Five long years for the people of Iraq

March 28, 2008

IT'S BEEN a very long five years for the people of Iraq. If we include the years of sanctions and war, it's been an even longer 17 years. As a human rights activist, my will to participate in civics, politics and "democracy" has been tested since this war began.

Five years ago, I marched in Chicago against the second war that the United States had just begun in the Middle East against Iraq. Accompanied by my husband and a college friend, we left Harold Washington College, where I was taking classes, and joined the thousands of protesters in Daley Plaza.

At my first attempt to chant, I froze, my eyes welled up, and I started to cry. I didn't want to have to be there. I was heartbroken for the devastation that was being brought upon the Iraqi people once again. I wanted to show the world that this war was not being fought in my name: nobody asked me, I didn't agree with this decision to go to war, I knew it had nothing to do with the World Trade Center attacks, and I wanted to try to stop it--but how?

I didn't understand why the United States was attacking Iraq, and now I realize many others didn't know either. Because Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein both had animosity toward the United States, that didn't make them allies. If I knew this, why didn't my elected officials know this, too? Why weren't more of our congressional representatives opposing the war or protesting with us?

I found myself talking about this all the time, during dinner, work, school, even during movies. I was getting on peoples' nerves, and I know this because I started to hear "Don't talk politics at the table" and other comments. I needed to talk about this because I needed someone to confirm what I already knew in my heart and didn't want to believe: Our leaders lied to us.

We are at war because the United States doesn't care about Black people, poor people, women and children, or the planet. We are at war so that we can continue perpetuating the lie that the United States needs oil, when the reality is our planet is suffering from the excess use and abuse of oil, and we desperately need to look for alternatives to save Mother Earth.

The war keeps on no matter what I say, or what the millions of people that protest the Iraq war year after year around the globe say.

IN OCTOBER 2005, I got the worst news of my life: My brother had enlisted in the Army.

He was frustrated with his career options, the cost of higher education and being working class, and living check-to-check. Robert, my brother, has always been very meticulous and hard working, and this made him the perfect recruit, especially once he brought his weight down.

After finishing boot camp and spending time in Germany, he ultimately arrived to fight the war in Iraq. He spent 15 long and strenuous months there. He endured some of the most difficult moments in his life in Iraq: several near-death experiences; empathizing with the anguish that his friends with wives and children were experiencing being away; the home sickness; and, of course, like the rest of America, the betrayal of his country.

He was very angry with his superiors and how they treated the soldiers like they were stupid, as well as with the misinformation, lack of protective gear and the ineffective chain of command that put them in constant danger--and the list can go on.

While my brother was away, two major events happened here on U.S. soil. The levies broke in New Orleans, and many people (most of them poor and Black) lost their lives, homes and everything else to Hurricane Katrina.

We also saw a rise in racist and xenophobic crimes on the border of Mexico and the United States. The Minutemen and state-sanctioned murders started assisting boarder patrol agents in securing the border and protecting Americans from "terrorists." Except, it wasn't terrorists that were crossing the border illegally into the Untied States. It was actually economic terrorism on the part of the U.S., exploiting land and workers and forcing thousands to leave their families and lives in order to survive.

It may have been written by George Bush Sr., but it was Bill Clinton who signed onto the North American Free Trade Agreement under the guise that it would be good for the American people. It wasn't good for the Mexican or the American people--it was only good for the rich owners of companies whose trading has been made more profitable throughout North America.

The occupation of Iraq is costing so many lives of Iraqi men, women and children; American soldiers' lives; pollution; death and destruction. I will try to convince the world one person at a time that another world is possible. If we had all the money that is spent on Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, we could help all of the New Orleans residents that would like to relocate or rebuild. We could have better schools, free higher learning, free universal health care.

In my 13 years as a human rights activist, the moment that has impacted me the most was five years ago while protesting the Iraq war. The demonstration had diverted toward Lake Shore Drive, and we occupied it for hours. As I was turning the corner toward Randolph Street, I saw an Army reservist in his uniform standing on the doorway of his Jeep, high enough so everyone passing could see him.

As the crowd walked past him, he stood in salute. Tears rolled down his cheeks and onto Lake Shore Drive. He saluted us for taking a stand; he saluted us for choosing to leave our privileged lives free of war to send a message to the world; he saluted us because he supported us.

When I'm overwhelmed and need to be strong, I keep my head up, and I remember that, because I have the privilege of not having bombs being dropped on or around me; because I'm not in the Gaza Strip, Kenya, Darfur or New Orleans, I must use my voice and incite change everyday.
Olga Bautista, Southeast Chicago Community for Immigrant Rights, Chicago

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