Imagine you’re standing at ground zero in Baghdad, Iraq. Any moment now, the most powerful country in the world may unleash a firestorm, incinerating every person and building within blasting range.
Imagine the bombs beginning to drop. Take a moment to picture the oncoming planes, armed to the teeth with explosives and bearing down on where you stand.
Now imagine you’re there by choice.
For Become the Change, a local group organizing a human shield delegation to Iraq, the prospect of traveling to a war zone may soon become a reality. Members of the group intend to go to Iraq within the next week and station themselves at hospitals, water treatment plants and power plants, guarding them with their lives.
“It’s normal for people to become soldiers to defend their country, but to be a soldier you have to potentially kill or be killed,” said Liev Aleo, founder of Become the Change and potential human shield. “We believe we’re giving people a chance to defend their country in a more peaceful way, since an attack on Iraq will undoubtedly mean attacks on the U.S.”
Members of the shield will fly to Turkey, where they will spend the night before taking a 12-hour bus ride into Iraq. Though they are encouraged to bring camping supplies and nonperishable food, many will be entirely dependent on the Iraqi people to both house and feed them. Once they get off the bus, members will hold signs written in Arabic that read, “Hello! I am a member of the international human shield and come in peace. Please allow us to live among you during the course of this conflict, and we will need accommodations while we are here, so help us in any way you can.”
Despite the possibility of being left begging for food on the streets, Aleo says that food and shelter are not a huge concern.
“The people of Iraq are very hospitable,” Aleo said. “If you’re going to travel to an area that could be bombarded with explosives in a matter of days, you’ve got to be willing to take some risks.”
Aleo claims that over 300 people – over 30 of them from the Santa Barbara area – have pledged to go to Iraq as part of her human shield campaign. Pledges have come in from countries such as Canada, Australia and Japan.
Most shields will remain in Iraq for about two weeks or as long as their schedule permits. Aleo claims that she will remain there indefinitely, until she is either dead or the conflict is resolved in a “creative and nonviolent” manner.
When asked on their course of action if the international community went along with the use of force, Aleo was firm in her resolve.
“The U.N. will not vote for war,” Aleo said. “[If they do] I will go anyway. I’ve been working on this project for 10 hours a day, six days a week since November.”
There are conflicting opinions within Become the Change as to the effectiveness of the campaign. While Aleo claims that their actions will “stop the war cold” since “Bush won’t have the balls to go to war in an area with American and international citizens,” other members of the group think differently.
“I’m not sure if our being [in Iraq] will make the slightest difference on Bush’s war drive,” said Julie Jean, a first-year geology graduate student at UCSB who has pledged to journey to Iraq as a shield. “The idea is to stop the war by making the political consequences of killing us too great, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen.”
The Bush administration seems to concur. In a Feb. 19 press conference, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the Pentagon would not alter its strategy when it comes to attacking sites protected by human shields. Rumsfeld also said the use of human shields, even voluntary ones, would constitute a war crime on the part of Iraq.
Furthermore, a senior defense official said on Feb. 26 that foreigners who go to Iraq as human shields may be considered “war combatants” rather than civilians. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told reporters from the Los Angeles Times that it could be legally argued that “since they’re working in the service of the Iraqi government, they may have in fact crossed the line between combatant and noncombatant.”
“What they’re trying to say is, ‘Don’t mess with our war,’ because they’re afraid of us,” Aleo said. “It’s an intimidation tactic. We’re acting according to our moral conscience, which unfortunately may not be in keeping with the law.”
There have also been concerns as to how the shields will be used. Though their stated purpose is to protect civilians and structures vital to their health, senior Iraqi officials have said that shields will be placed at “vital and strategic locations.” Aleo insists that the Iraqi government, though it will be escorting the shields wherever they go, will not use them to guard military installations.
When asked if there is a contingency plan to evacuate shields if in fact the bombs begin to drop, Aleo stated that none exists.
“If the bombs start to come down and we all scatter, that will defeat the purpose,” Aleo said. “We’re expecting people to die as human shields. When people ask me if I’ll feel guilty for their deaths since I organized this mission, I tell them it’s natural for people to be soldiers and take that sort of risk, but it’s not natural for people to live up to something higher. We must remember that the winning side takes losses in any war.”
Aleo was a lifelong Indiana native before moving to California about a year ago. She worked at UCSB as a secretary until last November, when she was inspired by the peace protests downtown to do something to stop the war. She quit her job and dedicated all her time to organizing a delegation to go to Iraq, setting up a website and sending press releases to news agencies and peace groups across the country. She is currently living with a friend in the mountains near Santa Barbara, with no job other than collecting people to travel to Baghdad.
Kenneth Nichols, a Marine who served in the Gulf War before renouncing his American citizenship, organized the first human shield convoy to Iraq in January. The group, which consisted of 50 peace advocates from London, was to drive the 3,000 miles to Baghdad in three double-decker buses, picking up volunteers along the way. Though they eventually reached their destination in early February, disagreements within the group, ranging from which route to take to Nichols’ assertion that he would meet with Saddam Hussein, split the delegation in two and slowed their pace to a near standstill.
Since then, two other delegations of shields, numbering about 20 members each, have entered Iraq. Members of the shields have come from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Britain. It is unclear how long these shields have and will remain in Iraq, and how many are currently there.
The Become the Change delegation originally planned to leave for Iraq in early February, but financial shortcomings caused them to postpone their departure date until March. For more information on the group, visit www.becomethechange.org.