Racing out of Baghdad on the East-West Highway

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Cover Courtesy Orbis Books
In 2003, 3 U.S. Christian peacemakers weathered the first horrifying days of Shock and Awe in Baghdad only to be nearly killed in a car accident as they were leaving the country. They were rescued by Iraqi Muslims who took them to a clinic in the already bombed-out town of Rutba, where they received protection and care. “The Gospel of Rutba” is their story and how they returned to Rutba 7 years later to help rebuild the town and form bonds of friendship, reconciliation, and peace.

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

2003

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.

In the concrete rubble of a bombed overpass on Highway 1 shafts of rebar pointed skyward. Accusingly, as if to say, There, right there. Fighter jets streaked the sky, their wispy contrails dissolving into the day’s dark residue.

Inside the taxi everything was silent–just the breathless whine of rubber on asphalt. The Iraqi driver, squat, middle-aged, and twitchy, his hands fixed at ten and two, pushed the accelerator. He was several hours west of Baghdad and moving steady at sixty-five, seventy miles per hour when a bomb or missile or grenade exploded in the desert, maybe one mile north of the highway.

Frightened, the driver punched the accelerator. Seventy-five, eighty miles per hour. Two hundred and sixty miles removed from Baghdad, he and his fare felt no safer than when they were in the capital’s crosshairs. Littered with pieces of metal and shrapnel, Highway 1, the broad East-West trophy of Saddam Hussein’s prosperous 1970s, was an autobahn loaded and explosive. For ten consecutive days Iraq had been showered with guided and unguided bombs. “Ordnance,” the ground troops called them, radioing the heavens for support. That ordnance had fallen like hail, some 8,477 bombs and missiles dropped in just the first nine days of Shock and Awe.

Any driver making a mad run for the border might not avoid all the leftovers–shell casings or dud ordnance from unexploded cluster bombs, some as small as D-sized batteries. Allah knows he tried. He touched the brakes, swerved, accelerated; braked again, swerved, accelerated. Slow up, weave left, weave right, speed up. It was a slalom course. Eyes dead ahead, he was speechless. They were less than ninety minutes from Iraq’s border with Jordan.

Ninety-five miles to safety, ninety miles, eighty miles, seventy-five, and then . . .

Boom!

The left back tire exploded.

The driver could speak a little bit of English. He shouted it.

“Bomb! Bomb! We’re hit! Bomb!”

His car jerked up and forward. Maybe it struck something unexploded and no larger than a D-sized battery. No one knows.

He jammed the brakes, jerked the steering wheel left, right, left. Too far. The car skidded right, fishtailed, careened, flipped. Once, twice; no one is sure. It slammed to a stop on its right side. The radiator hissed. The driver moaned.

No guardrails protect traffic speeding to Jordan along the farthest reaches of Iraq’s modern East-West Highway. Five or six hours outside of Baghdad, looking right and racing west, there are only desert hills and an irrigation ditch. A parched, deep trench. Nine feet down is a bed of cobblestone, a few tufts of dead grass, some trash. This is where the car as small as a Kia and the color of a banana came to rest. Violently. On the passenger side.

The driver was battered, bruised, hobbled, but otherwise okay. Same for the South Korean peacemaker Bae Sang-hyun, who at age twenty-eight was so full of optimism he thought he could stop a war. The American pacifists were also peacemakers: Reverend Weldon Nisly of Seattle Mennonite Church rode in the front passenger seat; Christian activist-author Shane Claiborne of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was in the left rear seat behind the driver; and rural Indiana farmer and Christian Peacemaker Teams veteran, Cliff Kindy, had wedged himself between Sang-hyun and Shane.

Weldon and Cliff were critically injured; one badly broken, the other cracked open. Shane, younger, taller, wiry and circus flexible, muscled a driver’s side door open and wiggled free. His left shoulder was separated, his right leg was cut; but something more critical grabbed his attention: Three unarmed Americans were now stranded in an Islamic republic that was being attacked by their home team. It were as if three defenseless citizens of Japan had crashed on Oahu’s Pali Highway on December 16, 1941–assuming Hawaii had been a state in 1941, and the Japanese were in the ninth consecutive day of a bombing campaign that targeted sites civilian and military, and the Imperial Japanese Army had advanced guns blazing leeward to windward.

Shane figured that if any Iraqis were to peer into that highway ditch they’d stare wide-eyed at their very definition of terrorist: Anglo-American men carrying dark blue passports marked with a bald-eagle hologram. For the first minute or so, the bruised and hobbled, the badly broken, and the cracked open were invisible to the world in that blind spot of Saddam’s trophy highway. Then Shane heard a familiar noise. The breathless whine of rubber on road.

The first vehicle to approach was on the opposite side of the highway, a pickup truck speeding east toward Baghdad, deeper into the gales of Shock and Awe.

It slowed, stopped, reversed. The driver parked on the highway shoulder. Three Arab men climbed out, craned their necks for a better view. They began jogging toward the ditch.

Turns out the Pentagon was correct. In Iraq there was no place to hide.

Excerpted from The Gospel of Rutbaby Greg Barrett. Copyright © 2012 by Greg Barrett.  Excerpted by permission of Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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