A Peacemaker’s Stories


Reviewing Kathy Kelly’s book Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison (Petrolia, CA: CounterPunch Books; Oakland: AK Press, 2005).

In a civilized nation, Kathy Kelly’s peacemaking activities would make her widely known. Thus she has scant name recognition in the US. Against that backdrop, Kelly’s book can help correct this situation.

In her book, we find compelling stories on what the US government does to harm human beings in the name of safety and security overseas and at home. Opposing this barbarity and cruelty, Kelly argues in deed and word for a nonviolent pacifism of resistance. Weighing 105 lbs., she is a resolute force in the face of tyrannical authority for the improvement of all humanity in the tradition of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kelly’s book has four parts. In part one, we learn of her working-class, Irish-Catholic roots in Chicago. Such personalization works well, helping us to understand the life processes that empowered her to make repeated humanitarian missions to the Balkans, Caribbean, Central America and the Middle East. A pivotal point in her life came in 1977 when she entered the Catholic Worker movement in her hometown.

Kelly meets Karl Meyer, her former husband and mentor with whom she remains a friend. He helps teach her how to work with others to resist oppression by employing the principles of pacifism to counter the dominant assumptions about armed violence as a means to settle differences.

Kelly blossoms in the light of the Catholic Worker group’s “collective determination” to better the human rights of the globe’s poorest people as the highest form of personal responsibility. She meets Father Roy Bourgeois, a charismatic priest with the Maryknoll religious order who protests US intervention in Central America. He impresses her by receiving a prison sentence for publicly demonstrating against his friend’s death at the hands of a Central American death squad trained by the US government.

Two other influential people in Kelly’s life are Ernest Bromley and Maurice McCracken. Together, they teach her by example about militant nonviolence in the face of arrest and mistreatment-how to conquer fear and “catch courage.” From this duo Kelly learns: “Courage is the ability to control your fear, and courage is contagious.” There is more to her pacifism: “I’d add to those definitions an additional truism that can help dissolve fear: treat other people right, and you won’t have to be afraid of them.”

In the book’s second and longest part, Kelly bears witness, from Iraq, to the triumphs and tragedies of ordinary people during 14 years of trade sanctions, weapons inspections, US/UK bombing missions, and, finally, the US-led invasion in March 2003 and continuing occupation. Co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, a pacifist group begun in her Chicago apartment to help ordinary Iraqis under the US-led UN economic embargo that weakened them and strengthened former leader Saddam Hussein, Kelly deconstructs American elites’ view of that nation and its suffering people. To that end, she sheds ample light on the human rights nightmare in Iraqi hospitals and households, under-reported in America’s corporate-owned press. VitW has sent 70 humanitarian delegations to Iraq to bring its suffering populace medicine and toys. For their efforts, the group earned the wrath of the US Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. For Albright, the deaths of a half-million Iraqi children from the Iraq sanctions is deemed “worth it” in a CBS TV interview. If that is not an expression of barbarism, we need a new definition of the term.

Kelly, with a deft ear and eye, humanizes ordinary Iraqi people-children, fathers and mothers. In her vivid prose, we meet Iraqis who perished and others who survived sanctions that prevented the nation from having normal commercial relations with other countries. Dr. Raad Towalha struggles to heal the sick with a lack of medical resources. Similarly, Umm Zainab, an Iraqi mother of nine, battles daily poverty to provide for her family under aerial bombardment before the March 2003 “Shock and Awe” attack.

Kelly writes from the Al Fanar hotel in Baghdad as that imperial air attack begins after historic antiwar protests by millions of people worldwide. “Often you could feel the floors shudder and hear the windows rattle. When an ear-splitting, gut-wrenching blast would shake the building, you could see the younger kids quickly checking the adults’ faces. If the adults seemed calm, the kids would note it and go on with play, games, meals, and conversation. Frequently, the response of Iraqi friends would be a clicking of the tongue, then ‘Laish, laish?’-Why, why?” US mass media did not file such reports on Iraqi civilians.

In part three, Kelly details daily life for her and other incarcerated women. One penal institution she writes from is the Pekin Federal Prison Camp. Kelly’s “crime?” She nonviolently protested at the US Army School of the Americas in spring 2004, joining with others to demand the end of combat training of soldiers there. Subsequently, these “graduates” of the SOA (re-branded the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) return to their Caribbean and Latin American nations to maim and murder fellow citizens.

Dubbed “Missiles” by her prison mates, Kelly cogently captures the heavy price paid by working-class women in the racist US war on drugs, worsened by mandatory minimum sentencing. Imprisonment deeply wounds women’s relations with family members on the outside, she explains. In these prisoners’ stories, we meet Earline, Ernestina and Terry, who detail such hurt and humiliation. In response, they and Kelly provide and receive mutual support to one another within the confines of the prison walls. Disproportionately nonwhite, the women prisoners are throwaway people in the era of neo-liberal economic reform that has buried the practice and theory of a “rational capitalism” while trumpeting the virtues of possessive individualism.

I winced, however, reading Kelly write that “we” Americans choose empire and its consumptive lifestyle. This is an analytical limitation. Working people of the US do not express their politico-economic power via consumption. Class power flows from the financial and industrial forces that control production and distribution, and the political system to which it is tightly linked.

A foreword by Milan Rai, founder of VitW in the UK, provides a chronology of the Iraq sanctions between 1990 and 2000. His critique of that barbarous decade is an education in itself. Heidi Holliday’s prologue offers a brief history of VitW from December 1995 to October 2003 (a continued history is at www.vitw.org), which blazed the trail for the peace-making efforts of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Currently, VCN is involved with the Occupation Project across America, sitting in at congresspersons’ offices to pressure them to cut new funding for the Iraq war.

Kelly, who has been arrested repeatedly for protesting war, has been a high school and community college teacher in the Chicago area for over three decades. In addition, she is a multiple nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, anti-nuclear weapons protester and war tax resister. Significantly, Kelly’s book can be read by high school and college students. Their political actions for a better world can help to build on what she and like-minded people have been and are doing to make that social reality emerge.

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper www.bpmnews.org/. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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