Iraq Diaries
The Real Human Shield

Mark Schone, Spin

22 June 2003

It sucks to run out of gas at midday in the middle of the desert. It sucks even worse when warplanes are circling overhead, strafing anything on wheels.

On march 29, the 11th day of the second Gulf War, 250 miles west of Baghdad, Iraq, and 100 miles from the safety of Jordan, 27-year-old Shane Claiborne was starting to worry. The vehicles in his convoy-two yellow taxis and a white GMC suburban-had already stopped at two gas stations. The first had been bombed, the second abandoned. Now, they’d pulled into the last station on maybe the last road in Western Iraq, and the pumps were shut down. The owners had fled. It was no longer ironic or funny that gas cost just four cents a gallon.

Claiborne was calculating the amount of water left in his bottle when a can rattled into the dusty parking lot and a half-dozen Somali students from the University of Baghdad stepped out. More accustomed to improvising, the Africans quickly hooked a jumper cable from their car battery to the pump. After some smiling, hand gestures, and hugging, the entire convoy had tanks full of free gas. With the duct-tape crosses on their roofs (to signify that they are civilians), they resumed the long, straight chicken run to the border.

Their objective was to reach Jordan without crashing or being bombed. Claiborne and the other three passengers in one of the taxis watched out the windows, scanning the tan, featureless Badiyat Ash Sham desert for the black plumes of bomb strikes. American missiles plowed into unseen targets on both sides of the road. The Iraqi driver stared straight ahead at the smooth, modern highway that had been turned into an obstacle course by the debris of war. At 60 mph, he swerved past charred sedans, blackened bodies, a burned-out ambulance.

A bomb exploded less than a half-mile to their right, spraying sand. The driver stiffened in his seat and pushed the pedal to the floor. The speedometer hit 80, and then suddenly the back left tire popped. The taxi soared off the road, tumbled end over end, and came to a rest on its side in a ten-foot-deep ditch.

The driver and a South Korean named Sang Hyun Bae were cut and bruised but okay. Claiborne's left arm had been wrenched from its socket, some ligaments torn. The two other Americans in the car were hurt the worst—Cliff Kindy’s head poured blood; Weldon Nisley faded in and out of consciousness, his collarbone and ribs broken. The rest of their convoy was gone, but two Iraqis in a pickup truck saw the wreck and stopped to help the five men. They all headed east for Rutbah, the last human habitation for miles. Just outside the city limits, an American jet dived toward the truck. A passenger waved a white sheet out the window. The plane veered away.

Outside a four-bed medical clinic in Rutbah, doctors rushed toward the car. Claiborne remembered his cheat sheet-in Arabic, it explained that he was a member of the Iraq Peace Team, sponsored by Chicago-based antiwar group Voices in the Wilderness. He was a peace activist who'd come to witness the violence and endure it with the local people. The doctors mended the injured, but as they worked, they also demanded, "Why? Why?" Three days earlier, in this remote, mud-brick town, jets had attacked the hospital. "You are our brothers. We take care of everyone. Christian, Muslin, Iraqi, American –it doesn't matter."

Three days later, after a 13-hour flight from Jordan to New York's JFK International Airport, Claiborne misses his connecting flight to Philadelphia, but her rents a car and drives to the Delta baggage claim of Philadelphia International Airport's Terminal E. His return is both a homecoming celebration and a press conference. In a white shirt, horn-rims, and a new blue sling, he radiates conviction. He gives one-armed hugs to friends-smiling, relieved twentysomethings in thrift-shop and hippie duds- some of whom are members of his Christian commune, the Simple Way.

"I remember the first night we heard the bombs start to fall in Baghdad," he says, speaking into a clutch of microphones. "The next morning, we went to the hospital. A doctor said, 'I want to show you the first target of the U.S. bombs.'" Claiborne hold up a photo of a little girl. "Her name is Doha. Within ten minutes of the bombing, a piece missile hit her in the back, and she’s been paralyzed." He quotes a man whose son was badly injured by a cluster bomb: "If this is liberation, we don’t want it. If this is democracy, we don’t want it."

The reporters are too dazzled by Claiborne's poise and righteous anger to ask any real questions-like, "How did it feel to risk your life opposing a war that two-thirds of your fellow citizens support?" A writer, kneeling at the front of the pack, lobs a dud into the void.

Can you describe your experience in Iraq in one word?Everybody knows it's a dumb question. Claiborne looks at her blankly, suppressing whatever scorn he feels. "No."

On a Saturday afternoon, four days after the press conference. Spin's photographer grins when she sees the mess in Shane Claiborne's bedroom. Hand-scrawled quotes by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. decorate the walls. Bunk beds banged together from two-by-fours are covered in Teletubbies bedspreads. A unicycle leans against the door; magazines and clothes are scattered on the floor. Claiborne spent the morning entertaining kids with his circus skills-stilt walking, fire breathing. Now wearing homemade striped pants, spray-painted sneakers, and wooden earrings, he lounges on a car’s ripped-out bucket seat, grinning back at the photographer. "I'll just lay down and roll around in it," he says, "and you can take my picture."

Claiborne did not always make his own clothes. This Christian commune-ist was prom king as a senior at Maryville High in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains outside Knoxville, Tennessee. "He was popular," remembers his drama teacher, Carol Phillips, "but not in the typical high school way. He didn't play any social games." Phillips describes him as a class clown who seemed notably free of teen angst.

Beneath that upbeat exterior, though, Claiborne felt estranged from the Bible Belt's emphasis on sin and shame. He attended suburban Philadelphia's Eastern University, a Christian College know as a magnet for social-justice mavericks, but he grew disenchanted. This was a time when the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia was closing unprofitable churches in Black and Latino parishes, and a group of homeless families had claimed sanctuary in an abandoned church called St. Edward's in Kensington, Philly's poorest neighborhood. To show solidarity, Claiborne and some friends drove from the Eastern campus to the church. Later, in his direct, persistent fashion, he pestered some nuns until they coughed up a phone number in Calcutta, India. When a creaky female voice answered, he said, "Is Mother Teresa there?" The woman replied, "Speaking." Claiborne and his friend Brooke Sexton ended up working with the legendary nun for two months, spending some of that time volunteering in a leper hospital.

After Claiborne returned to the U.S. to finish school, he decided to move to Kensington. They tiny row house where he now lives, in a dense, shabby warren of burned-out buildings and one-way streets, serves as headquarters of the Simple Way, the community that he and his friends founded in 1998. The point of the Simple Way, according to Claiborne, is for the house's residents to have a Christian relationship with their neighbors on Potter Street. "The integrity we have is that we live in the neighborhood," he says. "It's rooted in relationships rather than programs." The house distributes food and clothing and has had as many as 40 guests over for dinner.

The group has also taken over a second abandoned property on its block and plans to use the new square footage for classrooms to teach computer skills to neighborhood kids and for music-recording space (Claiborne fronts a band called the Dumpster Divers). Singer/songwriter Dar Williams, a friend of the Simple Way since 1999, has contributed a Macintosh G4 laptop and also held a benefit concert. "We're saying that we don’t need to feed off the Empire and be dependent on it," explains Claiborne. When he says "empire," he means American, which he compares to the Rome of the Caesars. At times, his radical rejection has been alienating. "Anarchists and punk rockers are much more open to our faith than Christians are to our activism," he says.

When the Bush administration trained it sights on Iraq, the Simple Way reacted predictably. Claiborne and his friends are opposed to all wars and to any attempts by America to impose its will on another nation. They were appalled that Bush, a fellow Christian, was invoking God to justify the violence. In the fall of 2002, Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness contacted Claiborne. The 2000 Nobel Peace Prize nominee had started Voices in 1996 to protest United Nations sanctions against Iraq, which she saw as a humanitarian disaster. The group has sent more than 60 delegations to Iraq to report on hunger, contaminated water, and shortages of medical supplies. Seeing the same charisma that Claiborne's drama teacher had noticed years before, Kelly asked Claiborne if he wanted to join an Iraq Peace Team. He was just the sort to go to Iraq, come back, and proselytize.

"His reputation in Philadelphia among a wide community was incredible," says Kelly. "He has such an ability to inspire people. It takes a special character to bring smiles to the faces of [Iraqi] children who are listless or dying."

Claiborne prayed about the trip and discussed it with his mom in Tennessee. Then he shaved off three years of dreadlocks, went to Chicago for training, signed a release that absolved Voices of any responsibility in the event of his death, and boarded a plane. The Baghdad he found was a modern, beautiful, city in the grip of fear and decay. Soldiers manned sandbagged redoubts at every corner. Huge portraits of Saddam loomed. There were few goods for sale, and the water wasn't safe to drink. The Peace Team settled into the $9 per night Al-Fanar hotel on the east bank of the Tigris River; a monkey named Coffee lived in a cage in the lobby. There were hundreds of other Westerners in Baghdad, hordes of journalists and peace activists. One of the members of Claiborne's team was a 72-year-old retired U.S. Army captain who'd won the Congressional Medal of Honor as a soldier in Vietnam. And there were the so-called human shields, the most talked-about of the activists, who tried to protect schools and hospitals by chaining themselves to the buildings. This same militaristic title was soon used to describe every antiwar Westerner in the city, much to the Peace Team's chagrin.

Claiborne developed a schedule of Bible study in the mornings, followed by afternoon visits to local hospitals and homes. Because of Voices' history in the country, the Peace Team wasn't as closely supervised by government minders. Claiborne and a few other built a tent in a neighborhood near the hotel, close to some families they knew. At a little girl's backyard birthday party, he walked on his hands while the bombs fell. He also practiced the first Arabic word he’d learned-asif ("sorry"). The Peace Team began to see huge numbers of civilian casualties: "The Iraqi people kept saying, 'What is the purpose of this war? We didn’\'t have anything to do with September 11.'"

Claiborne and other activist had been posting Web diaries in the hope that their experiences would affect public opinion. But as the bombing continued, communications crumbled. On March 28, the U.S. military knocked out the phone network, and Claiborne was cut off from the outside world. He decided to return to the States so that he could tell his stories before the war ended. Since then, he's thought a lot about why the peace movement failed and why Americans supported the war. "I believe that we polarized each other," he says, referring to pro-and antiwar factions. "As anger escalated on each side, we created the traditional pole of activist and patriotic Americans." He calls Saddam's regime oppressive, but he is wary about what will follow.

If the conflict spreads to Syria or Iran or France or Mars, Claiborne still believes in the power of nonviolent protest. "I hope that we will have a large number of people who will go to conflict areas and stand with the people and put their lives in the way of war," he says.
Fishtown, Philadelphia, on a Saturday night is a scrubbed-clean version of the Kensington ghetto. In this quieter, whiter enclave by the Delaware River, men lean in the open doorways of red-brick row houses as they smoke cigarettes and talk on cell phones. A couple with matching mullets carries 12-packs under all four arms. And at the Atonement Lutheran Church, Shane Claiborne is the entertainment. He is recounting his Iraq experiences, this time for a crowd of 80. Props from Baghdad cover the tables in the rear of the church-laminated photos of the backyard birthday party with smoke drifting in the distance; paintings by an Iraqi friend over the stained glass windows.

The results of Claiborne's media blitz have been mixed. He's spoken to many congregations, and he's been on TV in Philly and Tennessee. But a scheduled CNN interview has been postponed (right after Claiborne's homecoming, POW Jessica Lynch was rescued). With Saddam deposed, peace activists found themselves in media purgatory.

Claiborne steps to the altar. "Instead of a moment of silence," he says, "I thought we'd start with a moment of noise-the noise we heard in Baghdad and that many are still listening to." He plays a tape that he made just by sticking his recorder outside of his tent. He hands out worthless 250-dinar bills with Saddam's Stalinoid face on the front. He passes around a piece of a cluster bomb and a fragment of a burned car from a Baghdad marketplace, where an air strike killed 14 civilians.

For the umpteenth time he tells the story of Doha-the first casualty of the war-with undimmed indignation, but then he switches gears. "I want to tell you a funny story," he says, chuckling. "I know-war, it's not funny." Claiborne had met a shoe-shine boy named Museff outside his hotel, and as his Voices guidebook advised, he refused to give Museff any spare change. When he walked away, he learned that the ten-year-old knew more English words than just food and money. Turning around, he heard the boy say, 'Goddamn son of a bitch!'

Claiborne and Museff became friends, but after the bombs began to fall, Museff lost his good humor. "I'm sort of goofy," says Claiborne. "I tried to make him smile. He latched onto my neck and started crying. He got snot everywhere. He kept going, 'Boom. Boom.' I started crying, too. I don't think he'd seen a dude cry in a long time." Claiborne gives a choked laugh. "Then he goes, 'Are you okay?' I said, 'Yes, are you okay?' Of course, neither one of us was okay."

Essentially, Claiborne's activism is about having just these types of interactions. But really, what more can he and thousands of other activists do? They've gone to jail and gone to Iraq. It takes a lot of guts to walk into the heart of the enemy's camp and risk your life for peace. Activists like Claiborne have the needed strength-drawn from their faith and from their communities. But the kind of people who are willing to drive that highway into Baghdad often find it hard to make a connection with the larger American public. Back home, Claiborne's whole life is an incitement to do a lot more than just oppose wars-even the one against al Qaeda. It's a joyful invitation to resign from our so-called Empire. That's too difficult for most of us to contemplate. Now the Battle of Baghdad is over, and the battle of Damascus or Tehran or Pyongyang may be upon us. Claiborne is ready and willing to fight. But it's hard to convert a world that you want no part of.

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