Racing out of Baghdad on the East-West Highway

On a bright blue Saturday in 2003, 4 peacemakers and their driver have nowhere to hide as they race out of Baghdad on the East-West Highway.

| January 2013

The Gospel of Rutba (Orbis Books, 2012) is the story of how a rural desert town in western Iraq rescued 3 American peacemakers during the Shock and Awe bombings of 2003. The story continues when those same Americans return 7 years later to the Iraqi desert town, Rutba, to help the town heal from its war wounds. This excerpt from chapter 1, “No Place to Hide,” starts their tale on the hot East-West Highway, racing out of Baghdad. 

Kill one man, terrorize a thousand. —sign at the Marine sniper school, Camp Pendleton, California


They raced out of Baghdad heading west to Amman, an Iraqi driver, a Korean peace activist and three American pacifists—friends and strangers thrown together at the last minute like a game of pickup basketball. Squeezing into a car the size of a Kia, the color of a banana, they sped off. The five-hundred-mile trip negotiated through checkpoints, customs, and Iraqi bribery was always a test of endurance. Twelve hours one-way on the most peaceful and promising of days. And this day, the last Saturday in March 2003—a clear morning with blue skies streaked with war’s black smoke—didn’t offer much in the way of promise. Just the one, and it was being delivered even as the taxi accelerated down Abu Nuwas Street, past the Ottoman-styled houses and open-air markets, across the River Tigris on the Jumariyah Bridge, under a giant portrait of Saddam Hussein, left at Haifa Street, and then onto an eerily empty Abu Ghraib Expressway and Highway 1.

Shock and Awe. No place to hide. That was the Pentagon promise.

Before the plumes of smoke rising over Baghdad receded into the rearview mirror, it was obvious that this was one of those rare political promises. Washington had kept it. Vans, sedans, pickups, taxis, tanks, buses, even an ambulance, lay dead on the roads, in the desert, and alongside the highway. Smoldering husks of fiberglass and steel, charred chassis, shattered windshields, blackened poles, and countless bits, pieces, shards and shrapnel of God-knows-what. An otherwise beautiful Saturday was trashed.