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.