"My prayer during the bombing of Baghdad was that I would be ready to die,” said Cathy Breen. “The air in the city was filled with black smoke, both from the bombs themselves and from the oil fires that had been lit.” Cathy, a Catholic Worker who lives at Mary House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was speaking of her half-year stay in Baghdad as part of a multinational group called the Iraqi Peace Team. Having arrived in October 2002, she was there before, during and after the bombing. Two weeks after her return in May, we spoke together at Nativity Church, around the corner from Mary House.
“Being part of a community—the Catholic Worker community—made it possible for me to say yes when Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness invited me last summer to become part of the team,” she said. (The Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness had long opposed the sanctions against Iraq, and then the war.) “We were there when Hans Blix and the other weapons inspectors came; and then, as the war came closer to breaking out, we watched as the regular United Nations staff members pulled out from Baghdad for their own safety, which we felt was shameful.” Initially the group stayed together in one hotel. But because they were so many—over 20—a decision was made to separate; and Cathy and several others moved to a smaller hotel, where they could cook. “The families we were closest to through Voices in the Wilderness lived nearby,” she said. But as the outbreak of the war came closer, she moved back for closer mutual support.
Although the group was made up of people from diverse backgrounds and religions, some gathered for a shared morning reflection that served as a sustaining element. “We took turns preparing it,” Cathy said, going on to explain that it could be a combination of Scripture, poetry and personal reflections. Her own faith, she said, was a solidifying factor throughout. As she put it, “I felt I was being led, and that God was with us.” Their awareness of many people’s prayers at home gave further support.
Before the bombing began, Cathy and others visited local hospitals, especially a pediatric hospital where children with cancer were being treated. “We saw children with cancer lacking the medications they needed for chemotherapy, and over a period of time, we literally watched some of them die,” she said. The visits were often made in company with delegations of lay and religious people who had come to see at first hand the negative effects of the sanctions in hospitals, schools and universities, and among ordinary citizens. Cathy noted that delegation members often brought medications with them for the hospitals, despite the fact that in so doing they risked incurring fines by the United States government and even prison terms. (So far, however, neither penalty has been imposed.)
From the very beginning of her stay, Cathy found the Iraqi people themselves to be welcoming and hospitable. “And yet there we were, outsiders from the aggressor nation,” she commented. “But most people were aware that we were there for peace, since we’d been on Iraqi television to explain our position. They often asked us,” she continued, ‘Why is your country doing this?’—as if, because I was an American, I had inside knowledge.” The basic friendliness continued essentially unbroken, although as the attacks came closer, she noticed an occasional person on the street looking at them askance, in what seemed an unfriendly way.
Once the bombing began, Cathy said, the peace team members visited some of the sites that had been hit, including a marketplace where just 24 hours earlier a number of civilians had been killed. “People were standing there, shoulder to shoulder, but not jostling, just looking down at that huge crater, mourning.” As they were preparing to leave the bomb site, an adolescent boy approached and said, “Bush and his soldiers are cowards—they fight us from afar.”
As the bombing continued day after day, families and members of the peace team took shelter in the basement of the hotel. There was relief when it finally stopped; but then, Cathy said, sadness set in with the realization among the people that theirs was now an occupied country. An Iraqi friend who, though a civil engineer, could find work only as a taxi driver because of the effects of the sanctions, said to her during the first days of the occupation: “It’s no longer our country. Nothing has changed.” In his opinion, one form of occupation—by Saddam—had simply been exchanged for another.
With the bombing finally over, the area around their hotel filled with American soldiers, tanks and armored personnel carriers. Some of the soldiers, most of them very young, seemed to need to talk, Cathy said, and an opportunity for this was provided by a large piece of canvas that had been painted by an artist in three sections. The top showed the globe of the world; in the middle were children; and at the bottom was a depiction of exploding bombs. Spread out on the ground, the canvas served as a place where peace team members could keep vigil and pray.
“Until then, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to speak to any of the soldiers,” Cathy said. “But the canvas served as a way to go out quietly into their midst. Some came up to look at the canvas out of curiosity. One, though—a young African American—spoke to me when he felt none of the others was listening and came on to the canvas itself. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” he told Cathy. “We’ve seen some bad things here.” The soldier told her of a couple in a passing car who had ignored shouted orders to stop. “But they don’t understand our language, and so they were killed. We could have shot out their tires instead.” Then, said Cathy, “he asked if we could say a prayer together, so he gave me his hands and we prayed. In his pocket he had some verses folded up in plastic that had to do with not being afraid—he showed them to me.”
Prayer became an ongoing theme for Cathy even after she left Iraq to begin the journey home. The return trip included a stop in northern Spain. There she made a two-week pilgrimage along the route famous since medieval times because of the shrine of Santiago de Compostella, which, according to tradition, holds the relics of the Apostle James. A year earlier, she had made the same pilgrimage. But this time she walked in a direction opposite to the painted arrows meant to guide the pilgrims along their way. Going against the direction of the arrows was a deliberate way of expressing her own belief in values opposite to the values of the world. “We have to walk against the mainstream,” she said—that is, against the kind of false values that propelled the United States into the war with Iraq.