Kathy Kelly has been to Iraq 21 times since 1991, and contrary to the optimistic future painted by Bush administration spin doctors, the co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness (VITW) says life in the beseiged country shows little signs of improvement.
Imagine, she says, living in an American city that had endured a massive bombing campaign followed by 13 years of debilitating economic sanctions and a second, five-week bombing campaign. Then imagine disbanding the army, National Guard, and police -- any kind of civil authority - and emptying all the jails. Combine this with easy and cheap access to explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and guns. Finally, cut off the electricity and deliver water that is often contaminated. 'Can you imagine that [your city] might not feel like the most safe place in which to live?'
For these and other indignities, the United States government should issue 'a profound and remorseful apology for the suffering caused' in Iraq, she says.
Kelly recently returned from a 17-day visit to Baghdad, and says things have not quieted down much since the invasion. 'There were gunshots, exchanges of rifle fire, and explosions going on periodically through the nights,' she says. Plus, there were other security issues. She and the five other members of the group, had most everything they brought with them stolen: money, two computers, a digital camera, a video camera, a palm pilot. 'Finally, we said, at least there's nothing left to steal.'
Kelly, however, is not one to worry much about material possessions. The 50-year-old Chicago native does not have a bank account, a car, or a driver's license. So when she's touring the 'church basement and university circuit' -- as a self-described 'itinerant migrant educator' -- local activists put her up for the night and help her get around. 'After I give a talk we'll pass the hat, and I'll go home with enough money to keep bankrolling the campaign for a while,' she says.
Between October, 2002 and April, 2003, Kelly and the Iraq Peace Team maintained a presence of pacifist resistance in Baghdad throughout U.S. bombing, invasion, and occupation. As you might expect, she is not impressed with the way the United States is handling the occupation. 'Going in without a plan unleashed a chaotic and humiliating destruction within Iraq that has cost lives and the potential for what might have been a mutually beneficial cooperation between the Iraqi people and American people,' she says. The better alternative, she argues, would have been to lift the economic sanctions and help build schools, social services, and communication capacity so the Iraqis themselves could have had the strength to overthrow Saddam, a scenario that played out in Iran and Romania.
Having been active on issues of U.S. involvement in Central America during the 1980s, Kelly was already heavily involved in nonviolent political action by the time she took her first trip to Iraq. Still, that visit changed her life. 'After I got into an Iraqi hospital, I realized I could never ever walk away from others in those beds.'
So in 1996, while sitting around the dining room table of the Chicago apartment she still shares with her father, a group of friends, activists, and teachers wrote the charter for Voices in the Wilderness. Soon after, as a form of civil disobedience, VITW members began taking small amounts of medical supplies to Iraqi children and families in need, risking -- as she put it -- jobs, schedules, career tracks, and lives on behalf of nonviolence and peacemaking.
That modest apartment still serves as VITW headquarters, but the organization - and Kelly - have expanded their work beyond Iraq to include peace actions in this country as well. That work has landed Kelly in jail more than once, but she says that's sometimes the best place to spread her message of hope, wisdom, and kindness. 'It's important to try to understand what is happening to the poorest people in our own communities,' she says. 'And the best place to foster that kind of understanding is inside of a prison.'
That may be where Kelly is headed once again. She has an upcoming court date for trespassing at a missile silo site in Wisconsin. 'I am going to ask the judge to let me do community service in Baghdad, but I don't think he is going to let me,' she says. 'Especially if he has any idea that it is still against the law to go there.'
For her strength and perseverance in fighting violence, Kelly has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. But when asked what she would do if she ever won the prize, she says, 'Snowballs would fly in hell before they would award the Nobel to an ex-con who never pays her taxes.' But if such a thing were to happen, Kelly says she would work to draw attention to the community heroes everywhere. 'If I was high profile, upon arrival to a city, I would make sure to go to the poorest neighborhoods and pay attention to whoever is running the house of hospitality and the soup kitchen there.'
Note: Minor clarification changes were made to this article since it was first published.