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Peace Activist Recounts Her Visits to War Zones

by David Yonke
September 12 2006
The Toledo Blade

Peace activist Kathy Kelly said yesterday that she has been to Iraq 28 times in the last 15 years because she feels that action, not just words, are needed to make a difference.

“You can’t be a vegetarian between meals, and you can’t be a pacifist between wars,” Ms. Kelly said, quoting American pacifist Ammon Hennacy.

The 53-year-old peace activist from Chicago, speaking to a packed house of several hundred people in the University of Toledo Law Center Auditorium, was the featured speaker at the Sixth Annual Maryse Mikhail Memorial Lecture.

Rarely glimpsing at her notes, Ms. Kelly recounted in her 50-minute talk a number of her experiences in war zones and two prison terms for civil disobedience.

A three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Mrs. Kelly said that when she first went to the Middle East, “I was unable to spell Kuwait or find Iraq on a map.”

But in 1991 she joined an international group of protesters on the Iraq-Kuwait border who sought to “interpose themselves” between warring factions.

When an Iraqi military officer ordered them to move, Ms. Kelly said she replied that they were there as a matter of conscience and would not leave willingly. The officer then had his troops gently lift the protesters and place them carefully on a bus, making sure all the time that they were not harmed.

It was, Ms. Kelly said, the first of many exposures to what she called “radical hospitality” from Iraqis.

Ms. Kelly discussed a number of personal interactions that changed people’s lives, suggesting that if enough people make an effort rather than just “sitting on their hands,” world peace might be more than a dream.

For example, she said, kidnapping has become a money-making business in Iraq. A friend of hers who was kidnapped was told by his captor that the Iraqi was planning to become a suicide bomber.

Her friend sought to communicate to the guard that his body was “a sacred vessel,” so he offered to give the captor a massage. The massage soon turned into a daily routine, and one day the captor walked in smiling and wearing a wedding ring. He said he no longer planned to commit suicide.

Ms. Kelly credited her friend’s personal touch - literally - as changing his captor’s view of life.

She said she got an email in 2003 asking her if she would take actor Sean Penn around Baghdad during his three-day visit. Clearly not a movie buff, Ms. Kelly said she asked what newspaper Mr. Penn wrote for. She said the response was that Mr. Penn “had been married to Madonna, and we don’t mean the mother of Jesus.”

Today, she added, Mr. Penn is at the Toronto Film Festival raising money for wounded Iraqi civilians.

Ms. Kelly closed her talk by singing a refrain from “We Shall Overcome” in Arabic - a song she and her colleagues have taught to many Iraqi children - and received a lengthy standing ovation.

© 2006 The Blade