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Human shields leave Iraq disheartened but not regretful

LONDON—When tour bus owner Joe Letts was asked if he wanted to go to Iraq to be a human shield, he hardly hesitated.

A left-leaning, war-hating man of 52, Letts had been to Iraq in 1991 after the first Gulf War and was appalled at what war and sanctions had done to Iraq's people. He wanted to do what he could to stop it from happening again.

So he loaded up his two red double-decker British buses with some 50 fellow human shields. They embarked on a grueling, three-week, 3,000-mile journey to Baghdad and arrived Feb. 15—the day millions of others around the world marched for peace.

After spending just a few weeks in Iraq, Letts and the others are back. For some, a stint as a human shield has been disillusioning and disappointing.

A young American on the trip, Ohioan Daniel Pepper, 23, was surprised to learn firsthand from a Baghdad taxi driver that dictator Saddam Hussein was hated in Iraq.

Other former shields were disappointed that Iraqi officials refused to let them shield their preferred sites, hospitals and schools—and instead, directed them to food storage and utility sites, including one with a large military camp around it.

"Cold fear" prompted Godfrey Meynell, 68, a "church-and-queen Tory" from Derbyshire, to return from Iraq. "One thinks of various excuses when one goes about one's gardening," he said recently, "but that's my view."

Other ex-human shields say the experience was a positive one, even if the folks at home concluded they were traitors, apologists for Saddam or lunatics with a death wish.

"The purpose was not to die," Letts said. "We weren't intending to be martyrs but to win a political battle we're almost a guerilla rear-action movement against the war."

In fact, though Letts and his unusual double-decker brigade have left Iraq, an estimated 150 more shields from the United Kingdom, United States and elsewhere have gone there to take their place.

The phrase "human shield" is rarely used in a positive way. Bank robbers take human shields to stop police from shooting them. Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein have used unwilling human shields to prevent attacks and protect military sites.

In August 1990, Saddam took hostage thousands of foreigners, including 1,200 Britons, after his army invaded Kuwait. They were forced to shield military, chemical and communications sites and were assured they would be the first to die in any attack.

Researchers Jeffrey Easton and Stuart Turner, writing for the British Medical Journal, reported that many of the British shields were psychologically mistreated, kept in unsanitary conditions and fed "yellow rice slops contaminated with rodent feces."

The human shields who went to Iraq this time tell a different story. They said Iraqi officials offered them a selection of sites to guard—power and water plants, an oil refinery and a food distribution depot—where they slept in minimal but decent quarters at night.

During the day, said retired British diplomat Sue Darling, 60, the shields were allowed to wander Baghdad freely. "There were no minders there at all, though someone with a car was lurking around to take us places from time to time in the first week," said Darling, who chose to help guard a food depot, sleeping with four other shields in a cozy house on the depot site.

Letts and others shielded the south Baghdad electrical plant, where some of them painted HUMAN SHIELD in giant black letters on the roof as a warning sign for attacking allied forces. Of course, bombs can't read.

"I absolutely was not wanting to die," Darling said, but "you accepted that death was possible." She added, "You'd be naive if you didn't think there was always the chance of a bomb getting dropped on you."

The human shields had thoughtful reasons for putting themselves at risk, she said. "We were there to help humanize the war in a way," said Darling. "People in Bolton would see that if the refinery was bombed, Philip would be blown to bits. It made war a more tangible and human thing than being a computer game."

At the same time, they did not want to actually lend support to Saddam Hussein's murderous regime.

While Saddam's "sad treatment of his own people has been dreadful," Meynell said, "to some extent our interests overlapped. We both wanted to stop the war happening, and insofar as he used me to stop the war that was all right by me, so long as he respected my human rights."

Pepper, the American, said he was not really a human shield but joined the others both to photograph the mission and to make an antiwar statement of his own.

When riding in a Baghdad taxi one day, the driver asked where Pepper was from. Pepper said America, adding, "Bush is bad. Down with Bush." Then the driver started talking about how evil Saddam was. "I think he said `Kill Saddam,' " Pepper recalled. "It scared the hell out of me. If anyone knew (the conversation) had taken place, I could have been killed."

Within weeks the trip fell apart. Although trip organizer Ken O'Keefe, an American, had wanted the shields to become a "mass migration" into Iraq to stop the war, his efforts failed. And while some shields wanted to protect hospitals and homes, the Iraqis refused, leading to heated arguments.

For those and other reasons, most of the shields wanted to leave, and the Iraqis let them.

Letts is back home in Dorset, England, his two double-deckers still stranded in Beirut for lack of money to bring them back. Meynell is at his country estate in Derbyshire, Pepper is shooting photos in London, and Darling is at home in Surrey.

Any regrets? "It's that I did leave," Darling said, "not that I went there, God no."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): human+shield