'Death Covers Baghdad Today': Returning to Iraq, US Nurse Sees War's Effects, Hears People's Stories
Fincher, Megan, National Catholic Reporter
As the debate continues over the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Syria, people wondering whether history is repeating itself need only look back 11 years to the fall of 2002. Back then, the nation in question was Iraq, Syria's neighbor to the east, and it was Saddam Hussein who reportedly was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, including those of a chemical nature.
The thought of U.S. intervention in Syria is creating a sense of deja vu for many people, including Cathy Breen, an American nurse and longtime New York Catholic Worker who has spent years in the Arab world.
Breen, now 63, returned to Iraq last fall--and again in May--for the first time in nine years. In 2002, she joined Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the U.S.-U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and helped deliver medicine to Iraqi children. She ended up staying for more than five months, during, which time the United States conducted its "shock and awe" bombing campaign. In late 2003, Breen returned to Iraq for a three-month visit. Soon after the U.S. Treasury Department fined Voices in the Wilderness for breaking sanctions, and the group disbanded in 2005.
In its wake, Voices for Creative Non-violence was formed and Breen is now a co-coordinator The new organization works for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. When she is not traveling to Iraq, Breen also visits Jordan and Syria to advocate for Iraqi refugees.
NCR interviewed Breen Sept. 3 to get firsthand knowledge of the current situation in Iraq, and, in a way, illustrate what could happen if the United States intervenes in Syria. Following is an edited transcript of that interview.
NCR: What inspired you to visit Iraq more than 10 years ago?
Breen: It was in 2002 that I was asked if I would consider joining the Iraq Peace Team [a subgroup of Voices in the Wilderness]. So I went in September of 2002 and I was able to stay on up until "shock and awe." ... The war changed my life. I'm a nurse by profession, and we were able to go to the bombing sites and the hospitals during the bombing campaign. At first I didn't do that, the first week, but then I really forced myself to do it and it's something I've never regretted. I recorded and took pictures of orphans, spoke with victims, went to bombing sites. I had friends that had done civil disobedience to try and stop the war, and they were then going to trial when I came back. I was more than once asked to be a witness on the stand, and I was never allowed to speak about the war or present those photos to juries. Imagine that I could have shown pictures of orphans and said, "This is what the protesters were trying to prevent."
Was that your most difficult time in Iraq?
In August of 2003, I went to Iraq again. This was about eight months into the occupation, and that visit actually had a more devastating effect psychologically and emotionally on me because then the violence was coming from everywhere, randomly. At least under "shock and awe" we knew that it was U.S. bombs and when that finished there was a sigh of relief: Oh, that's over. But no, it wasn't over, it was actually much more distressing. The kidnappings, the snipers, helicopters overhead, the tanks in the street, it was quite devastating for me personally.
At some point you didn't go to Iraq for years. Why?
In January of 2004, Voices in the Wilderness made the decision that we could no longer go to central and southern Iraq because we would put Iraqis in danger, just by their mere association with us.
Tell me about your most recent visit to Iraq.
When I went back last October-November, of course it was to reconnect with old friends, to try and get in touch with Iraqis who were in Syria who have fled back to Iraq [because of the situation in Syria]. And then to make, of course, new acquaintances, and also to just get a sense of what people are experiencing and what their reality is. …