Love in a War Zone: A Journey of Peace to Iraq

Editor’s Note: Kara Speltz, 65, spent three days in Baghdad witnessing and documenting how the U.S. bombing of Iraq was affecting the country and its residents. The Iraqi government expelled her and other members of her group from the Christian Peacemakers Team for taking unauthorized pictures.

Speltz, a Soulforce veteran, and the others had reached the Iraqi capital just days after the bombing had begun. They crossed both the American and Iraqi front lines as they made their way to Baghdad from Jordan. Leaving the country was equally as harrowing. Speltz kept a journal during her journey and has agreed to share them with Whosoever readers.

Iraqi Journal:

3/14 – 3/16: It’s the weekend prior to our trip. Lots of last minute errands to do, but our parish is celebrating St. Patty’s day on Friday night, and I decided to go in order to have a chance to say good-bye to friends. One parishioner gave me $10 and asked me to light two candles in a church in Iraq — one for his mother who is seriously ill, the other for himself. I told him I’d be honored to do that.

3/15/03: The pastor of New Spirit Community Church (a MCC, UCC, DOC congregation), called and asked me if I had time to attend the Sunday service there. She explained that the service would be for peace and that the parents of a young man who had just been sent to Kuwait and is awaiting further orders will be there and she wanted all of us to meet.

3/16/03: After attending my own parish Mass, I went to New Spirit Community Church for services. The parents of the young recruit brought a picture of their son, Bryan, with their new grandson, and they talked about their fears and their hopes. They had brought the prayer of St. Francis with them and we read it together. Through tears I explained that I have chosen St. Francis as my patron saint on this trip to Iraq because it was St. Francis who traveled to the Holy Land to try and end the crusades. There was hardly a dry eye in the place as we sang hymns and prayed and at the end of the service the parents gave me the picture of their son Bryan and ask me to carry it with me to Baghdad. I promised to do that and asked if I could leave it at the church where I will light the candles for my friend Terry and his mother and they agreed. They asked if they could take me to the airport on Tuesday, but I declined having already ordered the Super Shuttle and I have to be at the airport very early. The experience of this day was overwhelming. Clearly the soldier, the parents of this young soldier, the community of New Spirit and I are all one family – the sense of oneness is very strong.

Later on Sunday night as I drove to have dinner with my son, daughter-in-law, and two grandkids, I saw at least four to six gatherings of people on various Oakland street corners with candles, all coming together to silently make their statement for peace. I remember Robert Muller’s recent statements about this mass movement of humanity standing together to say “no” to war. There is something very powerful happening. Robert Muller is absolutely right. Never before have so many people taken a stand for peace. It is so important that we don’t let the press make us believe that this war is inevitable. It is NOT. But if we accept the inevitability, then we concede our power. At this moment in history, it is essential that we live, eat, sleep, dream and constantly profess peace. That is where our power lies. Millions of people committed to peace. ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE WITH GOD!!!!!

3/22/03 – Amman, Jordan

We are still in Amman and the war has begun. It’s looking very much like we will not get our visas to Baghdad. We will return again tomorrow to check once again. If they have not been issued, then we are considering going to the Hebron. It has been a bit frustrating watching the war on CNN here in Jordan. There is a family here with us at the hotel from Basra, Iraq. People here are very friendly and not anti-American at all.

One of my great joys has been how many peace people know of Soulforce. When I introduced myself to Jim Douglas, who has been someone I’ve respected for more years than I can remember. He wrote the book “The Nonviolent Cross.” He saw my Soulforce jacket and said, “Soulforce – that’s a great group!” Again after meeting a Jim Jennings from Conscience International, he also recognized the name Soulforce.

The weather here is cool and rainy, and we expect that Hebron will probably be the same.

Our team is a fabulous group of 10 folks and I am blessed to be able to spend this time with them.

I can only pray that perhaps tomorrow we will be given permission to go to Baghdad, but it is not looking good. But the opportunity to meet with Palestinians and Israelis in the midst of the struggle there will also be amazing.

This trip from the beginning was always in God’s hands and we will keep our faith that God has special plans for us.

3/24/03 – Amman, Jordan

Much has happened since my last report from Amman! One of our members has returned to the states because it was looking like we were not going to be allowed into Iraq. So we are down to nine now. We’ve been taking turns going daily to the Iraqi embassy to find out if our documentation has arrived. Each day, we have been told no.

Yesterday it was my turn to go. The documentation hadn’t arrived, but I spoke with a really lovely man whose name was Abdul Amir, who seemed to take a shine to me. He told me to wait and he would talk to the Ambassador. After approximately two hours he came out and said I could have a visa, but not the other eight. He said this was a personal invitation! And the rest would have to wait until the documentation came.

I returned to the team to see what they thought we should do, and we decided to return this morning hoping that the documentation would have been sent from Baghdad. It had not arrived and so I pleaded with Mr. Amir saying I couldn’t possibly travel by myself, and couldn’t he please obtain one more visa for my friend, Dave. We’d decided as a team that Dave would be the best person to accompany me, since he would like to stay beyond the March 31st return date.

After a half-hour wait, Mr. Amir returned and said that this was “just for you, so that you have someone to accompany you,” and gave Dave a visa! So now with two of the nine of us with visas Dave and I leave very, very early tomorrow morning for Baghdad. We will join six Christian Peacemakers who are there from our previous team.

At this point a number of the six are in tents near a water purification facility and pediatric hospital, and I would imagine that Dave and I will join them. The other seven are now committed to staying here in Amman in hopes of getting their visas also. So the trip to Hebron is off at this point.

I clearly do not understand why, Mr. Amir responded so kindly to me and my pleading. But I am so grateful. It has been an amazing experience spending time here in Amman and particularly at the Iraqi embassy. Not one person among the throngs of people who are there trying to get legal papers, has been anything but friendly to us. They seem to understand that the very fact that we are there indicates that we are their friends. I spoke with one woman from Baghdad who asked me where I was from. This was after two nights of continuous bombing of Baghdad. I asked forgiveness for what our country has done to her people and she smiled and took my hand.

I continue to give thanks for your prayers and for this most amazing journey that God has placed me on. I’ll try to continue to write from Baghdad, but be assured that CPT will keep you informed concerning my safety. We’re still hoping to be home on the 1st of April.

3/25/03 – Amman, Jordan

By this time I had hoped we’d be well on our way to Baghdad, however, the Christian Peacemaker Team offices in Chicago, have asked us to wait and see if we can’t get visas for all the members of our team. So they are at the Iraqi Embassy, while Dave and I are at an Internet cafe, near the University of Jordan.

So let me take this time to let you know a bit about how are days have been here in Amman. I am the early riser of the group, and so every morning, I walk 3 blocks to the bakery to pick up bread for our breakfast, which is usually bread and cheese, and coffee. But the last few days, I’ve discovered a wonderful store with the most wonderful fruit. The tangerines are the best I’ve ever tasted. We’d run out of jam, so on my way to the bakery at 6:30 a.m., I was looking for a store that might have some, and found a place with hard-boiled eggs. What a treat that was. At 8 a.m. every morning we share worship together and now a number of others who are in the hotel have started joining us in a little room, Jim Douglas has named, “the upper room.”

This morning two of the Iraqi Peace Team who were in Baghdad, arrived around 5 a.m. after traveling all night. They tell us the road is still open, and while there was a burned out bridge, a burned out bus and ambulance, the journey was fairly safe. So we are in great hopes of leaving tomorrow, probably around 2 a.m., if all goes well. There is an expression people here use that I will, I suspect forever, use now. It’s “Insh’Allah,” which means “if God willing.” They use it all the time. What deep faith I have seen here in Ammon. So “Insh’Allah” for tomorrow morning.

Sunday night we joined the small English-speaking parish several blocks away from our hotel for Mass and it was indeed a beautiful and inspiring Mass. They remembered Rachel Corey, the woman who was crushed by bulldozers in Palestine. And the music seemed like it had been picked just for us, speaking about trusting in God as our shield as we left our homelands.

We will return to the hotel this afternoon, to find out whether our team was successful in getting their visas. If not, we will have to decide about whether Dave and I should go ahead and try to reach Baghdad.

Nothing has brought me closer to God than this trip, where we are clearly in God’s hands with a loving welcoming people who seem to comprehend as we Americans don’t that we are all brothers and sisters.

There is an expression the Jewish people use – “Next year in Jerusalem.” So, my next report, Insh’Allah, will be “next day in Baghdad.”

3/30/03 – Back in Amman, Jordan

We’re back from Baghdad; five of our team stayed on and four have returned to carry the truth about this war to the American press and people. The trip to and from Baghdad was harrowing to say the least.

On our trip into Iraq, we crossed front lines twice. There were many burned cars, busses and trucks as we traveled. About 150 kilometers from Baghdad, we came upon a truck on fire. We slowed down and saw American troops on the hill above. They had their guns trained on us and motioned for us to stop. We did and waved white flags. Eventually they motioned us in the first car to continue on.

The second van was still at the site and we waited for them to start up, but before they could, four Iraqi soldiers started running for the van, the Americans motioned for the second van to take off but the Iraqis were nearly up to the van. The van was able to get away, but as we watched from the first van, it looked like the Iraqis might actually catch up to them. We continued on past the Americans, and shortly thereafter a station wagon passed us with its back windows shot out. We learned from them that they had not slowed down and the Americans had shot at them. We then came to an Iraqi checkpoint and were worried that some of the soldiers might consider confiscating our vehicle, but they waved us past, after reading the statement we had written in English and Arabic. The statement read:

“I am a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. We are against the war and all other forms of violence.

“We are going to Baghdad to join other members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who have been there, living among the Iraqi people since October. We wish to stay with them during this terrible war that is being waged against them.

“We are trying to protect the Iraqi people and the institutions of health, welfare, and education that are important to life. We will visit and support hospitals, water purification plants, schools and orphanages.

“We are with the Iraqi people because we know God loves them and weeps for them.”

The looks on the faces of those who read our statement was one of awe and puzzlement. We arrived in Baghdad around 4:30 and got settled in at the hotel we were staying at. We met at 6 p.m. to worship together with the other members of the team who were already there. In the midst of the worship, the bombs began. Most were far off, but some felt near.

The bombing continued on and off during the entire time we were there. One of the most devastating things we learned was that the U.S. is using anti-personnel fragmentation weapons in Baghdad!!!!!! We visited a home and picked up several of the “pellets.” Jim Douglass who is part of our CPT team, recognized them from his time in Vietnam.

We’ve met hundreds of Iraqis as we toured the bombing sights. Not one single person was anything but friendly and welcoming to us. It is difficult to sleep at night because of all the bombs. But amazingly, the Iraqis continue life, having birthday celebrations, planting seed, and just generally going on with life.

Because the Americans have destroyed all communications facilities, there now are no phones or emails out of Baghdad. The Iraqis picked up six of our team members as they walked between the two hotels, but had stopped to see some of the latest damage from the bombing the night before. They were held for six hours and we had no idea where they were. Some of us feared they might have been picked up by hostile militia forces that would hold them hostage. Finally, our “minder,” the government official who was responsible for us, located them at a police station and was able to have them released.

The next day the six were given orders to leave Iraq. Since this was just a day prior to our planned return, and there was no telling when we might have an opportunity to leave, I asked to go with them. So five stayed and four of us left.

On our way back from Baghdad to Amman, one of the cars we were traveling in had a blowout and ended up in a culvert. All five of them were injured, but our convoy was unaware until we got about a half-hour away. Immediately Iraqi people stopped and transported our injured to the nearest town. This town had just endured severe bombing four days previous. The bombs had destroyed the hospital there along with a number of other buildings. But they brought them to the small building that was being used to replace the hospital and treated them with love and kindness, sharing the few medical supplies they still had. I found myself wondering if the same thing had happened here in the states — -if Iraqis had bombed our town, destroying our hospital, would we treat them with the same love and care? Or would we beat them to death in anger?

We are here in Amman, and leave on Tuesday for the states. But last night, as we drifted off to sleep, we could hear a B-52 bomber and each of us feared that the bombs would start dropping. Americans are being systematically lied to about this war, and I’m coming back to help spread the truth about this awful war that we are waging.

4/2/03 – Back in Oakland, California

I got back from Amman at 11 p.m. last night! My body is still on Baghdad time, so I’m running on a very strange timetable right now. I’ve been spending the morning trying to arrange for press interviews to share with people my experiences in Amman and Baghdad.

The trip back was a 12.5-hour nonstop from Amman to JFK and a 5.5-hour nonstop from JFK to SFO. I’ve had enough flying now to last me a year, but, of course, will be back on the road again soon for Soulforce.

There are some further stories to tell about our time in Amman after returning from Baghdad. As I mentioned, four of our team were injured in the crash outside of Rutba. After we finally found them in the little makeshift hospital in Rutba, we all crowded into the GMC and the other cab and made our way to the Iraqi/Jordan border. The drivers, who were Iraqi, dropped us at the border. There was a humanitarian team that greeted us there and provided an ambulance for our most severely injured team member and a bus for the rest of us all the way to Amman. Weldon, who had broken ribs, a cracked collarbone and several other injuries had to be transported in 3 different ambulances, because the first one blew an engine, and the second one blew a tire. So it took almost 13 hours from the time of the accident until getting Weldon to the hospital in Amman.

The next day our other two members, Cliff and Shane, who had also been injured and treated at the Rutba clinic, went to the hospital for further treatment. Cliff had cut his head severely and had 10 stitches in Rutba (with no anesthetic) and had to have three more in Amman. Given the amount of blood that Cliff lost in the accident, it is clear to all of us that the Rutba medical people saved his life.

The doctor who treated Shane offered to pay for Shane’s bill he was so touched by our witness. The nurse who treated Cliff asked if he could come over the next day and wash Cliff’s hair and re-bandage the wound, and did exactly that late Monday night at the hotel where we were staying.

Over and over again, I watched the witness of these caring Islamic people and felt that never again, could I sing that song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” For I have rarely witnessed such love and caring as I did from these people.

Even though I had a close Syrian girl friend when I was growing up and a good friend now, who is Lebanese, I had to acknowledge that I had been affected by the cultural bias our society presents concerning people of Arabic background. I suspect it is not unlike the situation with Native Americans. For years, we were taught that “Indians were savages.” Only now have we begun to recognize the deep spiritual nature of Native American culture. And for me, I have just begun to learn about what the Islamic culture has to teach us about love, forgiveness and welcome. I feel so blessed to have been allowed this most amazing journey, and I thank each of you for your prayers and support.

Kara – Oakland, 4/2/03