Kathy Kelly has led volunteer groups to Iraq for the past nine years in opposition of the United Nation's economic sanctions and most recently the United States' war against the country's regime. Her group, Voices in the Wilderness, headquartered in Chicago, will receive the annual Thomas Merton Award on Nov. 18 from the Garfield-based Thomas Merton Center.
What prompted you to start Voices in the Wilderness in 1996?
I was in Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991 -- obviously not stopping the war. We were a peace team -- there were 72 people from 18 different countries, I think 24 from the United States. I went very much persuaded of pacifism, but what I knew of the Middle East was at the level of fourth-grade geography. We were mainly thinking, well, soldiers don't get a choice and maybe one of the reasons we don't get peace is that the peacemakers aren't expected to take the same sorts of risks. The Kuwaitis and the Saudis said no thank you. The Iraqis said yes, you are welcome. We were plunked down in the desert on the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Iraqis [later] evacuated us to Baghdad. We were in the middle of intense bombing. When I returned to the states in August 1991, Iraq was so off people's radar that I put it on the back burner myself. By 1993, I was just as uninformed about Iraq as I had been before. Then in '95 some [circumstances] arose that those of us who had been in Iraq just couldn't ignore.
The effects of the sanctions on Iraqis pushed you back?
We had 70 delegations over there [since 1995]. [The war] wasn't the time to walk away. We never saw us as human shields.
How often have you been in Iraq?
I guess 21 times.
What sort of person does this type of work?
We've been pretty strict, when the danger level is high, about saying that we only want to send people who have been to Iraq and who we have worked with before. In the beginning, because we faced $1 million fines, 12 years in prison and a $250,000 administrative fee -- a civil penalty that could be imposed without going through a court -- there was considerable risk. These are people who have made the decision not to own property, who are willing to get up and move. I call them the do-gooder ghetto, kind of flippantly.
How have you seen the effect of your work?
During the bombing we found it important to go out and visit some of the people who survived bombings and do some documentation of what had happened to people. We went to the hospitals and met with the people who were recovering. We think it was important to write about what we call pre-traumatic stress syndrome -- they were lined up before the world's biggest firing squad. And we told Iraqi officials that their rights abuse record was abysmal. [Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister] Tariq Aziz said, "You know, Kathy, we teach our children to love the people of the United States." And I said, can I presume you teach your children to love the people of Israel too? He always said I and other team members could meet with him. Given the fact that we politely asked so many questions about human rights and we were invited back to talk, surprises me. That's not to say they didn't use us. Everybody used everybody. Hell, the journalists were paying the biggest bribes to get their people into the country.
And you believe Iraqis' main desire right now is for security?
I do believe that. I just heard it again and again. One man said, "You can get by on one meal a day. The biggest need is for security." There could be car bombs. There could be a car backfiring on the street and [U.S. forces] will react. That level of insecurity and feeling petrified could occasion another desire to bring back another brutal police state. [In pre-war Baghdad] we would walk the streets at 1 a.m. and not even think about it. No one is going to lift a finger against anybody in terms of street crime. The only time you'd see some type of street violence would be if some family were taking some sort of revenge. The electricity is back down to 10-12 hours a day. People are plunged into darkness all night. There still isn't effective policing, although it's improved. The ministries that held passports, health records, property deeds are not functioning or functioning in a wobbly way. People aren't going to work because they're not getting paid. There's 60-80 percent unemployment. In Oct. 2002, Saddam opened jails across the country. A lot of these people should have been released. But there's a very sharp network of organized crime now.
What does Voices do here in the U.S.?
We have a Wheels of Justice bus tour that goes across country. Considering what a motley crew we are, I think the amount of education we've done has been astounding. It affects the larger groups who can make a difference [with public opinion]. The level of awareness for this Gulf War was exponentially greater than for the last Gulf War.
What's the future for Voices?
We have a team of four that are [in Iraq] now. I'll go back in mid-December. We want to maintain a presence in Iraq during a very unpredictable time. We don't want people to change the subject or change the channel as I did when I came back from the first Gulf War. And we want to be advocates for the neediest people in Iraq. Forty percent of people in Iraq are children. What we hope for Iraq is that the United States would somehow announce that it made a big mistake and turn to the U.N. [or] an international third party group, and then hope that Iraqis can find a form of government that is suitable for themselves.