AMMAN, JORDAN -- For a group of 73 peace activists, overtaken by events, a mission to prevent the Persian Gulf War by camping out in the desert between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has failed. They are back from the front, weary and saddened.
An aging group of hippies and veteran peace junkies, ranging from 78-year-old grandmothers with arthritis to Hare Krishnas and long-haired, bandanna-wearing, middle-aged anti-war activists, returned here from Baghdad this morning. Iraqi authorities removed them from the border camp some 300 miles from Baghdad last Sunday, a few days before a planned armored land thrust into Saudi Arabia.
They had come to the Middle East from the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Netherlands. This diverse group of eccentrics and idealists, many of whom 20 years ago helped change the course of history in a movement to end American involvement in a foreign war, now seems like a sad relic from a different era. They were powerless to make a dent, even in newspaper headlines.
Firm believers in nonviolence, they watched scores of allied planes fly overhead on their way to bomb Iraqi cities and installations and admitted being scared. When Junsei Perasawl's chants floated over the human buffer camp at sunset and sunrise, people said they felt reassured. "Once the hostilities started, the lights went out and planes came right over the camp. It was kind of spooky at first because they were so many. Some flew in low and that really scared us," one activist said.
Kathleen Kelly, from an impoverished uptown section of Chicago, took part in the Missouri Peace Planting drive of 1988, planting corn on nuclear missile sites; she said she sat on five of 150 missile sites surrounding Kansas City and spent one year at a maximum security prison in Kentucky. She projected that the jingoism and war hysteria in America would be a "short-lived reality."
"When people become aware of the destruction, the suffering, the needless death and high cost of the war, I don't think they are going to look at this war with appeal and applause, but with remorse and regret," the grade-school religion teacher said.
The activists return with no distinct political views, she said, but with a strong sense that "people in Baghdad are like people anywhere else in the world." Lee Helgan from Fargo, N.D., said vegetable stands in the Iraqi capital were still standing after the allied attacks. Said another activist of the Iraqis, "I know determined people when I see them. Despite their politics, I am not against them."
For Eva Borman, a 78-year-old grandmother, mother of four and great-grandmother of two, weapons are not a way to settle political disputes.
She is going back to her small hometown of Herford, Germany, elated because she had the will to "stand up on my feet, all by myself." Suffering from arthritis, Borman uses a metal crutch and had to endure the arduous physical strain of getting up from the floor, where she slept in the camp and in the bomb shelter at the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, to go to an outhouse at night.
"When one is old, and handicapped, one can still work for peace," she said, describing her cold nights in the desert. "I feel this was a new experience of love."
Andrew Jones, 39, a Richmond resident who works on documentaries, said that when it was time to go, he and his mates did not want to be evacuated. Some had to be carried onto the bus by Iraqi drivers.
He left the camp, which he described as being "three football fields long," on his birthday. "It rained on the last night," Jones said. He protested against the Vietnam War at the Washington Monument and now felt a sense of duty to "save some lives."
If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive, he would do the same thing, said Jones, the only black American in the group. "This madness must stop," he said. Jones expressed deep concern for black American soldiers: "These people are going to die and they don't know Saddam from a hole in the wall."
"For me as a black American, it is a tragedy that more black Americans are going to die for what is a dubious war. ... It is shameful that I am the only one here," he said.
"I know Colin Powell is black and so am I. If they can wage war, I can wage peace," he told a group of reporters. "We went there to prevent that war and we failed; we were there to stop the war and we failed, but we did not fail to go there."
When the first reconnaissance plane came, 60 of the protesters spontaneously rushed out and formed a circle, holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome" -- for about two minutes. Though they were supplied with a generator and running hot water, there were no shelters, trenches or gas masks for the group. "I didn't go there to die, I went there to live," Jones said.
"When the planes came, we were dead scared. We did not know what would happen. We did not want to die and we did not want to prepare for that," said Jones. Awed by the firepower and range of sophisticated weaponry used, the war protesters said they were most scared driving back from Baghdad to the Jordanian border.
"I was more afraid seeing that road than of all the bombing in Baghdad," said Polly Preston, 67, from London, who had her first war experience and "peace thoughts" at a Women's Auxiliary Air Force base that sent out bombers to Cologne in World War II. She had also worked as an occupational therapist in a children's hospital in Saigon.
"In the old days, they were machine guns that may miss you, but these days, they have missiles that lock on. We were a moving target," Preston said.
Jones said Iraqi people he had met did not want war and thought they were going to die. "They feel they are surrounded and they are taking a stand," he said. "What would we do if someone bombed us? Flee to Canada?" Members of the Gulf Peace Group, as they call themselves, said they saw a number of children in hospitals in Baghdad being treated for wounds inflicted by bomb fragments.
For Eva Borman, who lost her husband in Russia during the last world war and brought up four children alone, life has been hard, but she has always been involved in peace campaigns and social work. "It was important for me to intervene. Not only to talk about peace in time, but to take a conscious risk at times of war," she said. Wearing a dainty gray and white cotton dress, Borman had to sit down to chat to journalists kneeling beside her. "I cried when I left the shelter because I had made friends there. There were whole families, the parents, the children and grandparents. They offered me oranges," she said.
Thirty-two of the 73 protesters have reapplied for Iraqi visas. Preston emphasized that their attempt at pacifism in the desert was not in vain: "I don't feel it was for nothing. People all over the world were trying to join us. One has to believe that little things do help. Little seeds grow; I have to believe in it."