All posts by Kathy Kelly

Our Disaster

An entire generation of Yemeni children has suffered the traumas of war, many of them orphaned, maimed, malnourished, or displaced. The United Nations reports a death toll of 100,000 people in that nation’s ongoing war, with an additional 131,000 people dying from hunger, disease, and a lack of medical care. A report from Save the Children, issued in November 2018, estimated at least 85,000 children had died from extreme hunger since the war began in 2015.

Since then, 3.65 million people have been internally displaced and the worst cholera outbreak ever recorded has infected 2.26 million and cost nearly 4,000 lives. Attacks on hospitals and clinics have led to the closure of more than half of Yemen’s prewar facilities.

“Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian disaster,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs wrote on April 23. “Nearly 80 percent of the population requires some form of humanitarian assistance and protection. Ten million people are a step away from famine, and seven million people are malnourished.”

The war has had a horrific impact on all Yemeni civilians, but it has compounded vulnerability to violence for women and girls. A recent AP report described a network of secret detention centers where security forces have severely abused women they’ve targeted as dissenters. In the Sanaa governorate alone, an estimated 200 to 350 women and girls are being held, according to multiple human rights groups. A U.N. panel of experts accused Sultan Zabin, the head of the Sanaa criminal investigative division, of running an undisclosed detention site where women have been raped and tortured.

World health experts regard Yemen as a potential hot spot for the coronavirus and have worked frantically to prepare for its arrival.

“Five years of fighting have degraded the health infrastructure, exhausted people’s immune systems, and increased acute vulnerabilities,” the United Nations said in mid-April. As a result, warned Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s top aid official, “COVID-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely, and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries.”

When Lowcock made this statement, Yemen had recorded just one confirmed case of COVID-19 and no deaths. As of May 31, Yemen had 337 confirmed cases and 89 deaths. On May 30, The Lancet quoted Altaf Musani, the World Health Organization’s representative in Yemen:

Based on recently applied models for the context in Yemen, we are estimating in a worst-case scenario with no mitigation measures 28 million people infected, at least 65,000 deaths, and around 494,000 hospitalisations. It is a deeply alarming situation, highly catastrophic if people do not make serious behavioural changes [and] if we do not make some course corrections.

The policies of the United States are deeply implicated in Yemen’s suffering, through the sale of billions of dollars in munitions to Saudi Arabia and other countries that have intervened in the civil war.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged the United Nations to reduce the aid it delivers to areas controlled by the Houthis.  A New York Times report quoted an unnamed diplomat as saying that Pompeo, at a 2019 conference in Warsaw, said the coalition forces should kick the stuffing out of the Houthis, although Pompeo, according to the unnamed diplomat, “used an earthier noun than stuffing.”

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia led a military coalition of nine Arab states to intervene in a conflict raging in Yemen. The coalition said it was acting to restore Yemen’s ousted president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, to power.

But professor Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni who teaches at Michigan State University, contends the coalition’s real motive was to gain control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a maritime “chokepoint” through which millions of barrels of crude oil flow each day.

The Saudi warmakers anticipated a brief war, dubbing it “Operation Decisive Storm,” and expecting to quickly overwhelm the rebellious fighters, called the Houthis. They believed the rebels would be no match for the combined military strength of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the seven other Arab countries in the coalition, who were collectively backed by the United States and the United Kingdom.

But the war dragged on for months, turning into a stalemate, with disastrous consequences for Yemeni civilians. The Saudis asked the United States for massive increases in the supply of weapons. By the end of 2015, Human Rights Watch documented the U.S. had sold Saudi Arabia 600 Patriot Missiles, a million rounds of ammunition, $7.8 billion in various weaponry, four Lockheed Littoral Combat Ships, and 10,000 advanced air-to-surface missiles, including laser-guided bombs and “bunker busting” bombs.

The Obama Administration, notes Al-Adeimi, sold Saudi Arabia $115 billion of weapons and provided additional support in the form of targeting assistance, training, and maintenance of aircraft and vehicles. The Trump Administration has continued to support Saudi Arabia, including its 2017 pledge to sell $350 billion in weapons to the repressive regime over a ten-year period. President Donald Trump cited this lucrative package in declining to take action against Saudi Arabia for murdering Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The United States has also provided cover for Saudi Arabia in the U.N. Security Council, which passed a resolution in April 2015 that demanded an end to Yemeni violence but made no mention of the Saudi-led intervention.

Al-Adeimi understands the difficult position the United Nations is in, since it depends heavily on donations from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. But she is dismayed by what she calls its “all-siding” the war — addressing the conflict as though it were between evenly matched opponents.

“One hundred thousand Yemenis have been killed,” Al-Adeimi says. “The Yemenis don’t have even one plane, much less fighter jets and warships!”

On March 27, the Trump Administration suspended aid to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, where 70 percent of Yemen’s population live. It accuses the Houthis of obstructing aid deliveries. Meanwhile, the Saudis are enforcing a blockade on all of Yemen’s land, sea, and airports, forcing its population into dependence on relief organizations.

Aisha Jumaan, a Yemeni who works as an epidemiologist in Washington State, says the effect of these aid cuts was immediate. She worries that Yemen may be manipulated by donors who can threaten to withhold desperately needed food, medicine, water, and fuel.

Jumaan and her organization, the Yemen Relief & Reconstruction Foundation, along with Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the Yemeni Alliance Committee, are urging the United States to reconsider its aid suspension, to give Yemen all possible resources to prevent and respond to COVID-19.

In May 2017, the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Yemen had clearly gone on longer than predicted. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared on national television and asked the Saudis to be patient. He said having a dialogue with the rebels was not possible, so the coalition was waiting them out, adding “Time is in our favor.”

Three years later, the war is still dragging on, and the flow of weapons from the United States continues unabated. Even now, in a shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin, Lockheed Martin has a multibillion-dollar contract to build four Littoral Combat Ships, which will be delivered to Saudi Arabia.

In 2019, the investigative website Bellingcat reported that eleven individual U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have each exported more than $100 million worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Altogether, the United States provided up to $6.8 billion in weapons including bombs, rocket launchers, and machine guns through March 2019.

Some of these weapons may be linked to war crimes. Identifying marks on U.S. bombs used in the 2018 Dahyan bus bombing, which killed forty children and eleven adults, linked back to a Lockheed Martin plant in Pennsylvania.

On a monthly basis, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned shipping company, Bahri, sends cargo ships to Wilmington, North Carolina, the Port of Baltimore and other U.S. ports, to collect bombs, grenades, cartridges, and defense-related aircraft. The United States also supplies weapons to Bahrain and other countries actively participating in the Saudi-led war against Yemen.

On April 8, the Saudi-led coalition declared a unilateral two-week ceasefire, expressing concern about the spread of COVID-19. But within days, the Houthis were battling groups loyal to the coalition, which retaliated with dozens of air strikes. The Houthis had already issued their own proposal for ending the war and insisted that no durable peace could be achieved without the withdrawal of foreign troops and a termination of the blockade.

When the two-week ceasefire expired, a spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition announced a month-long extension. Yet there were numerous reports of continued coalition air strikes. The Saudis may want to extricate themselves from the war, but so far they haven’t stopped the bludgeoning air strikes or lifted the blockade.

• A version of this article first appeared in The Progressive Magazine

Sanaa, Yemen. 30 April 2020. A health worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant on the hands of people at a market in the old city of Sanaa, amid concerns of the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).  Photo Credit: Hani Al-Ansi/dpa/Alamy Live News.

Beating Swords to Plowshares

Baghdad, March 20, 2003

Inscribed on a wall across from the United Nations in New York City are ancient words of incalculable yearning:

They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

— Isaiah 2:4

I’ve stood with activists in front of that same wall singing Down by the Riverside, a song promising we’ll lay down our swords and shields — “and study war no more, no more.”

In memorably eloquent words spoken after the onset of COVID-19, the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, had this message for the world:

The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown….. Put aside mistrust and animosity. Silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes. End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world. That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.

Some of my closest friends now await sentencing  for having embraced the call, quite literally, to “beat swords into plowshares.” They entered a U.S. naval base which is the home port to “one of the largest known collections of nuclear weaponry in the world.” The Kings Bay Nuclear Naval Station in St. Mary’s, GA operates a fleet of Trident nuclear submarines. On April 4, 2018, Mark Colville, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, Elizabeth McAlister, Patrick O’Neill, Carmen Trotta and Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J. prayed, poured blood, spray painted messages against nuclear weapons, hammered on a replica of a nuclear weapon, hung banners and waited to be arrested.

Steve Kelly, a Jesuit priest, has been locked up in the Glynn County Detention Center ever since the night the seven entered Kings Bay Naval Station. Now beginning his third year in jail, he writes that his cramped, dingy quarters are “a 21st Century monastery.” He prays, reads, listens, learns and writes. The Glynn County jail will only allow correspondence that uses 3 x 6 pre-stamped post cards. Steve has mastered the art of condensing his thoughts into short messages.  “Nuclear weapons will not go away by themselves,” he says.

Steve’s co-defendants have served varying lengths of time in the Glynn County jail and several had to wear ankle monitors, something like wearing leg irons, during home confinement. The six now await sentencing. Liz McAllister’s telephonic hearing will be held on June 8th. The others expect to appear in the Glynn County Courthouse on June 29 and 30. They face years in prison.

In October of 2019, a jury found the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 guilty of destruction and depredation of government property, trespassing, and conspiracy. Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled that the jury wouldn’t be allowed to hear expert witnesses or learn what motivated each of the seven to nonviolently resist nuclear weapons. She ruled out faith-based testimony.

In 2003, the Sisters of St. Brigid of Kildare, Ireland asked me to speak at a retreat for people whose faith-based convictions motivated them to nonviolently resist the impending U.S. war against Iraq. During the retreat I listened to concerns of five people who felt they were ready to risk their lives and futures, and might want to join our Iraq Peace Team in Baghdad. But when I returned to Baghdad, I learned they had instead committed a Plowshares action at Shannon airport.

Parked on the tarmac there was a U.S. Navy warplane. Ireland is a neutral country, and the activists believed they were justified in trying to prevent Ireland’s airport from being used to stage a belligerent war  in Iraq against civilians already beleaguered by earlier U.S. attacks and 13 years of economic sanctions. Entering the Shannon airport, they easily reached a U.S. Navy warplane, and they hammered on it. Harry Browne writes about the action in a book called Hammered by the Irish.

Fortunately, they were represented by extremely talented lawyers. One of them, Mr. Nix, (since deceased) has been referred to as the last of the great Irish orators. The judge wouldn’t allow expert witnesses, and, in fact, the only defense witness she would allow to speak was me since the five said they resolved to take action after hearing me speak at their retreat. She also declared there would be no faith-based testimony in her courtroom. Although she insisted war was not going to be put on trial, she had to comply with Irish law which allows lawyers to say anything they want in the final summation. Near the end of the trial, Mr. Nix rose to speak. He assured the judge and jury that the greatest pacifist of all time was Jesus of Nazareth and the greatest pacifist document ever written was the Sermon on the Mount, “and,” he said, “I’m about to read it to you right now!”

Finishing the beatitudes, he pointed to the defendants and described them as people who didn’t practice their faith as though they were at the delicatessen, choosing a bit of this or rejecting that. “They believe in their faith!” he said.

Then his tone changed as he reminisced about how happy he’d felt, recently, listening to children at play in a park near his home. The children chased the geese up a hill and then the geese chased the children downhill. What could be more beautiful than the sound of children at play? Then he began telling about children in Lebanon whose parents had taken them for a dip in the park the previous day. His face suddenly seemed to glower as he roared out that children were dying in a pool of their own blood. He described an Israeli missile blasting into the swimming hole, killing the children. And then it was as though he was putting all of us on trial. “Would you not try, if you could, to stop a Hezbollah missile from slamming into southern Israel? Would you not try, if you could, to stop an Israeli missile from slamming into a swimming hole in Lebanon? The question isn’t: did these five have a lawful excuse to do what they did! The question is: what’s our excuse not to do more?!  What will rise ye?!

The jury acquitted the five on all five counts. The lawyers had been able to skillfully introduce a necessity defense. In U.S. courts, during many dozens of Plowshares trials, the defendants are next to never allowed to invoke the necessity defense, to argue that they needed to act in order to prevent a greater harm. The laws protect those who develop, store, sell and use weapons. Those who call for disarmament and try to sound an alarm regarding the omnicidal consequences of nuclear weapons are tried narrowly on issues of property damage and trespass.

Riots have broken out in cities across the United States as protesters have vented frustrated rage following the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for seven minutes. Some observers have rushed to judge the protesters, highlighting the irrationality of looting and burning buildings in their own neighborhoods, ruining places that might even provide services or jobs. Yet what could be more self-defeating and irrational, during the midst of a pandemic while climate catastrophes threaten planetary survival, than the action of spending more money on nuclear weapons and possibly conducting nuclear bomb tests. Why squander resources on military capacity to burn other people’s homes and cities through use of nuclear and conventional weapons?

The prophet Isaiah’s vision arouses action on the part of people longing to build a better world. Mr. Nix’s questions should be ours today, earnestly asking:

Who are the criminals?

The question isn’t: did the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 have a lawful excuse to do what they did. The question is, what’s our excuse not to do more? What will rise us?

“He’s Got Eight Numbers, Just Like Everybody Else”

On April 4, 2020, my friend Steve Kelly will begin a third year of imprisonment in Georgia’s Glynn County jail. He turned 70 while in prison, and while he has served multiple prison sentences for protesting nuclear weapons, spending two years in a county jail is unusual even for him. Yet he adamantly urges supporters to focus attention on the nuclear weapons arsenals which he and his companions aim to disarm. “The nukes are not going to go away by themselves,” says Steve.

The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 now await sentencing for their action, performed two years ago inside the Kings Bay Trident Submarine base in southern Georgia. They acted in concert with many others who take literally the Scriptural call to “beat swords into plowshares.”  Commenting on their case, Bill Quigley, a member of their legal team, told me “their actions speak louder than  their words and their words are very powerful.” Bill encourages us to remember each of them in our thoughts, prayers, and, hopefully, through our actions. “The legal system is not big enough for the hearts, minds and spirits of these folks,” he adds. “The legal system tries to concentrate all of this down to whether you cut a fence or sprayed some blood.” Bill believes we should instead look at the impending disaster nuclear weapons could cause, and the continuing disaster they do cause by wasting crucially needed resources to potentially destroy the planet.

“You’ve got eight numbers just like everybody else.” Jailers sometimes use this line to subdue or humiliate a prisoner who complains or seems to ask for special treatment. I learned this during a two-month stint in a Missouri county jail, (for planting corn on top of nuclear missile silo sites).

Once inside the prison system, your number is more useful to the Bureau of Prisons than your name, and you grow accustomed to responding when your number is called. The eight numbers help blur personalities and histories.

I think jailers have a hard time finding any instances when Steve Kelly tries to pull rank or claim extra privileges. He’s a well-educated Jesuit priest who has traveled the world. Outside the prison, he’d often be found walking alongside people who migrate from one difficult situation to the next, blending in, trying to help. Inside a jail or prison, he has often preferred solitary confinement to “general population” which requires obedience to all rules. The cramped confines of the Glynn County Jail don’t have a more punitive space in which to put him. Amid the jail’s crowded, noisy, unhealthy conditions, he uses his time remarkably well. I surmise this from reading his weekly post cards which are always humorous, thoughtful, and encouraging.

From his vantage point, amid people immiserated by poverty and mass incarceration systems, he yet sees the nuclear threat as the one that most endangers people. When “nuclear states” insist on superiority because they can menace non-nuclear states, a dangerous nationalism arises. Using arsenals to back up a fortress mentality undermines our capacity for international cooperation now massively needed to tackle the major problems we face. “You’ve got eight numbers just like everybody else” could point to a humbling yet helpful reminder that we are confined together on this planet and constrained by the prospect of real crises like the pandemic we’re now weathering.

I can recall walking through wet markets in far-away places and shuddering at the sight of slaughtered, bloody carcasses hanging from hooks in the open air. I imagine Steve would catch me, with a certain glance and nod, and ask what could be more savage and destructive than a lab creating nuclear weapons to incinerate people.

At the end of World War I, soldiers emerged from trenches in the front lines and felt puzzled by the silence. Realizing the terrifying, horrific explosions had ended, that the war was over, they didn’t clap or cheer. Exhausted, they slumped over their packs, awaiting migration back to their homes.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, global silence may be appropriate. A new biological threat will still be conceivable, one that could equal climate change and a nuclear meltdown or nuclear winter. Climate catastrophes could exacerbate our human immunological vulnerability. It’s grim to reckon with the potential for a new, mutated wave of coronavirus or another virus altogether to cause further sorrow and death.

We’ll all need to pick up our packs and go back to work, determined to be far better prepared for life saving actions as we move into an uncertain future. Ideally, nuclear weapon arsenals will be recognized as a crazed burden we must finally shed if we’ve any hope of surviving our past recklessness.

At some point, hopefully, my friend Steve Kelly will hear a voice over a loudspeaker telling him to pack his belongings. He’ll have survived this chapter of punishment. He won’t very likely be released, as there is a warrant for his arrest for a previous protest action, but he’ll carry a small pack beyond the confines of the Glynn County Jail. More importantly, he’ll carry the challenge to continue dedicating his life to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. In these challenging times, those eight numbers distinguish him as a fine and invaluable leader to follow.

Vigil for Peace in Yemen, a New Norm

For the past three years, several dozen New Yorkers have gathered each Saturday at Union Square, at 11:00 a.m. to vigil for peace in Yemen.

Now, however, due to the coronavirus, the vigil for peace is radically altered. Last week, in recognition of the city’s coming shelter in place program, participants were asked to hold individual vigils at their respective homes on the subsequent Saturday mornings. Normally, during the public vigils, one or more participants would provide updates on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the ongoing war, and U.S. complicity. As COVID-19 threatens to engulf war-torn Yemen, it is even more critical to raise awareness of how the war debilitates the country.

If the vigil for peace were to gather in Union Square this Saturday, activists most certainly would draw attention to how Turkish officials  indicted 20 Saudi nationals for the murder of the dissident writer, Jamal Khashoggi. Turkey’s investigation of the murder and dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi indicts 18 people for committing the murder and names two officials for incitement to murder. One of them, General Ahmad Al-Asiri, a close associate of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was deputy chief of intelligence when Mr. Khashoggi was murdered.

Numerous news reports over the past five years establish a pattern of Mr. Al-Asiri responding to inquiries about Saudi-led coalition military attacks against Yemen civilians with misleading statements, outright denials and attempted cover-ups.

For example, On August 30th, 2015, according to Human Rights Watch, a Saudi coalition led airstrike attacked the Al-Sham Water Bottling Factory in the outskirts of Abs, in northern Yemen. The strike destroyed the factory and killed 14 workers, including three boys, and wounded 11 more.

Later on August 30, after the airstrike, Gen. Al-Asiri told Reuters that the plant was not a bottling factory, but rather a place where Houthis made explosive devices. However, all of the individuals Human Rights Watch interviewed concurred:

…that plant was being used to bottle water and was not used for any military purposes… A group of international journalists traveled to the site of the blast two days after it was hit and reported that they could not find evidence of any military targets in the area. They said that they carefully examined the site, and took photos and videos of piles of scorched plastic bottles melted together from the heat of the explosion. They could not find any evidence that the factory was being used for military purposes.

Meanwhile, Yemenis were desperately trying to contend with rising cases of cholera caused by shortages of clean water.

In October, 2015, when eyewitnesses declared a hospital in northern Yemen run by Doctors Without Borders was destroyed by Saudi-led coalition warplanes, Gen. Al-Asiri told Reuters coalition jets had been in action over Saada governorate but had not hit the hospital.

On August 15, 2016,  a Saudi-led bombing campaign again targeted a hospital in northern Yemen supported by Doctors Without Borders. 19 people were killed.

The Abs hospital was bombed two days after Saudi airstrikes attacked a school in northern Yemen, killing ten students and wounding dozens more.

Yet Saudi officials continued to insist they struck military targets only. Commenting on the August 13 school attack, Gen. Al-Asiri said the dead children were evidence the Houthis were recruiting children as guards and fighters.

“We would have hoped,” General Al-Asiri said, that Doctors Without Borders “would take measures to stop the recruitment of children to fight in wars instead of crying over them in the media.”

In one of the deadliest attacks of the war, on October 8, 2016, the Saudi-led military coalition’s fighter jets repeatedly bombed a hall filled with mourners during a funeral for an official in the capital city of Sana. At least 140 people were killed and 550 more were wounded.

General Al-Asiri, still a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, suggested there were other causes for the blast and later reported the coalition had not carried out any strikes near the hall. But outraged U.N. officials, backed up by videos on social media, insisted that airstrikes had massacred the mourners.

The United States has steadily sided with Saudi Arabia, including supplying it with weapons, training its armed forces and covering for it in the U.N. Security Council. But “Defense One,” a U.S. news agency intending to provide news and analysis for national security leaders and stakeholders, recently issued a stinging rebuke to the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. They denounced the “humanitarian abomination ushered by Riyadh’s war in Yemen,” and called his leadership “as destabilizing to the Middle East as its Iranian rival.” Defense One urged Washington to discontinue enabling “Riyadh’s most reckless behavior.”

Turkey’s indictment of 20 Saudi nationals for murder and their insistence that Mr. Al-Asiri bears responsibility may help move the court of public opinion to resist all support for the Kingdom’s ongoing war in Yemen.

Particularly now, with intense focus on U.S. health care, it’s timely to recognize that in the past five years U.S. supported Gulf Coalition airstrikes bombed Yemen’s health care facilities 83 times. As parents here care for children during school closures, they should be reminded that since December 13, 2018, eight Yemeni children have been killed or injured every single day. Most of the children killed were playing outdoors with their friends or were on their way to or from school. According to the Yemen Data Project, more than 18,400 civilians have been killed or injured by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies since the initial  bombing campaign in 2015.

U.S. national security leaders and stakeholders in war, as they shelter in place, have an extraordinary opportunity to set a new norm and link with the vigil for Peace in Yemen, virtually. And, some may even join Yale students on April 9, from sunrise to sunset, in their National Fast for Peace in Yemen. They invite us to pledge support for Doctors Without Borders and other relief groups in Yemen.

Activists practice “physical distancing” at a Saturday morning vigil for Peace in Yemen, Union Square, NYC (Photo Credit: Bill Ofenloch)

Stop Tightening the Thumb Screws: A Humanitarian Message

Protester’s sign decries sanctions, “a silent war” (Photo Credit: Campaign for Peace and Democracy, 2013)

U.S. sanctions against Iran, cruelly strengthened in March of 2018, continue a collective punishment of extremely vulnerable people. Presently, the U.S. “maximum pressure” policy severely undermines Iranian efforts to cope with the ravages of COVID-19, causing hardship and tragedy while contributing to the global spread of the pandemic. On March 12, 2020, Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif urged member states of the UN to end the United States’ unconscionable and lethal economic warfare.

Addressing UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Zarif detailed how U.S. economic sanctions prevent Iranians from importing necessary medicine and medical equipment.

For over two years, while the U.S. bullied other countries to refrain from purchasing Iranian oil, Iranians have coped with crippling economic decline.

The devastated economy and worsening coronavirus outbreak now drive migrants and refugees, who number in the millions, back to Afghanistan at dramatically increased rates.

In the past two weeks alone, more than 50,000 Afghans returned from Iran, increasing the likelihood that cases of coronavirus will surge in Afghanistan. Decades of war, including U.S. invasion and occupation, have decimated Afghanistan’s health care and food distribution systems.

Jawad Zarif asks the UN to prevent the use of hunger and disease as a weapon of war. His letter demonstrates the  wreckage caused by many decades of United States imperialism and suggests revolutionary steps toward dismantling the United States war machine.

During the United States’ 1991 “Desert Storm” war against Iraq, I was part of the Gulf Peace Team, – at first, living at in a “peace camp” set up near the Iraq-Saudi border and later, following our removal by Iraqi troops, in a Baghdad hotel which formerly housed many journalists. Finding an abandoned typewriter, we melted a candle onto its rim, (the U.S. had destroyed Iraq’s electrical stations, and most of the hotel rooms were pitch black). We compensated for an absent typewriter ribbon by placing a sheet of red carbon paper over our stationery. When Iraqi authorities realized we managed to type our document, they asked if we would type their letter to the Secretary General of the UN. (Iraq was so beleaguered even cabinet level officials lacked typewriter ribbons.) The letter to Javier Perez de Cuellar implored the UN to prevent the U.S. from bombing a road between Iraq and Jordan, the only way out for refugees and the only way in for humanitarian relief. Devastated by bombing and already bereft of supplies, Iraq was, in 1991, only one year into a deadly sanctions regime that lasted for thirteen years before the U.S. began its full-scale invasion and occupation in 2003. Now, in 2020, Iraqis still suffering from impoverishment, displacement and war earnestly want the U.S. to practice self-distancing and leave their country.

Are we now living in a watershed time? An unstoppable, deadly virus ignores any borders the U.S. tries to reinforce or redraw. The United States military-industrial complex, with its massive arsenals and cruel capacity for siege, isn’t relevant to “security” needs. Why should the U.S., at this crucial juncture, approach other countries with threat and force and presume a right to preserve global inequities? Such arrogance doesn’t even ensure security for the United States military. If the U.S. further isolates and batters Iran, conditions will worsen in Afghanistan and United States troops stationed there will ultimately be at risk. The simple observation, “We are all part of one another,” becomes acutely evident.

It’s helpful to think of guidance from past leaders who faced wars and pandemics. The Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-19, coupled with the atrocities of World War I,  killed 50 million worldwide, 675,000 in the U.S. Thousands of female nurses were on the “front lines,” delivering health care. Among them were black nurses who not only risked their lives to practice the works of mercy but also fought discrimination and racism in their determination to serve. These brave women arduously paved a way for the first 18 black nurses to serve in the Army Nurse Corps and they provided “a small turning point in the continuing movement for health equity.”

In the spring of 1919, Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton witnessed the effects of sanctions against Germany imposed by Allied forces after World War I. They observed “critical shortages of food, soap and medical supplies” and wrote indignantly about how children were being punished with starvation for “the sins of statesmen.”

Starvation continued even after the blockade was finally lifted that summer with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hamilton and Addams reported how the flu epidemic, exacerbated in its spread by starvation and post-war devastation, in turn disrupted the food supply. The two women argued a policy of sensible food distribution was necessary for both  humanitarian and strategic reasons. “What was to be gained by starving more children?” bewildered German parents asked them.

Jonathan Whitall directs Humanitarian Analysis for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors without Borders. His most recent analysis poses agonizing questions:

How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap? How are you supposed to implement ‘social distancing’ if you live in a slum or a refugee or containment camp? How are you supposed to stay at home if your work pays by the hour and requires you to show up? How are you supposed to stop crossing borders if you are fleeing from war? How are you supposed to get tested for #COVID19 if the health system is privatized and you can’t afford it? How are those with pre-existing health conditions supposed to take extra precautions when they already can’t even access the treatment they need?

I expect many people worldwide, during the spread of COVID – 19,  are thinking hard about the glaring, deadly inequalities in our societies, wonder how best to extend proverbial hands of friendship to people in need while urged to accept isolation and social distancing. One way to help others survive is to insist the United States lift sanctions against Iran and instead support acts of practical care. Jointly confront the coronavirus while constructing a humane future for the world without wasting  time or resources on the continuation of brutal wars.

An Eyewitness to  the Horrors of the US “Forever Wars” speaks out

Kathy Kelly and Maya Evans walk with children at the Chamin-E-Babrak refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 2014. (Abdulhai Darya)

The 2003 “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq had finally stopped. From the balcony of my room in Baghdad’s Al Fanar Hotel, I watched U.S. Marines moving between their jeeps, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees. They had occupied the street immediately in front of the small, family-owned hotel where our Iraq Peace Team had been living for the past six months. Looking upward, a U.S. Marine could see enlarged vinyl photos of beautiful Iraqi children strung across balconies of our fifth-floor rooms. We silently stood on those balconies when the U.S. Marines arrived in Baghdad, holding signs that said “War = Terror” and “Courage for Peace, Not for War.” When she first saw the Marine’s faces, Cynthia Banas commented on how young and tired they seemed. Wearing her “War Is Not the Answer” T-shirt, she headed down the stairs to offer them bottled water.

From my balcony, I saw Cathy Breen, also a member of the Iraq Peace Team, kneeling on a large canvas artwork entrusted to us by friends from South Korea. It depicts people suffering from war. Above the people, like a sinister cloud, is a massive heap of weapons. We unrolled it the day the Marines arrived and began to “occupy” this space. Marines carefully avoided driving vehicles over it. Sometimes they would converse with us. Below, Cathy read from a small booklet of daily Scripture passages. A U.S. Marine approached her, knelt down, and apparently asked to pray with her. He placed his hands in hers.

April Hurley, of our team, is a doctor. She was greatly needed in the emergency room of a nearby hospital during the bombing. Drivers would only take her there if she was accompanied by someone they had known for a long time, and so I generally accompanied her. I’d often sit on a bench outside the emergency room while traumatized civilians rushed in with wounded and maimed survivors of the terrifying U.S. aerial bombings. When possible, Cathy Breen and I would take notes at the bedsides of patients, including children, whose bodies had been ripped apart by U.S. bombs.

The ER scenes were gruesome, bloody and utterly tragic. Yet no less unbearable and incomprehensible were the eerily quiet wards we had visited during trips to Iraq from 1996 to 2003, when Voices in the Wilderness had organized 70 delegations to defy the economic sanctions by bringing medicines and medical relief supplies to hospitals in Iraq. Across the country, Iraqi doctors told us the economic war was far worse than even the 1991 Desert Storm bombing.

In pediatrics wards, we saw infants and toddlers whose bodies were wasted from gastrointestinal diseases, cancers, respiratory infections and starvation. Limp, miserable, sometimes gasping for breath, they lay in the arms of their sorrowful mothers, and seemingly no one could stop the U.S. from punishing them to death. “Why?” mothers murmured. Sanctions forbade Iraq to sell its oil. Without oil revenues, how could they purchase desperately needed goods? Iraq’s infrastructure continued to crumble; hospitals became surreal symbols of cruelty where doctors and nurses, bereft of medicines and supplies, couldn’t heal their patients or ease their agonies.

In 1995, UN officials estimated that economic sanctions had directly contributed to the deaths of at least a half-million Iraqi children, under age 5.

Kathy Kelly with children in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2016 (Provided photo)

The economic war continued for nearly 13 harsh and horrible years.

Shortly after the Marines arrived outside of our hotel, we began hearing ominous reports of potential humanitarian crises developing in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities. A woman who had been in charge of food distribution for her neighborhood, under the “Oil for Food” program, showed us her carefully maintained ledger books and angrily asked how all who had depended on the monthly food basket would now feed their families. Along with food shortages, we heard alarming reports about contaminated water and a possible outbreak of cholera in Basra and Hilla. For weeks, there had been no trash removal. Bombed electrical plants and sanitation facilities had yet to be restored. Iraqis who could help restore the broken infrastructure couldn’t make it through multiple check points to reach their offices; with communication centers bombed, they couldn’t contact colleagues. If the U.S. military hadn’t yet devised a plan for emergency relief, why not temporarily entrust projects to U.N. agencies with long experience of organizing food distribution and health care delivery?

Cathy, who is a nurse, Dr. April Hurley, and Ramzi Kysia, also a member of our group, arranged a meeting with the civil and military operations center, located in the Palestine Hotel, across the street from us. An official there dismissed them as people who didn’t belong there. Before telling them to leave, he did accept a list of our concerns, written on Voices in the Wilderness stationery.

The logo for our stationery reappeared a few hours later, at the entrance to the Palestine Hotel. It was taped to the flap of a cardboard box. Surrounding the logo were seven silver bullets. Written in ball-point pen on the cardboard was a message: “Keep Out.”

In response, Ramzi Kysia wrote a press release headlined: “Heavy-handed & Hopeless, The U.S. Military Doesn’t Know What It’s Doing In Iraq.”

Kathy Kelly holds Shoba at the Chamin-E-Babrak refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, in January 2014, a few days after the child had been saved from a burning tent, during a fire that destroyed much of the camp. (Abdulhai Darya)

In 2008, our group, renamed Voices for Creative Nonviolence, was beginning a walk from Chicago to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. We asked Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid to speak at a “send-off” event. He encouraged and blessed our “Witness Against War” walk  but then surprised us by saying he had never heard us mention the war in Afghanistan, even though people there suffered terribly from aerial bombings, drone attacks, targeted assassinations, night raids and imprisonments. Returning from our walk, we began researching drone warfare, and then created an “Afghan Atrocities List,” on our website, carefully updating it each week with verifiable reports of U.S. attacks against Afghan civilians.

The following year, Joshua Brollier and I headed to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. In Kabul, Afghanistan, we were guests of a deeply respected non-governmental organization Emergency, which has a Surgical Centre for War Victims there.

Filippo, a sturdy young nurse from Italy who was close to completing three terms of service with Emergency, welcomed us. As he filled a huge backpack with medicines and supplies, he described how the hospital personnel managed to reach people in remote villages who have no access to clinics or hospitals. The trip was relatively safe since no one had ever attacked a vehicle marked with the Emergency logo. A driver would take him to one of Emergency’s 41 remote first aid clinics. From there, he would hike further up a mountainside and meet villagers awaiting him and the precious medicines he carried. In a previous visit, after he had completed a term in Afghanistan, he said people had walked four hours in the snow to come and say goodbye to him. “Yes,” he said, “I fell in love.”

How different Filippo’s report was from those compiled in our Afghan Atrocities List. The latter tells about U.S. special operations forces, some of the most highly trained warriors in the world, traveling to remote areas, bursting into homes in the middle of the night, and proceeding to lock the women in one room, handcuff or sometimes hogtie the men, rip apart closets, mattresses and furniture, and then take the men to prisons for interrogation. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch filed chilling reports about torture of Afghan prisoners held by the U.S.

In 2010, two U.S. Veterans for Peace, Ann Wright and Mike Ferner, joined me in Kabul. We visited one of the city’s largest refugee camps. People faced appalling conditions. Over a dozen, including infants, had frozen to death, their families unable to purchase fuel or adequate blankets. When the rain, sleet and snow came, the tents and huts become mired in mud. Earlier, I had met with a young girl there whose arm had been cut off, her uncle told me, by a U.S. drone attack. Her brother, whose spine was injured, huddled under a blanket, inside their tent, visibly shaking.

Opposite the sprawling refugee camp is a huge U.S. military base. Ann and Mike felt outraged over the terrible contrast between the Afghan refugee camp with a soaring population of people displaced by war, and the U.S. base housing military personnel who had ample supplies of food, water, and fuel.

Most of the funds earmarked by the U.S. for reconstruction in Afghanistan have been used to train and equip Afghan Defense and Security forces. My young friends in the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV) were weary of war and didn’t want military training. Each of them had lost friends and family members because of the war.

In December 2015, I again visited Emergency’s Surgical Centre for War Victims in Kabul, joined by several Afghan Peace Volunteers. We donated blood and then visited with hospital personnel. “Are you still treating any victims of the U.S. bombing in Kunduz?” I asked Luca Radaelli, who coordinates Emergency’s Afghan facilities. He explained how their Kabul hospital was already full when 91 survivors of the U.S. attack on the Kunduz hospital operated by Médecins Sans Frontières were transported for five hours over rough roads to the closest place they could be treated, this surgical center. The Oct. 15 attack had killed at least 42 people, 14 of whom were hospital staff.

Kathy Kelly and Voices in the Wilderness delegation with Afghan Peace Volunteer friends in Bamyan, Afghanistan, in 2010 (Hakim Young)

Even though Kunduz hospital staff had immediately notified the U.S. military, the U.N., and the Afghan government that the U.S. was bombing their hospital, the warplane continued bombing the hospital’s ER and intensive care unit, in 15-minute intervals, for an hour and a half.

Luca introduced our small team to Khalid Ahmed, a former pharmacy student at the Kunduz hospital, who was still recovering. Khalid described the terrible night, his attempt to literally run for his life by sprinting toward the front gate, his agony when he was hit by shrapnel in his spine, and his efforts to reassemble his cell phone — guards had cautioned him to remove the batteries so that he wouldn’t be detected by aerial surveillance — so that he could give a last message to his family, as he began to lose consciousness. Fortunately, his call got through. His father’s relatives raced to the hospital’s front gate and found Khalid in a nearby ditch, unconscious but alive.

Telling his story, Khalid asked the Afghan Peace Volunteers about me. Learning I’m from the U.S., his eyes widened. “Why would your people want to do this to us?” he asks. “We were only trying to help people.”

Images of battered and destroyed hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of hospital personnel trying nevertheless to heal people and save lives, help me retain a basic truth about U.S. wars of choice: We don’t have to be this way.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to uproot entrenched systems, like the military-industrial-congressional-media-Washington, D.C., complex, which involves corporate profits and government jobs. Mainstream media seldom help us recognize ourselves as a menacing, warrior nation. Yet we must look in the mirror held up by historical circumstances if we’re ever to accomplish credible change.

The recently released “Afghanistan Papers” criticize U.S. military and elected officials for misleading the U.S. public by covering up disgraceful military failures in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials were quick to dismiss the critiques, assuring an easily distracted U.S. public that the documents won’t impact U.S. military and foreign policy. Two days later, UNICEF reported that more than 600 Afghan children had died in 2019, because of direct attacks in the war. From 2009 through 2018, almost 6,500 children lost their lives in this war.

Addressing the U.S. Senate and Congress during a visit to Washington, D.C., Pope Francis voiced a simple, conscientious question. “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” Answering his own question, he said: “the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”

What are the lessons learned from the rampage, destruction and cruelty of U.S. wars? I believe the most important lessons are summed up in the quote on Cynthia Banas’s T-shirt as she delivered water to Marines in Baghdad, in April, 2003: “War Is Not the Answer”; and in an updated version of the headline Ramzi Kysia wrote that same month: “Heavy-handed & Hopeless, The US. Military Doesn’t Know What It’s Doing” -in Iraq, Afghanistan or any of its “forever wars.”

• Originally published by National Catholic Reporter

Camp Bucca, Abu Ghraib and the Rise of Extremism in Iraq

Yesterday morning, President Trump announced the death of Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi and three of his children.

President Trump said Al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS, was fleeing U.S. military forces, in a tunnel, and then killed himself by detonating a suicide vest he wore.

In 2004, Al-Baghdadi had been captured by U.S. forces and, for ten months, imprisoned in both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca.

I visited Camp Bucca in January, 2004 when, still under construction, the Camp was a network of tents, south of Basra, in an isolated, miserable area of Iraq.

Before our three-person Voices delegation entered Iraq, that month, we waited for  visas in Amman, Jordan. While there, two young Palestinian men visited us and described their experiences during six months of imprisonment in Camp Bucca. Recalling the horrible experience, they remembered how fearful they felt, sleeping in sand infested with desert scorpions; they were paraded naked, for showers, in front of U.S. military women and told to bark like a dog or say “I love George Bush”  before their empty bowls would be filled with food. Unable to communicate with anyone outside the prison, they could only hope for release when their turn finally came to appear before a three-person Tribunal.

Five of their friends were still in the prison. They begged us to visit these friends and plead for their release. All of them were Palestinians studying for professional degrees in Baghdad. Reluctant to lose their chances of eventually graduating, they took a risk and remained in Baghdad throughout the 2003 Shock and Awe bombing. U.S. marines arrived at their dormitory on Baghdad’s Haifa Street and systematically rounded up students with foreign IDs. They were tagged as TCNs, “Third Country Nationals,” and herded off to various prisons.

In Baghdad, our friends in the Christian Peacemaker Teams had already developed a data base of names and prison numbers to help Iraqis discover the whereabouts of missing relatives. They found the prison numbers for two of the young men we were asked to visit and advised us to ask for Major Garrity, a U.S. military officer who was in charge of Camp Bucca.

We traveled to the southernmost town in Iraq, Umm Qasr, and sat on a weathered picnic table outside of Camp Bucca, awaiting Major Garrity’s decision. Prospects were bleak since we learned, upon arrival, that we’d come after visiting hours and the next day to visit was three days later. There was no shade, the sand was coated with black grease, and we constantly spat small black flies out of our mouths. Camp Bucca was one of the most hellish spots I’ve ever encountered. Yet we felt quite grateful when word arrived that Major Garrity had approved our visit.

A military pick-up truck drove us across an expanse of sand, and soon we were witnessing a tearful, tender embrace between one of the prisoners and his brother, a dentist from Baghdad, who had accompanied us. With no prompting, the prisoners, all in their twenties, corroborated the grievances their previously released friends expressed. They spoke of loneliness, monotony, humiliation and the fearful uncertainty prisoners face when held without charge by a hostile power with no evident plans to release them. They were, however, relieved to know we could tell their relatives we had met with them. Later, Major Garrity said the outlook for them being released wasn’t very positive. “Be glad they’re here with us and not in Baghdad,” she said, giving us a knowing look. “We give them food, clothes and shelter here. Be glad that they’re not in Baghdad.” Later, in May of 2004, CNN released pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison. We began to understand what she meant.

The November 3, 2005 issue of the New York Review of Books quoted three officers, two of them non-commissioned, stationed with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mercury in Iraq.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, they described in multiple interviews with Human Rights Watch how their battalion in 2003-2004 routinely used physical and mental torture as a means of intelligence gathering and for stress relief… Detainees in Iraq were consistently referred to as PUCs. The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief, where soldiers would go to the PUC tent on their off-hours to “f**k a PUC” or “smoke a PUC.” “F**king a PUC” referred to beating a detainee, while “smoking a PUC” referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness.

“Smoking” was not limited to stress relief but was central to the interrogation system employed by the 82nd Airborne Division at FOB Mercury. Officers and NCOs from the Military Intelligence unit would direct guards to “smoke” the detainees prior to an interrogation, and would direct that certain detainees were not to receive sleep, water, or food beyond crackers. Directed “smoking” would last for the twelve to twenty-four hours prior to an interrogation. As one soldier put it: “[The military intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to cooperate.

A sergeant told Human Rights Watch: “If he’s a good guy, you know, now he’s a bad guy because of the way we treated him.”

The violence that brought the Islamic State into being has a long history.

In numerous trips to Iraq from 1996 to 2003, our Voices delegation members grew to understand the unbearable weariness and suffering of Iraqi families eking out an uncertain existence under punishing economic sanctions. Between the wars, the death toll in children’s lives alone, from externally imposed economic collapse and from the blockade of food, medicine, water purification supplies and other essentials of survival, was estimated by the U.N. at 5,000 children a month, an estimate accepted without question by U.S. officials.

U.S. assaults, from Desert Storm (1991) to Shock and Awe (2003) — achieved through aerial bombings, children’s forced starvation, use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous, through bullet fire, night raids, blockaded medicines, emptied reservoirs and downed power lines, through abandoned state industries and cities left to dissolve in paroxysms of ethnic cleansing — have all been one continuous war. Along with the abuses of prisoners in places like Camp Bucca, FOB Mercury, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, U.S. warfare predictably led to the buildup of ISIS and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s commitment to “an eye for an eye.”

Asked, in 2016, to talk about his favorite passage in the Bible, President Trump said “eye for an eye.” He didn’t seem to realize that Jesus rejected this teaching.

“But I say unto you,” Jesus said, “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”

Rather than urge retaliation, Jesus spoke of dignified non-resistance through winning over the opponent.

We need not choose blindness, or the hatred that lets us be herded in fear. We can instead seek to pay reparations for suffering caused through our wars. We can work to abolish war, mourn the deaths of Al-Baghdadi’s children and question how conditions inside U.S. military camps in Iraq led to the extremism of Al-Baghdadi and his ISIS followers.

Trident Is the Crime

On October 24, following a three-day trial in Brunswick, GA, seven Catholic Workers who acted to disarm a nuclear submarine base were convicted on three felony counts and one misdemeanor. The defendants face 20 years in prison, yet they emerged from their trial seeming quite ready for next steps in their ongoing witness. Steve Kelly, a Jesuit priest who has already spent ten years in prison for protesting nuclear weapons, returned, in shackles, to the local jail. Because of an outstanding warrant, Steve has been locked up for over eighteen months, since the day of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 action.

On that day, April 4, 2018, the group had entered a U.S. Navy Submarine base which is a home port for the Trident nuclear missile fleet. Just one of those nuclear missiles, if launched, would cause 1,825 times more damage than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Plowshares activists aimed to expose illegal and immoral weapons that threaten all life on earth.

They had spent two years in prayerful preparation for their action. Two of them, Mark Colville and Liz McAlister, spent most of the months before their trial began in the Glynn County jail. Three others, Martha Hennessy, Carmen Trotta and Clare Grady wore “ankle monitors” and were subject to strict curfews for many months while they engaged in outreach and prepared for trial. Because federal law requires 60 – 90 days before sentencing, to allow for background checks, the seven probably won’t be sentenced before late December.

My colleague Brian Terrell, who attended all of the trial, described the chief prosecutor as a bully. In a series of accusations, this prosecutor claimed that Clare Grady and her co-defendants believed themselves to be “a law unto themselves.” Clare calmly pointed out that “the egregious use of weapons is bullying, not the painted peace messages.”

Emerging from the courthouse, the defendants and their lawyers earnestly thanked  the numerous supporters who had filled the courtroom, the overflow court room and the sidewalks outside the court. Bill Quigley, the main lawyer for the defense, thanked the defendants for their efforts to save “all of our lives,” noting the jury was not allowed to hear about weapons with enough power to destroy life on earth as we know it. Liz Mc Alister, who with Phil Berrigan had helped found the Plowshares movement, turned 79 years old while in jail. She thanked supporters but also urged people to be active in opposing nuclear weapons and the abuses of the U.S. prison system.

When I learned of the jury’s verdict, I had just signed a post card to Steve Kelly. The Glynn County jail only allows correspondence crammed into one side of a pre-stamped 3 x 5 post card. In tiny cursive, I told him about events in Kashmir where the Muslim majority has engaged in 80 days of civil resistance to the Indian government’s abrogation of  two articles of the Indian constitution which allowed Kashmiris a measure of autonomy. India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed states, have twice gone to war over control of Kashmir. It’s a deeply disconcerting flashpoint representing the possibility of nuclear armed states triggering an exchange of bombs which could cause a nuclear winter, mass starvation and widespread, long-lasting environmental destruction.

Some years ago, Steve and I had participated in a delegation to visit human rights advocates in Pakistan, and I recall marveling at Steve’s grasp of the nuclear threat manifested in conflict between India and Pakistan. Yet he and his companions have clearly asserted that U.S. possession of nuclear weapons already robs the poorest people on the planet of resources needed for food, shelter and housing.

After learning the verdict I wrote a second card, telling Steve that we who love him long for his release, but know we must also be guided by his choice to remain silent in the court. Steve believes the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal should be tried in the court of public opinion. He says the U.S. legal system protects those who maintain and build the criminal, deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons. Inside the court, people didn’t hear Steve’s strong, clear voice. His friends can’t help but imagine the sound of shackles hitting the floor of the Glynn County jail, followed by heavy doors clanging as Steve and other prisoners are ordered into their cells

In 1897, from England’s Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote a letter, entitled “De Profundis.” He was serving the final four months of a two-year sentence to hard labor. One of his main jailers was certain he would never survive the harsh conditions. Wilde found himself transformed during the prison time, and he developed a profound understanding of human suffering. “Where there is sorrow,” Wilde wrote, “there is holy ground.”

The U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal creates anguish, fear and futility worldwide. Yet “holy ground” exists as activists work toward abolition of nuclear weapons.

Taking Next Steps toward Nuclear Abolition

My friend Marianne Goldscheider, who is 87, suffered a broken hip in July, 2018 and then, in June 2019, it happened again. When she broke her hip the first time, she was running, with her son, on a football field. After the second break, when she fell in her kitchen, she recalls her only desire as she was placed on a stretcher. “I just wanted ‘the right pill,’” she says. She wished she could end her life.

Marianne says her Catholic friends, who live nearby in the New York Catholic Worker community, persuaded her not to give up. They’ve long admired her tenacity, and over the years many have learned from her history as a survivor of the Nazi regime who was forced to flee Germany. Recalling her entry to the United States, Marianne jokes she may have been one of the only displaced persons who arrived in the United States carrying her skis. Yet she also carried deep anxieties, the “angst,” she says, of her generation. She still wonders about German people in the military and the aristocracy who knew Hitler was mad and, yet, didn’t try to stop him. “When and how,” she wonders, “do human beings get beyond all reasoning?”

Marianne is deeply disturbed by the madness of maintaining nuclear weapons arsenals and believes such weapons threaten planetary survival. She worries that, similar to the 1930s, citizens of countries possessing nuclear weapons sleepwalk toward utter disaster.

On April 4, 2018, several of Marianne’s close friends from the New York Catholic Worker community became part of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 by entering the U.S. Navy Nuclear Submarine base in King’s Bay, GA and performing a traditional Plowshares action. Guided by lines from Scripture urging people to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” they prayed, reflected and then symbolically disarmed the Trident nuclear submarine site. The Kings Bay is home port to six nuclear armed Trident ballistic missile submarines with the combined explosive power of over 1825 Hiroshima bombs. One of the banners  they hung read “The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide.”

Referring to this sign, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, said the banner “is exactly right.” In an October 18 endorsement, he called their actions “necessary to avert a much greater evil.”

In late September, the Catholic Bishops of Canada, alarmed over the increasing danger nuclear weapons pose, urged the Government of Canada to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted at the UN in 2017. The Canadian bishops issued their statement on September 26, the United Nations International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. In it, they note the  Vatican has already signed and ratified the Treaty. “The ashes of World War I and the centenary of its armistice,” wrote Pope Francis, “should teach us that future acts of aggression are not deterred by the law of fear, but rather by the power of calm reason that encourages dialogue and mutual understanding as a means of resolving differences.”

The seven defendants, in everyday life, practice nonviolence while serving people who are often the least cared for in our society. Like Marianne, I have known each defendant for close to four decades. They have risked their lives, safety and health in numerous actions of civil disobedience. When imprisoned, they write and speak of the cruel abuse of human beings and the racist, primitive nature of the United States prison-industrial complex. They’ve also chosen to visit or live in war zones, providing witness on behalf of people trapped under bombardment. They live simply, share resources and strive to help build a better world.

Nevertheless, beginning Monday, they will face serious criminal charges and potentially harsh sentences for their action at Kings Bay.

Marianne anxiously awaits their trial. “Why,” she asks, “isn’t there more coverage?”

One of the defendants, Rev. Steve Kelly, SJ, a Jesuit priest, referred to himself in a recent letter as “a tenuous voice in the wilderness.” He further explained that he is among the wilderness of the incarcerated, “two and a quarter million folks comprising the human warehouses in the empire.” Steve has been imprisoned in the Glynn County jail since April 4, 2018.

His letter continues:

And your presence today clearly demonstrates that while you can jail the resisters you cannot destroy the resistance. In this advent of our trial, we have a blue-ribbon legal team to whom I’m sure you’ll show your own gratitude.

This trial and the preliminary process represents the second phase of our witness. It is the Kings Bay Plowshares’ attempt to continue with what began in nonviolence – and hopefully without arrogance – to convert the judiciary according to Prophet Isaiah 2:4. As these judges historically legitimize the nuclear idols, we anticipate the government’s presentation of and the judge’s likely approval of motions preventing the jury from hearing our defense. The mechanism is an in limine – you’ll hear more about that if you don’t know already, but essentially it is, in the words of the late Phil Berrigan, a gag order.

Late in the afternoon of October 18, Judge Woods issued her long-awaited orders regarding testimony allowed in court. She will not allow testimony about the illegality of nuclear weapons, the necessity of civil disobedience, or individual motivations and  personal faith. Fortunately, the many dozens of people filling the Brunswick, GA courtroom on October 21 will help communicate the essential evidence that won’t be shared within the court. In alternative settings, such as over meals, during a Festival of Hope, and as part of a Citizens Tribunal, they’ll discuss and eventually share reasons that motivated our friends to perform the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 action.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times suggests the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 message is entering public discourse. The defendants have clarified that the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal robs resources desperately needed for food, shelter, health care and education. The New York Times notes if we could reach a total nuclear weapons ban, we could save roughly $43 billion each year on weapons, delivery systems and upgrades. “That’s roughly the same amount we’ve allocated in federal hurricane aid for Puerto Rico.”

Marianne laments the madness which considers nuclear weapons a modern idol deserving of great sacrifice. She is rightfully wary of social and cultural developments that consider such madness normal.

She and I commiserate about recovering from hip fractures, (I’ve been on the mend for the past month), but we both know that Steve Kelly’s invitation deserves our greatest attention.

Tiny postcards are the only means of correspondence allowed to or from the Glynn County jail. On one of these,  Steve wrote a message to a large gathering in New York celebrating the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 action. “I am encouraged by your presence,” he wrote, “to ask that this small effort of ours not be the last word in nuclear abolition.”

Death, Misery and Bloodshed in Yemen

Writing about his visit to the world’s largest weapons bazaar, held in London during October, Arron Merat describes reading this slogan emblazoned above Raytheon’s stall: “Strike with Creativity.” Raytheon manufactures Paveway laser-guided bombs, fragments of which have been found in the wreckage of schools, hospitals, and markets across Yemen. How can a weapons manufacturer that causes such death, bloodshed, and misery lay claim to creativity?

“Strike with Creativity” (Cartoon credit: Sean Reynolds)

Greta Thunberg, sitting alone outside her school as she initiated a movement of climate strikes, could properly invoke the words “Strike with Creativity.” She inspired Friday classroom walkouts, worldwide, by young people protesting destruction and death caused by climate catastrophe. Her admirable goal is to save the planet by promoting such strikes.

Coming from Raytheon, the words “Strike with Creativity” sound chilling, grotesque.

Consider the Raytheon weapons now demolishing Yemen. Fragments of Raytheon and other U.S. manufactured weapons dot blast sites where Yemeni survivors struggle to collect body parts and scattered bits of clothing, which are needed to compile lists of the dead.

In September, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) hit a detention center in the Dhamar governorate, in the northern highlands of Yemen with seven airstrikes that killed at least 100 people and “pulverized” the area, according to Bethan McKernan, reporting for The Guardian. “It took five days to remove all the bodies impaled on metalwork ripped from the walls in the blasts,” she wrote.

After the attack, McKernan interviewed Adel, a 22-year-old security guard  employed at the site. His brother, Ahmed, also a guard, was among those killed. Adel pointed to a blanket, visible on the second floor of a building where the guards had slept. “You can see Ahmed’s blue blanket up there,” said Adel. “There were 200 people here but now it’s just ghosts.”

Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Saudi-led coalition bombarding and blockading Yemen have killed tens of thousands, wrecking the country’s already enfeebled infrastructure and bringing Yemen to the brink of a famine that may kill millions. President Trump signaled additional support for Saudi Arabia on October 11 when the U.S. military announced it would send thousands more troops to the kingdom, bringing the number of U.S. troops there to 14,000.

Just as Greta Thunberg insists adults must become intensely aware of details and possible solutions regarding the climate catastrophe, people in the U.S. should learn about ways to end economic as well as military war waged against Yemen. For us to understand why Yemenis would link together in the loose coalition of fighters called Houthis requires deepening awareness of how financial institutions, in attempting to gain control of valuable resources, have pushed farmers and villagers across Yemen into debt and desperation. Isa Blumi writes about this sordid history in his 2018 book, Destroying Yemen, What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World.

Blumi details how Yemen’s society, largely independent and agrarian, became a guinea pig for International Monetary Fund (IMF) “development projects” which, based on strikingly colonialist theories of modernization, crushed grassroots institutions and amounted to “cost-effective ways of prying Yemen’s wealth out of its peoples’ hands.”

Local Development Associations, for example, were formed during the 1970s to help people hang on to their land, cooperatively determine what crops they would grow and decide how they would use the profits. But U.S. Agency for International Development “experts” pressured these groups to instead produce “cash crops strictly meant for export.”

“After all,” Blumi writes, “with the right kind of cash crop and the use of American labor-saving technology, pesticides and fertilizers included, Yemen’s villagers were no longer needed in the fields. Alternatively, they could work in cities in sweatshops producing clothes for a global market or the soon booming oil and gas projects.”

Blumi’s book documents the fiercely stubborn creativity with which, decade by decade, Yemenis kept surprising the West, exploring and pursuing countermeasures to resist its exploitative control, and risking the West’s destructive anger.

Yemenis resisted U.N. and IMF prescriptions of global integration and debt peonage. When farmers desperate for cash went to work in, for instance, Saudi Arabia, “they consistently sent remittances home to families that saved the cash and invested in local projects, using local bank transfers.” Imams and village leaders encouraged people to resist imperialist “modernization” projects, knowing that the West’s preferred “modern” role for them was as wage slaves with no hope of developing a better future.

The “Houthi” movement began when Husayn al-Houthi, an opponent of Yemen’s dictatorial (and Western-allied) Saleh regime, tried to defend the water and land rights of locals in the Sa’adah province in northwestern Yemen. Sharing what was then a porous and informal border with the KSA, they often found themselves in disputes with Saudi border patrols. They also resisted ‘structural adjustment’ demands by the IMF to privatize some of Yemen’s best farming and grazing land. When the dictator Saleh made criminal concessions to the KSA, al-Houthi and his followers persisted with protests. Each new confrontation won over thousands of people, eventually spreading beyond Sa’adah.

Blumi cites numerous instances in which Yemen’s economic assets were pillaged, with Saleh’s approval, by “well-heeled global financial interests” who now designate Saleh’s successor Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as Yemen’s “internationally recognized government.” Hadi governs from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, due to a stunning lack of Yemeni support.

In 2008, an extremely wealthy member of the bin Laden family aimed to build a bridge across the mouth of the Red Sea from Yemen to Djibouti. The project could generate hundreds of billions for investors, and quicken the process of exploitative modernization; but it would also require building railways and roads where there are only villages now. People living along the coastline of the Red Sea would be in the way.

Since 2015, fighting has been concentrated in this area, called the Tihama. Control of the coastline would also allow financial takeover of potentially profitable Yemeni fisheries. Blumi says billions of dollars of annual income are at stake, noting with irony that a war causing starvation is being waged, in part, to gain control over food assets.

A recent United Nations report says that Yemen is now “on course to become the world’s poorest country” with 79 percent of the population living under the poverty line and 65 percent classified as “extremely poor.” The Yemen Data Project estimated 600 civilian structures have been destroyed, monthly, in Yemen, mostly by airstrikes.

“Staple food items are now on average 150 per cent higher than before the crisis escalated,” says a 2019 report by the Norwegian Refugee Council. “Teachers, health workers and civil servants in the northern parts of the country haven’t been paid in years,” according to the same report.

Mainstream media reports could convince concerned onlookers that Yemenis have been particularly vulnerable to violence and war because they are socially and economically backward, having failed to modernize. Blumi insists we recognize the guilt of financial elites from multiple countries within and beyond the Gulf states as well as institutions within the World Bank, the IMF and the UN. It’s wrong to blame “eighty percent of a country’s population currently being starved to death”

Here in the United States, news commentators discussing the Trump impeachment story liken the breaking developments to “bombshell after bombshell.” In Yemen, real and horribly modern bombshells, made in the United States, kill and maim Yemeni civilians, including children, every day.

Greta Thunberg continues calling us to join her on an unfamiliar, unprecedented, and arduous path to change course as our world careens toward terrifying devastation. We’re offered a chance to resist destructive, albeit “modern” means of exploiting the planet’s resources. A true strike for creativity, necessarily challenging militarism and greed, will help prevent the hellish work of destroying Yemen.

Map (Credit: Political Geography Now)

A version of this article appeared in The Progressive Magazine