Kathy Kelly’s Mission of Mercy

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

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

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.

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