Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Snapshots from the Syrian Border

From Oct. 4th until Oct. 17th CPTers accompanied and then stayed with a group of nineteen Palestinians living in Baghdad who decided to try to gain refuge in Syria: refuge from the night raids, arbitrary arrests and torture-induced confessions their community has been subject to by Iraqi security forces for eight months. They are still camped out at the Syrian border awaiting news from the Syrian government as to whether or not they can enter Syria since their status since 1948 as “guests” in Iraq does not allow them to enter neighboring countries.

Tuesday, October 4th - It is midday and the temperature in this desert region of eastern Iraq is around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Nineteen Palestinians from Iraq, three CPTers, their translator and one member of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams have just spent the night sleeping on the sidewalk at the Al Walid border crossing between Syria and Iraq. People have enough water, but the intense heat is still taking its toll on the men, women and children. There are dozens of tractor-trailers waiting to cross the border. One of the drivers sees the group and pulls his rig close to the sidewalk, creating a protective shadow for shade.

Thursday, October 6th - The UN has arranged for the community to have two meals per day at the border-crossing cafeteria. The Syrian cafeteria manager is talking to community members about how things are going. One person mentions that there is very little to do as they await word from the Syrian government regarding their status. Soon afterwards a soccer ball appears and is given to the community. Both children and adults find it a welcome source of recreation.

Monday, October 10th - The group has been living in tents provided by the UN for six days. The five children (ages 1 to 13) are getting bored and anxious. CPTer Sheila Provencher and the CPT translator have decided to start a one-hour “school” every morning for the older children. Provencher will teach English and the translator will do art. The first English lesson is teaching words about the weather using the “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” song.

Tuesday, October 11th - The Syrian government still refuses to allow any of the Palestinians to enter Syria as refugees. Two members of the community pay a social call to one of the Syrian officials in charge of the border crossing. At the conclusion of their visit they invite the officer to come meet everyone at the camp. He arrives several hours later as members of the community are gathered under the star filled sky next to a roaring campfire. Community members offer him tea and the conversation goes on late into the night.

When the CPTers left to return to Baghdad on Oct. 17th everyone gathered to share a final meal together and take many pictures and give many hugs, handshakes and kisses. On the bus ride up from Baghdad the community asked CPT to be a protective nonviolent presence through the Iraqi and U.S. checkpoints. After Ramadi, where the danger is bandits and kidnappers, the community said it would be a protective nonviolent presence for CPT. One of the members of the community said, “We will be responsible for each other.” Distance has separated us but that sense of responsibility to each other remains.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Faces of Desperation

We are gathered around a campfire sharing chai (tea) and fellowship. “We” consists of nineteen Palestinian men women and children (ages one to thirteen) who have either been born in or have lived most of their lives in Iraq. “We” also consists of three CPTers, one member of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams and CPT’s translator (who is also Palestinian). We are camped at the Al Walid border crossing between Syria and Iraq and are awaiting news from the Syrian government. News of whether or not the Iraqi Palestinians, who are currently barred from entering Syria, will be granted refugee status by the United Nations, which will be recognized by the Syrian government.

But why would these people want to leave Iraq now? Iraq is now on its way to democracy. The tyrannical régime of Saddam Hussein has been gone for two and one half years. The reason is quite simple; the new Iraq government’s security forces have made Iraqi Palestinians primary targets for harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture-induced confessions to crimes they didn’t commit and in some cases death. All in the name of demonstrating how well the government’s campaign of ridding Iraq of foreign terrorists is going.

But why the Iraqi Palestinians? First they are easy to find. Most live in two large compounds in Baghdad. Second, they are defenseless. Iraqi Palestinian’s are barred from owing firearms. Third, they have no political clout. They can’t vote, own property or even own a car. Fourth, they are small in numbers. The total population in Iraq is around 23,000. Fifth, Saddam used them to promote his political prestige with Sunni Arabs in the Middle East by giving them subsidized housing, a fact that was resented by many Iraqis. They were forced out of those apartments during the first months of the U.S. led invasion.

So here we are gathered around a campfire in the desert. We spent the first night sleeping on the sidewalk at the Syrian side of the border crossing. Trucks roared by all night making sleep almost impossible. Yet several said it was the best nights sleep they had gotten in months. No sirens, no gunfire, no house raids in the middle of the night, no one being hauled away by Iraqi security forces perhaps never to be seen again.

Now into our eighth day we are living in tents provided by the UN. We are eating two meals a day in the border-crossing cafeteria thanks to the UN as well. My teammate, Shelia Provencher, and our translator have started a one-hour “school” each day for the children. As I am writing this the men are playing a game of soccer and we wait. Wait to see if the UN and Syria can reach a solution to this humanitarian crisis.

I asked one man what he would do if the UN and Syria were unable to reach a solution and they were told to return to Iraq. Would he, and his family, return? “Never”, he said, “We will either stay here or die before we return to the certain death of Iraq.” I cannot imagine the level of desperation a person must reach in order to make such a statement. And yet, I don’t need to imagine it at all. I see it one the faces of the community we are part of every day