Baghdad -- the Syrian-Iraqi border after midnight is a dimly lit no man's land. We sit in a smoke-filled café on the Syrian side dining on kebabs and guzzling Turkish coffee on the house. When George Bush pounds a podium on the TV, the truck drivers, low-rent travellers and human shields in attendance convulse in waves of laughter and derision.The Iraqi side of the border is more congenial than the Syrian, where every one of one's names (mother, father, your own) is painstakingly inscribed in Arabic longhand. Here Saddam's portrait smiles broadly as dour immigration officials register and sometimes confiscate all cell- and sat-phones, laptops, video cams and other electronic gear. (I try to register my alarm clock, which bears the insignia of an obscure Mexican football team, but the Migra man waves me away.)
By dawn the inventory is complete and the British shields are kicking around a soccer ball with the Iraqi border guards. Godfrey, my compañero -- the grandfather of this journey to the end of night -- is leafing through a dog-eared edition of King Lear, an appropriate text given who heads the nation into which we are about to plunge.
The Human Shield Action Caravan of bedraggled anti-war warriors entered Iraq in two battered but brave London double-decker buses. Although we are trying to reach Baghdad for a huge, wild midday rally, the rage is patent enough on the border. In this dusty, fly-specked wedge of desert, the kids press up against the bus chanting and dancing so feverishly that you can feel the heat of their bodies even upstairs on the double-deckers.
The frenzy feels dangerous as they wave portraits of Saddam and rain curses down on George Bush, and their youthful energies seem capable of dismantling our wheezing vehicles.
During our roll through the oil-splotched desert, we follow the worldwide marches on truck-stop TVs. The customers buy us jiggers of tea and fragrant coffee, a timely reminder of how fervently much of the world hates Yanqui Doodle imperialism but not necessarily the American people.
After 20 years of war and affliction, Baghdad is not what you would expect. Rather, it is a thoroughly streamlined capital of 6 million, skylined by modernesque high-rises with ample green space and boulevards broad as Texas's, a sort of Middle Eastern Houston powered by great gobs of oil money. (SUVs have become an increasing hazard here.) Yet despite the evil Bushwa that envelops them, the residents of this wonderous burg repeatedly stop us on the streets just to tell us how much they love us. Yes, love us! In four decades of gallivanting around the globe, this has never before happened to this reporter.
The shields are presently ensconced in a moderately priced hotel at government expense until we can figure out how to wiggle off this hook. The Tigris, a slow-moving Mississippi of a river, meanders less than a block from our balconies. We are busy plotting our logistics and trying hard not to squabble amongst ourselves, a task made gnarly by the reappearance of one of our contingent -- a seemingly suicidal once-upon-a-time Persian Gulf Marine with dotted lines tattooed around his throat with the words "cut here.'
Miffed by a revolt of his fellow passengers way back in Rome, where he diverted the caravan in a failed bid for the Pope's blessing, he flew into Baghdad. He then tried to resume his summary expulsions of participants he perceived to be plotting against him, a ploy the survivors of the bus ordeal have apparently beaten off.
The cantankerous shield now drapes himself in a black djellaba that makes him look like a figure out of The Lord Of The Rings, but he's lost all control over the action. A fresh leadership forged from the travails of the road is now running the show.
Meanwhile, Slovenians and Japanese, an indefatigable Turkish contingent, busloads of Barcelonans and Germans, Italian brigadistas, Syrians, Estonians, a reported 60 Russians (still on the road) and multitudes of Scandinavians and Anglo pacifists stage daily marches, anti-war auctions, peace drum festivals and die-ins in an outburst of creative outrage that must surely cause Saddam Hussein to wonder what all this unprecedented protest is leading up to.
On February 19, a handful of U.S. citizens gather to mourn at the El Amiriya bomb shelter where on Valentine's Day 1991 Papa Bush's stupid but murderous "smart' bombs incinerated 407 lives. "We love you,' the young children chorus, "we love you,' and my eyes burn with their tears.
All week the minders -- not nearly as menacing as the New York Times would have you believe -- have been busing the shields around from site to site in an undisguised effort to convince us to position ourselves near infrastructure such as power plants, water treatment facilities and the Saddam Children's Hospital. There the press and the shields are paraded through the wards of sick and dying kids, the victims of depleted uranium. Floodlights and video cams and the unison click of cameras don't do much to improve the failing health of the babies. The moment is one of crass exploitation. The doctor on call complains about the never-ending parade of journalists and pacifists.
Although the shields resist this manipulation and seek out less Saddam-related sites in which to install themselves, defence of the civilian population necessitates compromises. This weekend a score of shields will move into a south Baghdad power plant bombed in the last war, paint huge logos on the roof and inform their governments back home that they're on site in a campaign to prevent repeat demolition.
Also on the list of sites to receive human shields are archaeological ruins like Ur in the south, the birthplace of the biblical Abraham, which was damaged in the first Bush war, and Nineveh and Nimrud around Mosul in the north. This shield has proposed to settle in at Babylon, a cradle of civilization that the U.S. president seeks to erase from the face of the planet, 90 kilometres south of Baghdad. What more could a poet ask for when the Bush bombs fall?
peace by peace
-- FEBRUARY 28, peace forum, 7 pm, at Earth Sciences Auditorium, U of T, 33 Willcocks (Bancroft entrance). Coalition to Stop the War, 416-588-5555.
-- MARCH 5, international student strike, rally 4 pm, Yonge and Dundas. 416-533-6026.
-- MARCH 8, International Womens' Day peace march. 416-588-5555.
-- MARCH 10, artists against the war, 7:30 pm, Trinity-St. Paul's, 427 Bloor West.