The Guardian April 30, 2003


Human shield tells of ongoing tragedy in Iraq

Last week Adelaide resident Ruth Russell returned from Iraq where she 
had been serving as a human shield. She spoke once again with Bob Briton 
from The Guardian about her decision to go, her assessment of the 
success of the human shield project and about the devastating effects of 
the war on the Iraqi people. (See Guardian No. 1124 5-2-03) for
interview with Ruth, prior to her departure.)

Guardian: What was your role as a human shield, where were 
you stationed, and what was the reaction of the Iraqis to your efforts?

Ruth: The human shields originally organised five sites with the 
Iraqi Government and also they had them classified by the United Nations as 
bona fide humanitarian sites  that's a really important point.

Everyone could freely choose where they went so I chose to go to the Taji 
food silo because this is where the Australian wheat is stored. I wanted 
something that would symbolically resonate with the Australian people so I 
was either thinking of the food silo site or water storage. They are both 
important Australian symbols.

Everywhere we went we were totally overwhelmed with the Iraqis' response to 
us. It was simply over the top and ongoing all the time I was there because 
 you must remember that for 12 years they had been suffering under the 
sanctions  the world had not listened to the Iraqis.

No-one had come to Baghdad to see how they were suffering and, all of a 
sudden, all these foreigners were coming in to Baghdad to talk to them and 
to say, "Look, we're here to stay with you" because they did not want a 
war.

It was not in their best interests to have a war, and for us to come and 
stand beside them and say, "we are here, we are going to stay through this 
war" was just an amazing emotional, psychological boost to them.

It was embarrassing really, the extent of their gratitude. Some examples I 
will give is that, even when the war was on, and everybody was on emergency 
rations, (and no shops were open, so that once your rations went, that was 
it) they still insisted on having us in for a banquet in their homes. We 
didn't want to use their emergency food but it was so important to them. 
They really needed to thank us and have us in their homes. It was so 
important.

We got gifts of flowers and roses when the war was on! All the time, no 
matter where we went, people would come up and shake you hand and want to 
be with you. It was just over the top.

G: Did you witness much destruction where you were? The 
impression that we were given through CNN, the BBC et al is that it was all 
fairly clinical and restricted to military and government targets  that 
destruction of civilian sites was quite rare.

R: Well, there was both. There was precision bombing. When I moved 
into Taji food silo, I only found out a few days later that we were only 
five kilometres away from one of the major rocket bases just outside 
Baghdad where they destroyed the rockets that were over range just a few 
days before the war started.

That particular rocket range was bombed continuously the whole three weeks 
we were there. So we saw massive mushroom clouds and huge firebombs. Every 
time they hit the site our whole building would shake and shudder and that 
was, I suppose, what you could call a neat, precise military targeting that 
they got right.

Having said that, we would go into the city from our site during the day 
and find out what sites had been bombed. We were free to go to the sites, 
we'd go to a market and we would see the shops and film where people had 
been sitting in a cafi  16 people killed, 30 injured, where bombs had 
gone seriously astray.

We would go to schools and see everything totally shattered. We could film 
quite a lot. The only things we couldn't film were military places.

There was a lot of indiscriminate bombing, there's no doubt about that. We 
were allowed to go to hospitals and talk to the actual people who were 
casualties. Now what do you say to a man who's had his house bombed, he's 
lost his wife and six children. Those sorts of stories were repeated 
endlessly.

I have footage of a veterinarian who had his farm just near Taji  his 
whole house was flattened. You'd drive along and see new bomb damage every 
day. There was bombing and destruction all around Baghdad.

G: Could you get any feeling about the reaction of the Iraqi 
people to the end of Saddam and to the occupation by Coalition forces?

R: We made a decision not to compromise the Iraqi people by asking 
if they supported Saddam or not because that would have put them in danger. 
We were clear that we only wanted to focus on the humanitarian side, but I 
was interested to watch what happened when the war was over, especially 
when they knew that America was in control.

To my surprise, initially there was no celebration. The Iraqi families that 
we knew were all in trauma and shock. What I did notice was that every 
house took down their compulsory picture of Saddam.

They disappeared very quickly, but I thought there probably might have been 
some celebration, not only that they'd now no longer have to live under a 
cruel dictator, but also that sanctions would be lifted and that maybe life 
would be better for them now. That is not the case, that's not how they see 
it.

They were totally in shock and I saw people who changed out of their 
Western clothes and went into their traditional Arab clothes, and I 
wondered why they were doing this.

When I reflected, it's because they are actively saying we do not want 
Westernisation. We want to retain our own identity; our own culture and we 
want Iraq to be reconstructed by ourselves. They will not want foreigners 
coming in and telling them how to do it.

They're quite capable of reconstructing it themselves, but they won't be 
given the decision. I think that's another tragedy happening now.

G: Did the Iraqis have any separate opinions about 
Australia's role in the war?

R: It was interesting because when I was at the Taji food silo quite 
a few of the people there had actually visited Australia and the common 
question to me was "I thought Australia was our friend. We've got good 
trade relations. Why is Australia doing this?"

There really is no answer. That's what the Australian people have to 
answer. Why on earth were we involved in this at any stage?

To put Australia in perspective, when the war was on the only comment I 
heard in relation to Australia in the whole three weeks I was there came 
from the BBC and it was in the first week of the war. It said an Australian 
pilot had refused to fly a mission because it could be too close to 
civilians  that was it. There were no other comments about Australia, 
which shows what relevance we had in this coalition. I think that says it 
all, really. Why WAS Australia involved in all this?

G: Did the Iraqis that you spoke to have any ideas about what 
might happen to their country?

R: The day I left Baghdad was the very first day people could come 
safely out of their homes. Iraqis were meeting in the main square where the 
American tanks were with the toppled statue of Saddam. They were starting 
to demonstrate against the Americans saying, "we want an Iraqi government".

This is the tragedy that's going to unfold. They will not accept foreigners 
coming  they will resist it. I don't know to what extent it's going to 
happen, I don't know how it's going to be resolved or what role the United 
Nations is going to play.

There's going to be deep resentment because they want their culture. That 
land has thousands of years of history that the Iraqi people have such 
pride for and their culture is so different to the West. They will not want 
all their structures and their whole lifestyle completely changed. It will 
be actively resisted.

Something that isn't being recognised is that countless civilians would 
have died in this war. There is no record of them. They would have been 
buried without record. The journalists weren't there  they didn't even 
get to the hospitals to see the dead people brought in because relatives 
would come in and collect them. Many burnt bodies were buried by the 
roadside because they weren't able to be identified.

When I say that there were so many civilians killed, an example of this is 
when we were on the outskirts of where a tank battle had been on the 
Sunday. Right up until the Thursday, it was known that anyone who went 
anywhere near the area would be shot on sight by Coalition forces.

If anyone tried to cross to get to their family, for instance, the soldiers 
would aim at the vehicle's gas tank and the whole car would ignite and burn 
people to death. There were civilian bodies everywhere, far more than any 
soldiers.

This happened again at other sites. When we got to Jordan there were 
Australian human shields who were at the 7th of April water treatment 
plant. They told us the story of when they were asked by the local Iraqi 
people if they would negotiate with the American soldiers on their behalf 
because 17 of their people's bodies had been out on the bridge for four 
days. They wanted to bring them home to bury them.

Here were just two incidents to which we were eyewitnesses in completely 
different parts of Baghdad that were never reported.

We know there were at least seventeen dead just in this one section of the 
bridge and about 25 civilians in one section of the road outside our site.

When we went into Baghdad there were the same burnt out cars right through 
the whole 20 kilometres to the city. These weren't isolated instances.

There was a massive number of civilian casualties, and this is what we have 
to talk about  the morality of war. Why should innocent and defenceless 
people die? Surely this was not the way to solve what turned out to be a 
furphy anyhow.

The Iraqi scientist who was in charge of all the chemical weapons of mass 
destruction that we had to go to war for said they that didn't have any 
anyhow. There were no weapons of mass destruction, so this whole war was 
ostensibly for nothing.

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