A conversation with Gulf Peace Campers Muriel Sibley and Robert Chase
Muriel Sibley, a Victoria potter and mother, spent two weeks at the Gulf Peace Camp on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, then was evacuated to Baghdad, thence to Amman, Jordan, and finally to Canada. Dr. Robert Chase, a Toronto and Hamilton physician, arrived in Jordan on January 11, before the air war began, on his way to the camp. Under the circumstances, he decided not to enter Iraq, but stayed in Amman, where the Gulf Peace Team was short-staffed, and then spent several weeks in the London office. As of March 15, there were two Canadians in the Gulf Peace Team office in Amman, a Hamilton physician, Eric Hoskins and Rick McCutcheon, of the McMaster University Peace Studies Centre. We interviewed Robert Chase and Muriel Sibley in Toronto in February during the war.
MURIEL SIBLEY: The night the war broke out, there was a huge roar of planes overhead. Thereafter the overflights were every night. We saw the flares of the bombs dropping on the desert, but they were never close to us. It was almost all from the Saudi side toward Iraq. But occasionally there was some shelling coming the other way too. We had radios and would huddle around and listen to the news. Voice of America on the one hand, and Iraqi propaganda on the other. We felt we didn't know what was going on at all.
SPENCER: When did people conclude that there would be war?
SIBLEY: We're a bunch of cockeyed optimists. Right to the time war broke out, we hoped for a stalemate. I don't think it was unrealistic, but in fact it didn't go that way. When we realized that the war had broken out, we all rushed out and sat on the sand and hugged each other and cried. And felt this incredible resolve that this was not the end, but just the beginning of our work.
Strangely enough, I was grateful for every day we were allowed to remain there. I thought, the more people are worried, the more pressure they're going to put on government. I thought whatever significance we did have was directly connected to how long we were there.
SPENCER: I wish I could say that the streets were full of people chanting on your behalf but, to be honest, there wasn't a lot of coverage. Mainly the media was interested in all the planes. It was so strange to think of you while seeing these guys coming back from their missions, high as kites. This was the greatest thrill in their lives. And the television imagery was all full of exuberance and congratulations.
SIBLEY: Well, it's sickening. They were playing games with the lives of children. I can hardly speak about it, I get so angry. I know that my presence at the camp affected my home town of Victoria. I heard this from my husband. He said people who have never been involved in the peace movement, have gotten involved.
SPENCER: Did the military people want to stop you?
SIBLEY: No, they tried to ignore us and hoped we'd go away.
SPENCER: You spent a week in Baghdad in the same hotel as the press. Were they interested in you?
SIBLEY: I had thirteen interviews the day I arrived with press from various places. So they did cover us quite well when we first arrived. After we had been there a day or two, the news was more again about the bombing.
We were allowed to go out in a taxi as long as we took along a Iraqi guide from the hotel, and I think he probably had instructions to stay away from certain important areas. I didn't do much touring because I was ill part of the time in Baghdad.
There was a bus trip to a children's hospital, and another to the bombed so-called "bacteriological weapons factory," which was probably just a milk factory. It is located in a dairy co-op, and the inside of the factory smelt like sour milk. There were packages of infant milk formula ground underfoot, and those in the group who have scientific backgrounds saw no evidence of anything happening there except the drying and packaging of milk.
SPENCER: Besides, bombing a bacteriological factory is a stupid thing to do. If there were anthrax there bombing would just release it.
ROBERT CHASE: There is no more clean water in Baghdad, I understand. The desalination plants have been bombed.
SPENCER: What an evil thing to do!
SIBLEY: There's nothing that's not evil about this whole war.
CHASE: The water's contaminated; there's a good chance of epidemics everywhere. Probably Baghdad is not the worst place.
SIBLEY: I didn't see anything that looked like a military installation. The bombs seemed fairly small. You'd see a building bombed and the ones on either side of it would still be standing up. Insignificant places: little shops, little bricks houses that toppled in.
CHASE: A British journalist described watching a cruise missile from his hotel window. It was flying slowly up the street, maybe twenty feet off the ground, turning as the road turned. It purred along, slower than a propeller airplane. Like a hound tracking a scent.
SIBLEY: People were amazingly friendly. Groups of soldiers watched us out of interest, no particular hostility. Young women would giggle and come up and touch us, and asked to hear things from us, but none of us spoke Arabic, so we smiled and exchanged things. Women would hold up their children to see us and wave at us. The taxi drivers and the hotel waiters would just shake their heads and say, "This is a terrible war, we're so glad you're here trying to stop it." We were so ineffective there, though.
CHASE: The same thing happened in Jordan. Even the Palestinian taxi drivers, who have very militant views, said "I'm really angry, but I think what you're doing is great." It's just that their fuse has kind of run out.
SIBLEY: When the Iraq buses took us from Baghdad to the border, we were met by Jordanian buses that the royal family sent to pick us up.
SPENCER: Jordan has an extraordinary influx of refugees. Are they getting money from the U.N. High Commission?
SIBLEY: It was voted on by the U.N. They were supposed to get money last September but they have received little or none of it. They don't have enough for their own people and they still have to take in these evacuees. And there are still Palestinian refugees in camps. They are overwhelmed with the need for money and supplies-plus this embargo that is meant for Iraq, is also affecting them. Things in the Aqaba harbor that are meant for Jordan are not being allowed in.
SPENCER: Do you recall the wording of the U.N. resolution? Aren't food and medicine exempt?
SIBLEY: Food and medicine meant for civilians, I think it says. But that's honored in the breach.
CHASE: Dishonored, you mean.
SIBLEY: Thirty tons of medical supplies were still waiting in Jordan, to be allowed down that road to Baghdad. The road is mined and the American general in charge there said "We consider anything on that road to be fair game for bombing," even though they knew this stuff was unembargoed stuff that should be allowed through.
CHASE: There's going to be a convoy of the medical supplies to Baghdad. The Red Cross and a U.N. office in Amman support it logistically. Eight people from the Gulf Peace Team will be with that convoy. There's clear evidence of civilian bombing all along that highway. Nonmilitary vehicles have been bombed and transport is difficult. They want to establish the right for a corridor of relief to Baghdad. Eric Hoskins, one of the Canadians, will be with them. I was given a list in London that the Iraqi embassy put together; they listed more than 138 tons of medical supplies they needed. Most of them were anesthetic, operating room supplies.
SPENCER: What is the size of the Gulf Peace Team?
CHASE: About 130.
SPENCER: What was your sense of public opinion in Jordan? Is everybody pro-Iraqi?
CHASE: Seventy percent of the people of Jordan are Palestinian. Everyone's got relatives or friends in Baghdad; they have the same culture, they hold the same values, the same faith. They're pro-Iraqi in the sense that they're their brothers. But more than ever they want peace, and the outbreak of war was a slap in the face. King Hussein's negotiating efforts were incredible. There were six official meetings every day. The last three days before the U.N. deadline, he met Mitterrand, Perez de Cuellar, Daniel Ortega, and Yasser Arafat.
SPENCER: Does he have the support of his people?
CHASE: I think so. Historically, some of them are his people, some are Palestinians. In 1970 there was a civil war. The Jordanian army moved against the Palestinian camps and the military actions of the PLO. It was Arab against Arab at that time. So in militant quarters there is resentment for Jordan's inaction towards resolving the Palestinian issue. That the king has chosen peaceful negotiating means, that's for self-preservation.
Israel has the means, and the know-how and the intention to destabilize the Jordanian government and offer Jordan as the alternative home for the Palestinians. Jordan has a population of only three million, so I guess that makes a million and half Jordanian nationalists. Syria, as well, seems to have territorial claims to part of Jordan. This has to do with Syria, Turkey, Kurdistan-the legacy of different peoples that, after the fall of the Ottoman empire, had visions of former glory.
CHASE: Jordan's so vulnerable! Peace is its only option. There's anti-American protesting everywhere, but the Gulf Peace Team is embraced.