghdad as though things were almost normal. He’s witnessed weddings and funerals—the building of new homes. The main streets are still full of people, and the kids play soccer unafraid in the streets. “I was amazed the other day, on a main thoroughfare here, to see people planting a tree and some flowers!” he said.

He was once optimistic that war could be stopped. More recently, however, Liteky thinks war is almost inevitable, and apparently the Iraqis feel the same way. “You can feel it changing here,” he said. “The tension is starting to build. There are indications that people are more worried.”

Shopkeepers have begun to board up windows, and Iraqis who can afford to leave have fled the country. A new military and police presence has taken up watch in the neighborhoods. Some streets have been barricaded. The U.S. State Department has told Americans to stay out of Iraq, and most international embassies have suspended operations. It goes without saying that Liteky and the other U.S. citizens who remain will be on their own in the event of a war.

Many Americans believe foreign protesters like Liteky are dupes of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who could manipulate them to his advantage during wartime. Indeed, some protesters not affiliated with Liteky’s group—the ones who call themselves Human Shields—recently have gotten headlines for complaining that the Iraqi Ministry of Information told them where to go (such as to a water-treatment facility) and what to do in their “shield” capacity. This group allowed the Iraqi government to pay for its members’ room and board. Many of the “shields” now have been asked to leave or have left the country voluntarily.

Though Liteky does not openly disparage the shields and their efforts to stop war, he thinks their problem with the Iraqi government may be at least partially of their own making. None of the shields had ever spent time in Baghdad before, which made their transition to such a place difficult. Also, they accepted logistical support that might bring the ethics of their mission into question, he said. “The notion that the Iraqi government is using them by asking them to be at life-support systems … well, it’s not quite right,” he added.

Liteky said no member of the Voices group has been asked by the Iraqi government, so far, to be in any specific place in the event of bombing. And Voices group members, including Liteky, said they don’t accept financial assistance or free lodging from the Iraqi government. “People here pay their own way or are supported in their efforts by people in the United States,” he said.

Liteky remains in Iraq now by the choice of his own heart and because of his deep religious belief that killing is wrong. For him, staying in Iraq comes not from a death wish but from an abhorrence of war—a belief that thousands, maybe tens of thousands of innocent lives could be lost during a bombing campaign on a city of 5 million residents. Ultimately, Liteky’s decision to stay comes from a desire—as author and priest Daniel Berrigan has written—to wield “the same courage for peace as soldiers do for war.”

That must be the same courage that awoke in then-chaplain Liteky in the winter of 1967, 35 miles northeast of Saigon, Vietnam, at the siege near Bien Hoa Province. Those who were there said he risked his life repeatedly, ignored his own safety and rose from the ground under a fusillade of enemy machine-gun and rocket fire in order to crawl to the wounded and haul them one by one to safety in a nearby clearing. All told, 23 soldiers were saved that day thanks to Liteky’s bravery in battle. About the lofty medal he received for his valor later, Liteky shrugged and said, “I don’t think we should even be awarded for compassionate action. It’s just part of being a decent human being.”

But being decent seems to mean more to this man than most. Since those days long ago in Vietnam, Liteky has dedicated his life to opposing violence. He’s devoted his life to protesting war and a U.S. foreign policy—especially in Central and South America—that he felt reinforced an unjust world.

Bound for Baghdad 
Like many Americans, Liteky spent the fall of 2002 under a dark cloud, his heart made heavy by the slow but steady U.S. military buildup in the Gulf region. The drums of war pounded; Liteky didn’t like their beat. “I don’t know what I can do to stop it,” he told friends, “but I gotta go there.”

His need to take action instead of just complain about how bad things had become was very familiar to Liteky’s family and friends. They knew him to be one, as Shakespeare wrote, for whom action was eloquence—a person who valued doing more than talking.

From San Francisco, he and his wife, Judy—a former nun and Liteky’s romantic and political partner since 1983—considered what to do. The couple, with decades of experience working on behalf of peace and justice, fashioned a crash course they called “Middle East 101” on an area they knew little about.

Among other things, the pair discovered that Iraq is the land of 25 million people, more than half of whom are under the age of 16. He learned that 16 million people in Iraq are totally dependent on government food rations. He learned that the cancer rate among young children has increased by a factor of five since 1991, likely due, say activists, to the 700,000 pounds of depleted uranium exploded over the country during the Gulf War. He learned that Iraq’s water and sanitation systems are in serious need of repair following the war, and he learned of the country’s inability to fix these systems because of the economic sanctions that followed.

Liteky launched his studies with the preconception that any war fought in Iraq would be all about oil. He was surprised, midway through his education, to find himself abandoning that as the sole motive for a U.S. invasion of the second-largest oil-producing country remaining in the world. “It involves oil, of course,” said Liteky, “but the reasons are a lot more complicated.” It also involves other things, he feels, like the Bush administration’s desire to dominate the powerful region that is the Middle East.

Liteky has no guess as to whether Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, but he believes the Iraqi leader should comply with the demands of U.N. weapons inspectors and disarm. Still, he believes the Bush administration has presented what Liteky refers to as “manufactured evidence” to the United Nations so as to justify a war. In Liteky’s mind, nothing can justify America being the aggressor in a war, especially one that will hurt civilians and one that is opposed by so many millions across the globe. “The Iraqi people are innocent of any crime. And yet they are the ones who will suffer under the rain of bombs.”

In December 2002, Liteky flew to Amman, Jordan, and drove in a van to the Iraqi border along with other Americans. The roads between Amman and Baghdad looked like a scene out of the movie Road Warrior, where hundreds of old tanker trucks lay scattered on the roadside, littering the view for miles.

A stranger in a strange land, Liteky found it hard, at first, to adjust to life in Iraq. But he learned a few phrases in Arabic, and that helped. He quickly became aware of the benefits of brandishing a letter—English on one side and Arabic on the other—that explained the peacemaking goals of the Voices in the Wilderness delegation.

Liteky wandered the streets of Baghdad, with its legions of shoeshine boys and taxi drivers and its ultra-polluted skies, and found the people to be kind and generous, with a good sense of humor. He saw poverty and wealth “stacked up together”—beat-up vans and dilapidated cars sharing the same roads with Mercedes and new Toyota Camrys.

He attended a demonstration, along with other American visitors, at the U.S. Embassy and appreciated the irony of practicing free speech and dissent in a totalitarian country in which such speech is not granted to citizens. But mostly, he kept to his daily rituals. He rode his bike, rocked the children at the orphanage and listened to Iraqis who spoke to him about how they felt the sanctions against Iraq had caused mighty suffering there, especially among the children. Mostly, he interacted with men, he said, because it was mostly men out on the street. The few women he saw were modestly dressed and wouldn’t look him in the eye.

Liteky became sick as a dog for several days during the early part of his stay. “You have to watch the water—it causes terrible dysentery and diarrhea.” The same illness could kill a child, he said. He described the heartbreak of touring the hospitals, including one nearby his hotel, where almost every bed seemed to have a woman dressed in black sitting next to a dying child.

Many Iraqi civilians he came across couldn’t figure out what on earth he was doing there. “It’s hard for some of them to believe it!” Liteky said, laughing. “They thought we were crazy.”

La youhad moushkila,” he would tell them, smiling. “No problem.”

Though about 10 percent of the country is made up of Christians—many of whom pray and sing in Aramaic, the language of Jesus—Liteky described Iraq as mostly populated by Muslims who believe in Allah. “These are people of faith,” he said. “They stop what they’re doing five times a day to pray,” he said. He described how common it was to see men stop in the middle of the sidewalk, roll out a prayer rug and hit their knees.

Liteky soon became a volunteer for the Sisters of Charity, the Mother Teresa home for disabled children, where “radiant” Indian nuns wearing white habits with a blue stripe gave comfort to the children with cerebral palsy. “I was angry at God when I first saw those children,” he said. “I wanted God to give me the power to heal so I could help those children.” But he spent time with them, singing to them and helping them, and somehow his anger melted away. “I realized they were beautiful,” he said. “I was lucky to have the opportunity to be there, to just be with them.”

One day, Liteky took a walk through the Al-Mariyah shelter, a demolished building the Iraqi government has made a common tour spot for American humanitarians and “internationals” who have traveled to Iraq. There, Liteky viewed the remains of a cruise-missile strike during the 1991 Gulf War. Four hundred people were inside. Liteky described the building as still containing the remnants of a thick concrete roof and reinforced concrete walls. He could see twisted re-bar rods coming out of a hole where the missile struck. Human shadows, like the ones found on the sidewalks of Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb went off, could be seen. This meant human flesh was seared into the concrete. “You expect they’d be angry at Americans for all this,” said Liteky. “But they weren’t.”

On the subject of Hussein, Liteky told SN&R it was difficult to get a sense of how average people felt about their country’s leader. “You don’t talk openly about politics,” he said by phone. “You just don’t do that here.”

He added, “In the entire time I’ve been here, I’ve never heard an Iraqi person say anything negative about Saddam Hussein. Some say that’s because people fear talking about it, but I’m not sure what it is except that it’s just something that is not done.” Still, a few told him privately that their leader was certainly superior to America’s President George Bush.

After spending seven weeks in Iraq, Liteky was forced to leave because of a lapsed visa. He returned to America in late January, just in time to participate in a large anti-war demonstration being held in Washington, D.C. Liteky was home to join a February 16 rally in San Francisco the day after a Saturday of massive, coordinated anti-war rallies across the globe. He had returned to America to witness the birth of an unprecedented global opposition to a war that had not yet even begun.

Liteky made public appearances during this time, speaking about his experiences in Iraq. Wearing dark khakis and sturdy Birkenstocks, the former priest spoke on February 9 to an audience of a few hundred locals at the Davis Unitarian Church. What was being planned for Iraq, he said, was nothing less than the “premeditated murder” of innocents.

He spoke about the mainstream media and his prediction that what it reports of the coming war largely will be controlled by the Pentagon. “In America, we’re not controlled by torture or threat of death,” he said. “We’re controlled by propaganda. The military filters it once. The editors filter it next. What angers me is that the journalists do not rise up and say it’s not acceptable that they be fed the news.

“That’s part of why I’m going back to Iraq,” he said. “I want to be an eyewitness.” Press coverage that revealed the awful truths of the Vietnam War was one of the reasons that war came to an end, he added.

Toward the end of his talk, Liteky brought tears to many in the audience when he described singing to the children in the Iraqi orphanage. In an emotional rendition of a familiar Broadway song, Liteky, with a scratchy voice and partially jumbled lyrics, sang the words he’d grown accustomed to singing to the Iraqi children there: “The sun’ll come out tomorrow, so you gotta hang on ’til tomorrow. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you, tomorrow. It’s only a day away.”

On the Thursday before he was set to leave again, Liteky spoke before 60 parishioners at his home church, St. John of God in the Sunset District of San Francisco. Afterward, the parish priest asked those gathered to join together in a prayer. Holding a tall, white vigil candle, the priest asked the group to gather around Liteky, who beckoned Judy into the center of the circle with him. The group encircled the couple and prayed for them, entreating God to bless Liteky as he embarked on the next stage of his journey. The candle remains lit during services on the altar at St. John of God.

One week later, Liteky was back in Baghdad.

Return to Iraq 
A fierce dust storm swept through the Arabian desert as if out of a Biblical prophecy. Dark clouds of gritty dirt and sand whirled through the streets of Basra, a devastated city in the southernmost part of Iraq near the Kuwait border. A large cloth tent hoisted near a U.N. checkpoint made a temporary home for the Voices in the Wilderness members who had gathered there to conduct a water-only fast to protest the coming war.

Liteky, just back from the United States, took his place near the barbed-wire partition. He could look out in either direction and see soldiers of the United Nations with their flag on the Iraqi side, and the soldiers of Kuwait with their flag on the other side. (News reports now state that 160,000 American troops are stationed nearby on the Kuwait side of this border region, where they’re training for urban combat.) As the winds died down, Liteky climbed atop a 12-foot metal tower nearby and greeted the gathered peacemakers in a commanding voice with a recently learned Arabic expression: Assalumu alaykum,” he said, or “Peace be with you.” To his astonishment, a response rang back from members of the U.N. troops stationed nearby. “Wa alaykum assalum,” they called—“And also with you.”

“There have been many beautiful moments like this amidst the sadness,” Liteky said.

After the fast in the desert, CNN invited him to talk on the air. Liteky repeated what he’d said in Davis, that he believed Bush and his government were preparing to commit premeditated murder.

Then, Liteky and group members returned to Baghdad. This time, he felt more confident, more useful and more self-assured in his ability to deal with whatever was to come.

But now the atmosphere in Iraq’s most important city has become strained. His group members have been advised not to go outside alone at night—not for fear of being bombed, but for fear of being robbed. “It’s the poverty,” he said. “Many of these people are already desperate.”

Indeed, last week, two small boys, one of whom members of the group knew to be named Saif, met Liteky and another man in the Voices group, a Franciscan priest. The boys begged the two men for money, grabbed their hands and then went for the wristwatches. Saif succeeded in grabbing Liteky’s watch, but he squeezed the boy’s wrist until he was forced to drop the watch. Liteky felt bad about it the next morning. “I squeezed [his wrist] pretty hard,” he said. Once, given a banana by one of the team members, Saif had been so hungry that he ate the fruit immediately, peel and all.

This past week, Liteky and the remaining Voices delegates have been conducting meetings every other day to discuss events, plan contingencies and play the “what if” game. What if Hussein’s government forces us to leave the country? What if the group becomes scattered and can’t operate on consensus decision making? What if there is an internal coup by revolutionaries?

The remaining delegates have divided themselves up into affinity groups, small organizing units that protesters use when engaging in actions of civil disobedience. Members gather at the hotel to discuss plans and listen to the BBC by shortwave radio. For the action-oriented Liteky, all the talking at meetings has been a form of torture. But now, he exercises more patience with the members and understands the value of considering probabilities and outcomes.

Also, the group discusses what to do in the likely aftermath of the bombing. As Bush told the American public in his East Room address, U.N. agencies have positioned hundreds of tons of relief supplies in the Gulf region, including food, medicine and water in an effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis after the war. But many, including Liteky, think this will not be nearly enough. A recent U.N. study predicted that a “grave humanitarian crisis” surely would occur after the war because Iraq’s water and sanitation systems likely would be blown apart, causing disease and subsequent death. As for emergency aid, the United Nations estimates that hospitals and clinics will run out of medicine within three or four weeks of the conflict. Liteky spoke of one hospital, run by Dominican nuns, that is located in his neighborhood. “They’re going to be just inundated with people,” he said.

When the bombing starts 
When asked if he would consider leaving when President Bush gives the promised final 72-hour notice to Americans and humanitarians to leave Iraq, Liteky said, “Absolutely not.

“I feel I’m here for a humanitarian purpose. I don’t feel anyone has a right to inhibit me from filling a humanitarian need.”

Still, he admits that he and others in the group feel a growing sense of anxiety. “You’re facing the ultimate reality,” he said. “I’m a lot more afraid here than I was in Vietnam. I’ve never been in any situation that approaches this. We’re very vulnerable. We’re just waiting.

“But you think about what somebody else is going to feel, and you lose your fear. That day in Vietnam, there was no fear because I wasn’t thinking about myself.”

If bombing begins, delegation members have been told they can stay at the hotel in its boarded-up basement. Food has been stored nearby, and there are mats on which to sleep. But Liteky isn’t sure he wants to be in a building when the bombing begins. “Some of us feel leery about being in a shelter at all, in any kind of structure. I might feel safer in a tent in an open field,” he said. At first, he assumed he would head for the orphanage to make himself of assistance there. But the nuns told him that unless they take a direct hit from a bomb, they would do fine because they have stored food and supplies.

Liteky and other members of the group have considered the possibility that a faction of revolutionaries, perhaps Islamic fundamentalists, could attempt a coup in Iraq and control matters for a brief period. “There are some internal forces that could take over and view us Americans as negative to their purpose here,” he said. Indeed, one can imagine scenarios in which Americans remaining in Iraq would be reviled by such a group as evil incarnate and could be taken hostage or worse.

To the charge that his presence in Baghdad may ultimately harm American soldiers, Liteky shook his head. “I support the troops,” he said. “I support getting them out of harm’s way. I pray for their safe return without having to participate in the horrors of war.”

Near deadline on this story, Liteky restated to SN&R his intention to remain in Iraq to protest an unjust war, to express his outrage at the potential slaughter of innocents and to take his stand with the ordinary people of Iraq. He believes he is meant to be there and is gladdened by the people in the neighborhood who have come to know him a bit, who call out to him by name and who perhaps have begun to grasp his reasons for remaining among them at this time. When asked by an Iraqi citizen why he’s still in Baghdad, Liteky answered him: “If there is a war, I want to be here when it happens.”

To this, the Iraqi bowed his head and replied: “Ahlan wa sahlan.”

Arabic for “welcome.”