Presbyterian peacemaker helps Iraqi families with war-related problems

6/24/2005 3:36:14 PM

LOUISVILLE -- At first, 59-year-old Anita David didn't want to go to Baghdad at all. But she went for six weeks last summer, and now she's back for a second stint.

David, a Chicago Presbyterian, is one of four members of a Baghdad-based Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), a U.S. and Canadian group that uses non-violent tactics to reduce aggression in conflict zones.

David and her colleagues help Iraqi families find imprisoned husbands, sons and fathers by accompanying them to government-operated information centers or looking through prisoner lists compiled by the U.S.-led coalition.

She also helps file claims for families whose homes have been ruined or damaged or whose loved ones have been killed or injured.

"People who are unable to find a loved one in the prison system come to us," David says from Baghdad, over a poor telephone connection. "We're Americans."

CPT helped break the story about the indignities and cruelties inflicted on Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib Prison. In January 2004, shortly after a Red Cross memo about the abuses was leaked to the media, CPT hosted press conferences on the issue in Washington, DC, and Toronto, Canada.

CPT has teams stationed in several war zones around the globe, including the Colombian jungle, Hebron on the West Bank, and Baghdad.

In the Iraqi capital, the group is working with representatives of the Muslim community who share its principles of non-violence.

On her first day on the job, David tried to find a man whose family said he'd been arrested in March. The family never found him. His name wasn't on any list CPT could find.

"This poor mother and father didn't need to go through that," says David, who spent a day going from office to office and standing in line after line, but found out nothing.

The family has now heard from a released prisoner that the missing man is dead. David is now trying to confirm or refute that report.

When she finished her training in Hebron, David had her heart set on working there; but CPT's founder, Gene Stoltzfus, overcame her resistance and persuaded her to go to Baghdad.

Her three-month rotation there started about two weeks ago.

"I don't know how others are ... but once I give my word, it's done," she says. "It no longer plays on my mind. I just breathe and go."

The CPT apartment in Baghdad is hardly posh. Baghdad is hot, and in recent weeks has been buffeted by early-summer sandstorms. A thin layer of gritty sand coats everything -- tables, sinks, window sills and linoleum floors -- even though the windows are shut tight. The fine dust fills her nose and throat so thoroughly that even gargling doesn't dissipate the taste.

Most days, David moves about freely, visiting friends she made last summer. She devotes a lot of time to trying to figure out where Iraqis with medical problems can find help. She's learning the specializations of hospitals throughout the country.

Last week, the proprietor of a Baghdad bakery advised her to say she's from Italy, not the United States, if anyone asks. The warning came after he heard her speaking English in his store. In her neighborhood, she doesn't cover her head with a scarf, but she always wears long skirts or pants.

David is of Assyrian descent. Her great-grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in Iran. She was baptized in her mother's home church, Lake View Presbyterian in Chicago -- a 200-member progressive congregation that supports CPT's approach to conflict resolution.

According to the pastor, the Rev. Joy Douglas Strome, Lake View members have opposed Israeli demolitions of Palestinians' homes.

Strome says first-hand accounts from people like David have inspired Lake View members to be more vocal.

"We try to lift up some piece of the truth that may not be heard (otherwise)," she says, referring specifically to Israeli settlers' displacement of Palestinian shepherds near Hebron. "Somebody needs to say something. ... Our (members) have met real people, and these are the conditions of their real lives."

Strome says the church stays in daily contact with David by email.

"You get started on the work here and it's just, Put the pedal to the metal," David says. "There's so much to do ... and you feel like you are leaving so much undone."

How she wound up in CPT, she says, is a long story.

"I've always been very private about my faith," she says. "But there is a time to act, and I realized that I could act."

Asked about the dangers of her work, she said: "I don't know what to say about fear. It is there, but it is not at the (forefront of my thoughts). I'd have to be an idiot not to be frightened. But, you, know, it is not (going) to stop me."