Peace activist puts human faces on impact of war

Saturday evening, Project Peace and Tiffin Area Pax Christi brought an international peace activist to Elizabeth Schaefer Auditorium. About 75 people came to hear stories and commentary from Kathy Kelly.

Formerly a teacher, Kelly is the coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a campaign to end U.S. military and economic warfare. The organization was founded in 2005 as an outgrowth of delegations that began in 1996 to defy economic sanctions against Iraq. The group has adopted the slogan “Where you stand determines what you see,” and Kelly is trying to give the American people a bigger picture of the wars their tax dollars are funding.

Kelly was among a group of activists who lived in Baghdad during the 2003 “Shock and Awe” bombing. Nicaragua, Bosnia, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza are other places where Kelly has lived with people in the midst of war. She has made nine trips to Afghanistan and has spoken and written to question violent and intrusive U.S. polices that cost billions and do not help the masses of oppressed people.

Taking the podium, Kelly said her goal is to tell the public what it is like to stand with people in war zones. Although she knows her passport will enable her to leave the area at some point, the people who stay behind may have to endure even more hardships than they already have endured.

“I had gone over to Gaza in 2009 during the period they called ‘Operation Cast Lead,'” Kelly said. “I was very close to the border between Gaza and Egypt … and every 11 minutes, we’d hear an explosion.”

The two-week offensive by Israel against the Palestinians in Gaza began with intense bombing. Kelly said bombs fell every day from around dawn to 1 a.m., with a break from 1-3 p.m.

The children could tell her the kinds of shells and bombs being used and whether they came from a helicopter, a drone or an F-16 fighter (aircraft Israel obtained from the United States). Israel also used a device that could burrow into the ground before exploding.

In addition to the destruction of the community, the assault caused civilian injuries and fatalities. Kelly said she visited a hospital and saw children with brain injuries, burns and amputations. Some were orphans, while others had lost siblings or had been displaced from destroyed homes.

“It’s the children who get punished,” Kelly said. “Why in the world do we continue to do the things that make the wars?”

When she was invited to give a talk in Ireland, seven of the listeners were so moved by what they heard, they vandalized a U.S. war plane at an Irish airport. The non-violent Kelly had not suggested any such action, but she was asked to serve as a defense witness at their three-year trial. Although the protesters had acted according to their religious beliefs, the judge ruled out any faith-based testimony.

“They were very fortunate, because they had … three of the most powerfully skilled lawyers in all of Ireland,” Kelly said.

In the closing statements, Kelly said one lawyer told the judge those who had damaged the plane were taking an action available to them to prevent more bombs from killing more children. Every citizen has an obligation to take action against injustice, and his clients were following their consciences, he explained. The charges were dropped.

In Afghanistan, Kelly became acquainted with a group of teens calling themselves Afghan Peace Volunteers. The youth have been brave enough to stage demonstrations calling for an end to violence in that country. They also have been making and collecting blankets for refugees in camps in Kabul.

“They all wear blue scarves, and I asked them about the color … they said it’s for one blue sky over all of us,” Kelly said.

She also visited some of the refugee camps. About 400 people stream into the cities each day, trying to find safety, Kelly said. In the overcrowded camps, people must live in tents or in the open air without adequate clothing, food and medical care. In January 2012, 100 people froze to death in one of the camps, including an infant. The largest camp in Kabul is located adjacent to a U.S. military base. The soldiers sometimes go to the camp to have their photographs taken holding malnourished babies.

“And all day long, you see trucks drive into the military base with water and fuel and food,” Kelly said. “How dare we suggest that the U.S. war engine is taking care of women and children?”

Kelly said that claim is a “smokescreen” to appease the American public and divert attention away from the cost of the war. She displayed a graph from a June report to show that spending for non-military purposes in Afghanistan has barely risen from 2008 to 2012; however, the costs for security have continued to increase all along. She explained where much of the money is going.

“The amount the United States spends on one soldier to stay in Afghanistan for one year is … $2 million per soldier per year,” Kelly said. “Tolls are paid to the war lords and the drug lords who control the roadways. … It costs $7 billion just to truck out the supplies as many of the bases are now being closed down.”

Recent estimates say the U.S. also has about 100,000 contractors in Afghanistan to secure nine remaining bases and three airfields. Consequently, only a small portion of U.S. military spending is used to aid Afghan civilians or rebuild infrastructure, housing, hospitals and schools. Kelly said she met a group of Afghan women who had not heard of the 9/11 attacks because the culture forbids education for women. One woman spent her days picking and shelling almonds. She survived by burning the shells and selling the meats.

The natural resources in the Middle East cannot be ignored, Kelly said. The area has deposits of fossil fuels, and precious metals and minerals used in producing electronics. With the growth of Afghanistan’s neighbor, China, the U.S. would like to control the movement of these materials, Kelly observed. Keeping a presence in Afghanistan certainly could be part of the strategy. In addition, the use of unmanned drones and robots tends to de-humanize military strikes.

“It makes it more tempting to go to war,” Kelly said.

In spite of the enormity of the situation, Kelly emphasized ordinary citizens must find ways to promote peace and help the most needy victims of violence. She pointed out how Pope Francis pressured the U.S. not to invade Syria earlier this year. Francis’ example emboldened people all over the world to raise a cry, as well. Those efforts played a role in averting a war in that country. Kelly said people who oppose war must make their voices heard. She left the audience with this.

“The question is, what’s our excuse not to do more?”