Barrister, mother, clown, activist, blogger, documentary film star, human rights observer, ambulance attendant – 32-year old Jo Wilding has quite a CV. She also has glowing references. Hans von Sponeck, former UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, praises her "enormous courage" and "deep sense of justice", while John Pilger called her dispatches from Fallujah "the best and bravest eyewitness journalism".
Over lunch in a Farringdon café, Wilding talks about witnessing first-hand what the Guardian called "our Guernica".
Radicalised at university she was soon protesting the US-UK driven UN sanctions levied on Iraq between 1991 and 2003, which according to a 1999 UNICEF report had led to the death of over 500,000 Iraqi children.
In 2001 Wilding made her first visit to Iraq – breaking the sanctions by taking items such as medical CD-ROMs in without an export licence. "I think Saddam probably made the most of it in terms of propaganda.", she comments about the blockade. Her minders made sure she was shown the hospital wards with dying children in "but at the same time they were objectively there." About the sanctions regime Wilding summarises: "I always think of it as someone experiencing domestic violence. You don‘t lock them in the house with the person who is being violent towards them."
As the war loomed in early 2003 Wilding decided to return to Iraq as part of a travelling circus. She began writing a blog, which she has since edited into her book Don‘t Shoot the Clowns. "It’s a space for ordinary Iraqi people to tell their stories and experiences", she writes in the introduction. Although Wilding emphasises she can‘t speak for everyone, she believes the general consensus among the Iraqis she met before the invasion was "we want to get rid of Saddam but we don‘t want the Americans to invade us for that to happen."
In early April 2004 Wilding heard about the US military‘s aerial and ground assault on Fallujah and the dire humanitarian situation that was developing there. Adhering to her activist motto "If not me, then who?" Wilding – along with her friend and documentary filmmaker Julia Guest - travelled to the city to help distribute medical supplies to the local population.
"The mainstream media just weren‘t there", says Wilding. "To an extent you can understand they don‘t want to risk people‘s lives, but the cost of that is people not having the truth of what is going on there."
In spite of this news blackout, we know – partly through Wilding‘s own reporting – that US forces committed massive human rights abuses in Fallujah in April 2004 (and later during the second assault on the city in November). According to the academic Jonathan Holmes, whose play Fallujah has just ended, the US armed forces contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions – including cutting off the city‘s water and power supply, targeting hospitals, refusing entry to aid agencies and sending unarmed military aged men back in to the war zone.
Wilding notes it wasn‘t just men who were barred from leaving the city. "We were having people coming in to the clinic who had been shot trying to leave and it was women and children." She believes the US military treated Fallujah – a city the size of Edinburgh – as a free-fire zone, with American soldiers even shooting at the ambulance she was travelling in to pick up the dead and injured. In another incident Wilding saw an old man who had been shot dead outside his house. "He wasn‘t armed. And the people in the house wouldn‘t come out until we were there and then the sons came out saying ‘he was unarmed and had just gone out to get the car‘."
Shockingly she mentions two separate reports she heard of US soldiers slitting the throats of injured Iraqis. "They would have known they were going to get away with it because no one was going to a) see them b) stop them or c) punish them for it afterwards."
What angers Wilding the most is that the atrocities that happened in Fallujah have occurred all over Iraq – in Ramadi, Hit, Tal Afar etc. "And it is still happening. Massive numbers of casualties. There has to be. If you are dropping bombs on a city from above you are going to kill people."
Having experienced first hand how the US war machine reigns death and destruction down upon the powerless, Wilding is not afraid to highlight the big picture: "The war is just the inevitable consequence of the market capitalism we live in." Currently juggling bringing up a toddler with practicing as a Barrister, Wilding is in the initial stages of setting up a housing co-op. "We are spending our entire income on rent because of the way the housing market operates. Everybody needs a roof over their heads and the way out of that particular crisis is housing co-ops, undermining the housing market by collective action."
Returning to Iraq, I ask Wilding if she is hopeful of a change in policy when the Prime Minister steps down? "I don‘t think it makes any difference. It won‘t make any difference if the Tories come back in." Not taking her eye off the real issue she adds, "it doesn‘t make any difference to the Iraqi people under the bombs whether it is done by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown."
Don‘t Shoot the Clowns is published by New Internationalist, priced £8.99. Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England. [email protected].