Peggy Gish writes of her experiences as a full-time member of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraq from 2002-2004. The reader learns in an accessible and concise manner the day-to-day activities of CPT and the realities of the Iraq war on the ground. Gish writes passionately of her motivations for this work. The reader is invited into the strategic planning process for CPT as well as the challenges of team dynamics. We learn of the extensive networking that enables CPT to contribute to a broader effort in Iraq and enjoy eyewitness reporting of conditions for common Iraqis before, during, and after the 2003 Iraq war.
Gish is a 60-year old Church of the Brethren grandmother who has lived most of her life in intentional community. She and her husband Art farm for a living in southeastern Ohio but both of them spend a significant portion of each year serving with CPT in the Middle East.
Perhaps the first question readers have of a woman who would choose to stay in Baghdad, Iraq, during the US bombings that began in March of 2003 concerns her motivation for such work. Gish speaks of Jesus’ impatience with those who
do not bear fruit as well as those who cooperate with or gain from corrupt religious, political, or economic systems. She acknowledges that we are in fact limited as individuals by our access to power but
we have more than we are ready to admit to ourselves for changing unjust systems.
Gish offers a glimpse of the sacrifices involved with leaving family and knowing that you may never return. While the majority of her family and community are supportive of her CPT work, there are also those who are vocal about their desire for her to come home prior to the war. Gish is transparent in her struggles with fear and self-doubt. It becomes obvious that this work is a challenge each hour of each day. Without a strong faith, Gish would not be able to persist under such pressures.
The team supports each other through daily worship, discernment, and prayer. All types of concerns are shared within the group and they draw strength from scripture and each other. Gish also maintains a regular commitment to working in a Baghdad orphanage housing children with both mental and physical disabilities. She is grounded and energized by this weekly contact.
Gish wishes people would become angrier about the mass slaughter, malnutrition, social injustice, and policies that bring suffering to the world. She has been able to channel her anger into a presence and style that speaks truth to power but is both approachable and gentle as she calls others to accountability for their harms.
Prior to the war, we experience a taste of the emphasis on relationship building that CPT has found effective. They enjoy weekly visits with neighbors, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and others. CPT works closely in strategic planning and public actions with the Iraqi Peace Team, a coalition of North American and European groups hoping to stop the war and later to monitor the human rights situation there.
Gish serves in Iraq for three to five month stretches and in this time experiences the first bombing raids of Baghdad by the US and coalition forces, the bombing of the United Nations building killing hundreds, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the death of a CPT delegation member in an auto accident.
Daily, the team must confer and be accompanied by Iraqi government
minders who approve their travels and monitor their actions. Days following the war when Gish and a visiting North American delegation traveled off the approved path without a minder to witness some of the US bombing damage, they were promptly deported.
We learn of details of the war that are only available to eyewitnesses and may only be reported fully by those outside the commercial media. For example, Gish speaks of finding evidence of the use of anti-personnel weapons by the US--weapons whose purpose is to maim. These weapons are considered illegal, Gish reports, under the Geneva Convention.
We learn of early Muslim responses to the bombings via the mosque system of communication--loud speakers. Following each bombing raid during the early days of the war, the widely dispersed speakers would announce Allah Akbar- God is Greater to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Five days after the war began, the majority of the Iraqi Peace Team were told to leave the country. As they arrived in Amman, Jordan, following a harrowing drive west through crater filled and car littered highways, they were shocked to hear the first US reports of the war. Gish states,
It seemed more like the reporting of a football game than war coverage. Newscasters emphasized each bombing victory by the US while failing to report the extensive civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure that overwhelmed the hospitals and brought Baghdad to a virtual halt.
Following her return to Iraq three months later, Gish reports on comments she hears in Iraqi homes and on the streets. While some praise the US for bringing an end to Saddam’s brutal dictatorship, the majority criticize the US occupation due to lack of the basics--clean water, electricity, adequate food, or jobs. In her unique role, Gish had access to US soldiers, Iraqi families, sheiks, Baath Party members, and internationals working with NGOs. Many shared mixed emotions about the war but all were consistent with their negative reports of the occupation.
Following the war, CPT began hearing reports of violent house raids carried out by US soldiers and prisoner abuse in the US prison system including Abu Ghraib. CPT responded by documenting and attempting to confirm Iraqis’ stories and then using their US status to report these abuses to US authorities. They often found sympathetic US officials but most claimed that they had little control to change these practices.
While Gish reports that prior to the war, CPTers felt safe traveling around the city, following the war they observed an emerging
culture of violence that made walking or driving a dangerous venture. Seeing dead bodies became normal. Armed guards in front of businesses became standard practice. Guns were everywhere. CPT lived in a neighborhood among the common Iraqis. And although they experienced remarkable safety, one day their luck ran out.
Following the war, the word was out that CPT was taking reports on detainee experiences and house raids. Frequently people would come by their apartment or stop them on the streets to share a story, see if CPT could check on a missing family member, or talk with the US authorities about complaints. On one occasion, they invited two young men in who shared their stories and proceeded to unveil a gun and a knife, tie up the men and demand cash and valuables from the women. The men ran off with $600, cell phones, video cameras, and two computers. The experience shook the group and caused a great deal of re-evaluation.
As complaints and violence mounted from January to April 2004, the team gathered a more formal list of 72 Iraqi detainees who were unaccounted for and feared dead by their families. Generally, these were young men who had been arrested by US military without formal charges and taken from their homes at night. The summary report garnered little response from a series of US authorities but finally caught the attention of a New York Times reporter who eventually broke the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to the world.
The reader who is seeking careful analysis, nonviolence theory, or an academic treatment of the project will be disappointed. This book will instead serve as a rich source of historical data on early CPT work in war zones.
For those who seek a glimpse of some modern day prophets working in a land of injustice, this book is for you. It is inspiring, informative, energizing, and thought provoking. It challenges each of us to ask, could we do this work if we felt called? Gish demonstrates the indispensable role of Christian community, scripture, a life of prayer, and relationship to God as she struggles with her fear, self-doubt, and sense of humility each day. We see that there is a role for pacifists in war zones and just what a difference that role of
getting in the way of injustice might make.