The ones that stayed behind

Stefan Simanowitz on the untold story of human shields in Iraq

February 7, 2009 · 7 min read

Six years ago, as the first bombs rained down on Iraq, Robin Banks, a 49-year-old music journalist from London, paced the makeshift dormitory at the Doura power station, southern Baghdad. Someone played the mouth organ in an attempt to drown out the sound of explosions while others huddled on their beds or in corridors covering their ears.

These temporary residents of the power station were among the 80 human shields who, having travelled to Iraq to try to forestall the outbreak of war, carried out their commitment to place themselves in civilian infrastructure sites in an attempt to ‘shield’ essential electricity, water and food supplies. While most people remember the story of the human shields who travelled to Iraq before the war, very few heard the stories of those shields who remained in Baghdad throughout the bombing.

The human shield movement attracted massive publicity in the months of phoney war prior to ‘operation shock and awe’. For the media the human shields added flavour to an otherwise bland diet of factual news, providing a wealth of much sought-after ‘human interest angles’. The shields ranged from retired clergymen to eco-activists and grandmothers to former Big Brother contestants, ex-diplomats and hairdressers. Indeed the only thing that the shields had in common was a yet-untested personal bravery and belief that an attack on Iraq would be a tragic mistake.

‘Call me when one of them gets killed’

The departure of a convoy of three double-decker buses from London in January 2003 was covered by every major news network in the world and even prompted White House chief of staff Andrew Card to release a statement condemning the action. Media coverage continued as the buses crossed Europe, picking-up more shields en route, and hundreds of others prepared to fly directly to Iraq.

The arrival of the convoy in Baghdad and the deployment of the shields attracted substantial media interest but as war drew nearer, it was clear that the western media were becoming more critical of the human shields. The list of sites where the shields were to be deployed were frequently described as ‘military installations’ and, while stories of shields leaving Iraq were widely reported, the fact that a large number remained and that new shields were joining them daily, was ignored.

On 3 March 2003, BBC television news ran a story on the double-decker buses leaving Baghdad, ‘filled with last disillusioned human shields’. In reality, there were a total of four people on the buses and more than 150 shields still in Baghdad. Approached with a story about shield volunteers taking up residence in a food storage facility, one newspaper journalist responded: ‘Human shields? We’re bored of them. Call me when one of them gets killed.’

At its peak the total of shield volunteers in Baghdad numbered about 500 but they were by no means a cohesive group. Stormy clashes of personality between the shields and growing tensions with their Iraqi hosts meant that the atmosphere was far from united. Sites for the shields’ deployment had not been determined prior to their arrival and it soon became clear that they would be selected by Iraqi government officials wary of infiltration by western spies. After two weeks of heated discussion, the shields were given a list of five sites and an ultimatum to ‘start shielding or start leaving’.

The sites were all civilian infrastructure facilities fully in keeping with the expressed objective of the shield group but some felt that the list compromised their autonomy. Others felt that they would rather be deployed in schools, hospitals, and orphanages. The growing realisation that war was imminent persuaded some shields such as Godfrey Meynell MBE, a former colonial officer and High Sheriff of Derbyshire, to leave out of ‘cold fear’.

Whatever their reasons, many shields departed Baghdad amid much media coverage. In contrast, the remaining shields got little coverage. A list of the deployment sites was sent to the joint chiefs of staff, together with a request that they recognise that targeting these sites would be in violation of the article 54 protocol additional to the Geneva convention. There was no response to the letters and in the early hours of 19 March, the Doura power station, home to 23 shield volunteers, was showered in shrapnel from an incoming missile.

After the war

Fortunately, none of the shields who stayed in Baghdad throughout the war were killed or injured. None of the sites where they were residing, targeted in the 1991 Gulf war, were destroyed. By contrast, the water and power plants in Basra, where there were no human shields, were hit in the first days of the war. In an ironic and tragic twist, 21-year-old human shield, Tom Hurndall, who had left Baghdad for Palestine before the bombing for reasons of safety, was shot in the head soon after his arrival by an Israeli sniper while working with the International Solidarity Movement.

Life as a shield was uncertain and terrifying. ‘There were 12 days of intensive bombing,’ recalls Banks. ‘Unless you have been in that situation before it’s hard to know how you will react to it, but you find strength in one another. We all supported each other.’ The shields emerged from their deployment sites after the end of the bombing campaign, some suffering from mild post-traumatic stress symptoms common to those in war zones. While most headed straight home, others stayed on in Baghdad to help with the reconstruction. Uzma Bashir, a college lecturer from Bradford, set up Our Home, a charity for children orphaned by the war.

Some human shields heading back to America had a further surprise. On arriving home three shields, Faith Fippinger, Judith Karpova and Ryan Clancy ,found letters from the US treasury department informing them that they were liable for fines of between $10,000 and $1 million or 12 years in prison for violating US sanctions. The sanctions prohibited US citizens from engaging in ‘virtually all direct or indirect commercial, financial or trade transactions with Iraq’. Clearly the tiny purchases made by Fippinger, Karpova and Clancy were not the type of ‘trade’ envisaged by the legislation, but this did not prevent the treasury department taking action.

Rumours of remobilising

These legal repercussions faced by the US shields demonstrate how the US government was keen to send a message to those thinking about engaging in similar forms of dissent. In a similar way the human shields who stayed in Baghdad knew their staying would not prevent the bombing but felt it was important to send out a message. By placing themselves in harm’s way the human shields forced their way into the consciousness of the world and compelled military planners to take account of a new type of collateral damage. A new generation of human shields is currently talking about mobilising for an action to Iran.

The human shield movement arose in response to a frustration at the efficacy of traditional forms of protest. Marches, petitions and candle-lit vigils remain crucial devices but are easily disregarded by politicians. New forms of protest, fuelled by the internet and social networking sites, are constantly emerging. Human shields were not an entirely new concept, but the scale and impact of the action in Iraq was unprecedented. Combining the idealism and solidarity of the International Brigades with Gandhian principles of non-violent direct action, the human shield movement is the latest in a long tradition of protest whose power lies in people’s willingness to sacrifice everything for their beliefs.

Stefan Simanowitz was a co-founder and coordinator of the human shield movement

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