Between Heaven and Hell
On Feb. 24th, 20 of us set up a 4-day tent encampment in the Demilitarized Zone between Iraq and Kuwait. “Between heaven and hell, that’s how I felt, the whole day” said our Franciscan priest, Jerry Zawada.
When we arrrived, the sky was darkening, thunder rumbled across the desert. Yet the border area, desolate and dramatic, was oddly still. Neville Watson, an Australian lawyer and Uniting Church minister, recalled the original Gulf Peace Team camp in January, 1991. Then, anticipating war, our encampment on the Iraq side of the Iraq-Saudi border, was filled with futility and despair the first night of the Gulf War. Huddled together beneath the clear skies on a cold moonless night, 72 of us watched and listened as bombers flew overhead once every five minutes. Within three days, Iraq’s electrical grid was destroyed, along with much of its crucial infrastructure. Now, 12 years later, Neville murmured, “What does it take to stop such madness? Is nothing changed?”
Later in the day, Neville and I agreed there are significant differences, mainly because so many people now feel a personal commitment to stop this war.
Yesterday we walked to the border post carrying enlarged vinyl banners bearing pictures of people we’ve met. From a short distance it almost looked as though these friends were walking alongside us. Examining the pictures more carefully, I recognized several children from the nearby village of Abu Faloos, a forlorn little place known to us mainly because a little girl who lives there was struck by a bomb on January 25, 1999. The bomb, aimed at a fertilizer factory, missed its intended target and hit Israa as she left her school. She now has only one arm and bears large scars on her torso and belly. After we leave the border, we can bring the beautiful vinyl pictures of children from Abu Faloos to the village. What an adornment.
A bevy of Basra shoeshine boys had wished us well as we left for the border. Akram, Haider, Zayn, and Ali are grade school kids who’ve befriended us through multiple visits. Archbish op Kassab blessed us and invited Jerry to return and celebrate a Liturgy. Some of us went to visit friends in Jumurriyah, Basra’s poorest neighborhood, during later afternoon hours.
We attached the posters on the border crossing gate. We draped paper cranes made by school children from Eureka, CA over a tall rusted rectangle frame in the roadway and then wrapped a second string of the colorful tiny paper birds over a stretch of ugly coiled barbed wire. We read aloud letters, some of them poignantly funny in their crude level of awareness, from high school students in Western Washington.
Presently our outreach effort reaches a large support network and thousands beyond–messages stream forth in hope of stopping a war. The tiny arrow we represent points to possibilities of unarmed intervention, someday–perhaps in a future when America gains political maturity.
Late last night, air raid sirens droned for several minutes before midnight. I thought of my visit, several weeks ago, with a Basran friend who was confined to bed rest because of a difficult pregnancy. She and her children live on the second floor of a small cramped dwelling. “My children–they hear siren and they seize me. They insist, they want me to come downstairs. And I tell them, ‘No, there is no difference between upstairs and downstairs. There is protection only in Allah and Allah is everywhere.’” And so it goes. The massive capacity for destruction on the other side of this border can erupt across this very road where we now sit, damning many thousands to hellfire in the weeks ahead.
Vulnerable, unarmed, without the slightest desire to bring harm to American people, a haven and heaven of innocence dwells in neighborhoods, throughout villages and cities, on this side–on the cusp of heaven and hell.