Sunday, March 30, 2003

Different paths, same goal

One stays in Iraq, other promotes peace at home

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two Ohio women followed the same path from the heartland to the heart of the Middle East.

They trekked over the Syrian Desert and crossed the threshold of Iraqi homes. They moved from hotels to shops, taping windows, stocking basements and winding their way through hospital corridors.

Each walked the downtown streets of Baghdad amid nervous mothers, cab drivers, boxed belongings and kisses goodbye. They were in the midst of the frantic exodus in the final days before the U.S.-led invasion to remove Saddam Hussein's regime.

Christian Peacemaker Teams is a Chicago-based program of Brethren, Quaker and Mennonite churches and other Christians to promote non-violence.

Conceived in the mid-1980s, it is financed by church members, congregations and meetings. It provides organizational support to people committed to faith-based, non-violent alternatives in places where deadly conflict is immediate or supported by public policy.

Voices in the Wilderness is a campaign to end the economic sanctions and military warfare against the people of Iraq. Since March 1996, more than 60 delegations have traveled to Iraq in open violation of sanctions against the country. This group initiated the Iraq Peace Team.

Those who travel with these groups serve as witnesses to the bombing and casualties caused by the war in Iraq.

Though hundreds of precision bombs have since fallen on this ancient Middle Eastern city, the mission of these longtime activists remains steadfastly the same: To stand for peace.

Both Mary Schoen, 48, and Peggy Gish, 60, are experienced in traveling to war-torn countries to aid those under siege. The action must be as strong as the conviction, they say. That places the pair among the small number of those in the peace movement who put themselves in harm's way for what they believe in. But their strategies diverged in recent weeks.

One chose to leave the country, the other to stay.

After two trips to Baghdad since January, Schoen is back in the United States organizing a grassroots push to urge ordinary citizens to oppose war. The Roman Catholic woman suspended individual appointments at her holistic healing business in Hyde Park for the next month. She will speak full time on behalf of the Iraqi people using the peace network she has built over the past 20 years.

"I will do it if I have to stand on the street corner," she says. "If I have to knock on Congress people's doors, I will. We will not sleep."

Gish arrived in Baghdad Oct. 27 and lives among the locals despite the bombing. The organic farmer from Athens comforts the sick, visits orphans and sends stories of the war back home.

"This is a time for people of heart and people of faith to speak out and act on behalf of the voiceless," Gish says. "The lives of children in Iraq, America and other nations are in the balance."

A passion for nonviolent resolution to conflict took both women from their Ohio homes to another continent. Now, that fire keeps them on the same side of the fight but on different sides of the world.

On Schoen's side

It has been 11 days since her plane arrived in Cincinnati from Amman, Jordan. But Schoen's memories are as vivid as the slides she'll use in presentations. She rushes from phone calls to the photo lab. She sends e-mails to friends assuring them of her safe return. She talks of her trip overseas with the Iraq Peace Team. The Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness organizes small groups to travel to Iraq, both to oppose economic sanctions and the war.

She conveys the promise she made to dozens of people she met, a cab driver, a dying child's mother, a hotel employee whose wife recently gave birth. She spends much of her time praying.

"Leaving was the hardest thing to do," Schoen says. "I promised them that I would not stop telling their stories and do everything I could to give them a voice."

In e-mails, in phone calls, on the road and at the podium, Schoen wants to drum up the kind of political outrage and social fervor that has not been seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she says. So she's starting with herself.

Voices in the Wilderness organizers asked her to travel the country. She will speak at high schools, colleges and community forums. She starts a Midwest tour that could take her as far away as Illinois.

That decision will cost her clients and income, but it wasn't a difficult one. It was the only decision to make, she says. Schoen gave what was left of her own travel money - $3,000 - to other members of her Iraq Peace Team for emergencies before she left the country.

The Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, a local organization involved in peace work, helped Schoen travel to Iraq both times and will continue to collect funds for her work through the non-profit, tax deductible organization.

"We think she has insight on Iraq that people need to hear," says Sister Alice Gerdeman, the center's executive director.

"I returned home from Baghdad with a heavy heart," Schoen says. "I knew this is where I needed to be because this is where the work and change of heart needs to happen. The voices of the Iraqi people need to be heard and their stories told."

Schoen knows that her colleagues' decision to remain in Iraq may cost them their lives. She hopes her work in the United States can help prevent that - and the deaths of Iraqis and American soldiers, too - from happening.

"We need people in both places," Schoen says. "It's important that the Iraqi people don't feel abandoned. To be willing to go through the exact same thing the population is going through, I call that the power of accompaniment. (But) this is where the problem is, here. The attitude, the misinformation is here."

On Gish's side

Black smoke fills the sky outside the Al-Daar Hotel in Baghdad, both from buildings aflame and pits of burning oil. The plumes look like an approaching storm, someone reports.

Gish is working with a group called Christian Peacemaker Teams. It's a program organized by the Brethren, Quaker and Mennonite churches and other Christians to support people committed to faith-based nonviolent alternatives in places where deadly conflict is present or supported by public policy.

E-mails are sporadic and phone calls even more precarious. A missile attack severed the telephone exchange that serves the south side of the city. The Iraq Peace Team since established a satellite modem to send pictures and updates without using hotel telephones. A short note arrived late Saturday night that the Iraqi government had expelled some members from the country.

"It seems pretty sure that some of them have left," says Art Gish, Peggy's husband. "I do not know if she is one of them. They didn't expel everybody. They are there to make a stand for peace and for all people. My hunch is they must have done something the Iraqi government didn't appreciate."

Bombs continue to shake city buildings. What was spring in Baghdad, filled with warm days, flowering bushes and orange blossoms, Gish says, has turned into sandstorms that paint the sky orange.

The group trudges on with daily work, visiting wounded civilians at the Al Kidri and Al Yarmouk hospitals downtown, doing arts and crafts projects with children at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage. Every street corner has bunkers, people with assault rifles, team members say.

Devout Christians and members of the Church of the Brethren, Peggy and Art have been peace activists for 40 years, often traveling to embattled lands. A year ago, the couple worked in the West Bank.

Baghdad, he says, is a place she needs to be.

Since Peacemakers and Voices work in accord, the two women met during Schoen's first trip. Gish welcomed her group in Amman before they crossed the border. They attended the same meetings in Baghdad.

The rush to buy bottled water, the testing of backup generators and the markup of trips out of the city to the countryside: All have left an indelible mark on their minds.

"People ask me if I am afraid," Gish wrote in one of her e-mails home. "I have to say yes. I don't want to die. I want to come home to Art and the boys and all my family and friends.

"But I am also willing to risk dying if my being here can help prevent thousands of people from dying here or elsewhere.... I believe that it's important that thousands of us be willing to die, not because dying is important, but so we are able to take the risks it takes to so strongly say no to war that governments lose support for these wars and there are no people left to fight them."


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