Saturday, December 6, 2003 Meeting Notes

Meeting notes, People for Peace, Justice, and Healing

Peace, Justice and Healing met at 10:00 a.m. on December 6, 2003 in the Olympic Room of the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library. Present were Dorothy, Mark J., Sheila, Kyle, Karen H., Linda, Jim, Sallie, Rob, Ann, inter alii.

The meeting time was devoted to a visit from two courageous young women who recently visited the Middle East for extended periods of time: Anya Willow of Seattle, a member of Another World Is Possible, and Sara Reeske of New York City. They spoke in the Olympic Room of the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library. A synopsis of their presentation follows.

Anya Willow spent two months in the Middle East in the latter half of 2003. Her trip was sponsored by Another World Is Possible, which in October 2002 decided to send a young persons' delegation to travel to the Middle East and report on conditions of life under occupation. Plans to go in the spring were delayed because the outbreak of war in March. Anya and two others went about six months later, however, and visited Palestine (3 weeks), Jordan (1 week), Iraq (3 weeks), and Palestine again (1 week).

Sara, currently visiting the Northwest, spoke about her experiences in Palestine on two extended visits of several months in 2002 and 2003. Sara spoke first.

An artist and waitress from Brooklyn, Sara Reeske was living in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. After the initial shock of that day's events, she became concerned about how they would be exploited by the current US administration. Somewhat apolitical before, she became involved in a local New York group. She went to Palestine in 2002, and returned in 2003 because of the connections she established then. She spoke especially of her friendship with the Turkoman (spelling?) family, who live on an approximately 75-acre farm outside of Jenin. The Turkomans, an extended family of about 35 members, are refugees from Haifa, and have been living on this farm for about thirty years. Increasingly, harassment from Israeli soldiers has made cultivation of the farm difficult or impossible. Three years ago three of their children were killed by random tank fire while they were picking flowers, and are now buried on the farm. Sara met the family on the day when the family had been ordered out of one of the houses on the farm, which was then bulldozed by Israeli troops, on the grounds that it lacked a building permit. The family lives in three small houses and in tents. Sara helped with the olive harvest in 2002; the family finances have been devastated by the declining price of olives (down 50% due to reduced demand because of trade restrictions). After the olive harvest two sons were arrested on the farm while herding sheep and held for 24 hours; they were never charged. Such arbitrary arrests are common. Curfews are contributing to destroying economic life in Palestine. A curfew begins by a truck arriving at 5:30 a.m. blaring an announcement through a loudspeaker. Everyone is required to stay indoors until the curfew is lifted. The imposition and lifting of curfews is unpredictable, so its effect are disruptive of planned activities and gravely harm economic life. Soldiers occasionally occupy houses during curfew, sometimes terrorizing occupants, eating their food, and destroying belongings. One of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement says that "steadfasting" (i.e. trying to maintain ordinary daily activities in the face of the occupation) constitutes a major participation in nonviolent action there.

Anya Willow spoke first of her time in Palestine, then of her time in Iraq.

In Palestine, Anya reported that the construction of the wall is greatly affecting life. The construction of the wall, which in some places is a 24-foot-high concrete barrier and in others a chain-link fence with razor wire, sometimes with motion-activated automatic weapons aimed toward the West Bank, begins with digging a trench through whatever is in the way. The wall's serpentine course is dictated by various strategic considerations, often related to settlements and water sources. In some places the wall wraps around entire cities, creating what is in effect a prison. In addition, within the West Bank a system of 'mini-walls' and checkpoints limits movement. Hiking through the countryside is possible, however, and allowed, negating the notion that restrictions on travel are necessary for security purposes. ID cards are also used to restrict movement and interfere with civil life. Soldiers at checkpoints harass and sometimes injure people or force them to do things that are physically harmful as well as humiliating to them, like eat rotten food. This happens as a result of soldiers who are allowed to exercise arbitrary discretionary authority being stationed in groups at checkpoints for extended periods of time; the young soldiers who staff these checkpoints have been thoroughly indoctrinated by state propaganda as has much of the Israeli population.

Anya was in Iraq from mid-September through the first week of October in 2003. She took many pictures, using a digital camera contributed by PJHer Linda Frank. Anya traveled with one other woman from Palestine to Amman, where she took a bus to Baghdad, the ride costing about $10. (Journalists who take this trip spend $350 for a place on a caravan of SUVs that barrel across the desert at high speed to minimize the chances of being robbed.) In the bus were about eight groups of Iraqis. One group was returning from Jordan after leaving in April when their house was destroyed; they had heard that schools were reopening in Iraq and so were returning. They had purchased a car, but traveled in company with the bus for greater safety. Other groups were returning after long absences from Iraq. They crossed the Iraq-Jordan border about midnight. The Iraqi customs official took and stamped Anya's passport while constantly staring into her eyes, never looking at the passport he was stamping. At the customs post she saw and spoke to a number of US soldiers apparently standing guard, but not doing much. The experience was surreal. There is an enormous difference between the institutionalized occupation of Palestine universally opposed by the population and the sense in Iraq of people having mixed feelings. Many are glad Saddam is gone but are critical both of the US occupation and of how the US removed Saddam from power. The unsatisfactory state of the economy (70% unemployment, insecurity, lack of services, not one functioning traffic light in the entire country) contributes to dissatisfaction, but many people were in a watching-and-waiting situation. The US, by adopting many police-state tactics similar to those of Saddam, are turning the population against the current administration, especially since Saddam's personnel are increasingly being used. Many Iraqis are consequently increasingly afraid to speak freely. De-Baathification has turned out to be an impossible policy. For Iraqis, security is the main issue. Americans say the same thing, but they mean something completely different. By 'security' Iraqis mean a peaceful civil society, the ability to go shopping in safety, etc., while Americans mean an end to resistance to US occupation. Iraqis often appear at US-held buildings seeking to get help, to make suggestions, to tell their stories, but they are met and turned away by uncomprehending troops. Anya and her companion spent time listening to these stories; later they were approached by troops, who asked them: What do these people want? The soldiers expressed surprise that Anya was able to move about Baghdad in relative safety: they have no knowledge of the conditions in the streets of Baghdad, as they are confined to their compounds when not on duty. In Iraqi cities, abandoned buildings are occupied by squatters. They are visited by US troops, who, if they approve of them, give them a card legitimating their presence, ask them what they need, make lists of items, and then never return. People often say that life is like life under Saddam, except that there is no Saddam. Travel was amazingly easy -- Iraqi hospitality lived up to its reputation. Their visit was aided with help through contacts arranged by Salam Pax. They stayed in hotels for about $6/night. (Westerners coming for reconstruction-related tasks often stay in hotels charging twenty times as much.) Iraqis have the impression that Bremer is doing nothing, and he is not respected. There is often more respect for individual US soldiers than for the Coalition Authority generally. What Iraqis want is self-determination.

Anya Willow can be reached at praxisartists@yahoo.com and is willing to make appearances.

Respectfully submitted,
Mark J.