I was a naive fool to be a human shield for Saddam
By Daniel Pepper
I wanted to join the human shields in Baghdad because it was direct action which had a chance of bringing the anti-war movement to the forefront of world attention. It was inspiring: the human shield volunteers were making a sacrifice for their political views - much more of a personal investment than going to a demonstration in Washington or London. It was simple - you get on the bus and you represent yourself.
So that is exactly what I did on the morning of Saturday, January 25. I am a 23-year-old Jewish-American photographer living in Islington, north London. I had travelled in the Middle East before: as a student, I went to the Palestinian West Bank during the intifada. I also went to Afghanistan as a photographer for Newsweek.
The human shields appealed to my anti-war stance, but by the time I had left Baghdad five weeks later my views had changed drastically. I wouldn't say that I was exactly pro-war - no, I am ambivalent - but I have a strong desire to see Saddam removed.
We on the bus felt that we were sympathetic to the views of the Iraqi civilians, even though we didn't actually know any. The group was less interested in standing up for their rights than protesting against the US and UK governments.
I was shocked when I first met a pro-war Iraqi in Baghdad - a taxi driver taking me back to my hotel late at night. I explained that I was American and said, as we shields always did, "Bush bad, war bad, Iraq good". He looked at me with an expression of incredulity.
As he realised I was serious, he slowed down and started to speak in broken English about the evils of Saddam's regime. Until then I had only heard the President spoken of with respect, but now this guy was telling me how all of Iraq's oil money went into Saddam's pocket and that if you opposed him politically he would kill your whole family.
It scared the hell out of me. First I was thinking that maybe it was the secret police trying to trick me but later I got the impression that he wanted me to help him escape. I felt so bad. I told him: "Listen, I am just a schmuck from the United States, I am not with the UN, I'm not with the CIA - I just can't help you."
Of course I had read reports that Iraqis hated Saddam Hussein, but this was the real thing. Someone had explained it to me face to face. I told a few journalists who I knew. They said that this sort of thing often happened - spontaneous, emotional, and secretive outbursts imploring visitors to free them from Saddam's tyrannical Iraq.
I became increasingly concerned about the way the Iraqi regime was restricting the movement of the shields, so a few days later I left Baghdad for Jordan by taxi with five others. Once over the border we felt comfortable enough to ask our driver what he felt about the regime and the threat of an aerial bombardment.
"Don't you listen to Powell on Voice of America radio?" he said. "Of course the Americans don't want to bomb civilians. They want to bomb government and Saddam's palaces. We want America to bomb Saddam."
We just sat, listening, our mouths open wide. Jake, one of the others, just kept saying, "Oh my God" as the driver described the horrors of the regime. Jake was so shocked at how naive he had been. We all were. It hadn't occurred to anyone that the Iraqis might actually be pro-war.
The driver's most emphatic statement was: "All Iraqi people want this war." He seemed convinced that civilian casualties would be small; he had such enormous faith in the American war machine to follow through on its promises. Certainly more faith than any of us had.
Perhaps the most crushing thing we learned was that most ordinary Iraqis thought Saddam Hussein had paid us to come to protest in Iraq. Although we explained that this was categorically not the case, I don't think he believed us. Later he asked me: "Really, how much did Saddam pay you to come?"
It hit me on visceral and emotional levels: this was a real portrayal of Iraq life. After the first conversation, I completely rethought my view of the Iraqi situation. My understanding changed on intellectual, emotional, psychological levels. I remembered the experience of seeing Saddam's egomaniacal portraits everywhere for the past two weeks and tried to place myself in the shoes of someone who had been subjected to seeing them every day for the last 20 or so years.
Last Thursday night I went to photograph the anti-war rally in Parliament Square. Thousands of people were shouting "No war" but without thinking about the implications for Iraqis. Some of them were drinking, dancing to Samba music and sparring with the police. It was as if the protesters were talking about a different country where the ruling government is perfectly acceptable. It really upset me.
Anyone with half a brain must see that Saddam has to be taken out. It is extraordinarily ironic that the anti-war protesters are marching to defend a government which stops its people exercising that freedom.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2003.
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