PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

The Terror of Disappearance by peaceprobe
September 15, 2009, 11:31 am
Filed under: Iraq | Tags: , , , , , ,

The most terrifying condition in a culture where terror is practised is the disappearance of the suspect.  The victim is at the mercy of the captors.  The family is totally devoid of information and feels helpless. Responses from supporters range from outrage to violence or depression.  Absolute uncertainty and raw fear fills the void created by the absence of information.  A person may be tortured, molested, and killed and no one may know for a generation or forever.

State officials normally deny or claim an absence of information that the vanished person is in fact detained.  The final days of Jesus life included attack on his spirit and body.  We don’t know all the details.  However, experiences with US and other foreign forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and domestic armies in Latin America help us fill in some of that detail.  By tuning ourselves more closely to these tragedies we gain greater access to the core of the Jesus we read about in the gospels.  According to a study by the Pew Research Center 62% of white American evangelical Christians polled said it is “often” or “sometimes” justified to engage in torture to gain information from suspected terrorists.  Would a faith that fully understands Jesus’ last days lead contemporary Christians to a more confident life of nonviolent sacrifice?

In my work with Christian Peacemaker Teams I spent time in Baghdad in 2003, four months after the occupation began.  Before I arrived in late July families had already begun to contact the team seeking help and information on disappeared family members who were snatched by American units.  In our search for information on the status of disappeared persons we tried various tactics.  One day we went to Abu Ghraib prison to seek entry and information.

When we arrived we were greeted by hundreds of family members of the disappeared who overwhelmed us with tragic stories.   Because we stopped to listen to some of their appeals for help it took a long time to approach the gates of the prison. We were denied both entry or information. The anger and raw fear outside the gates was palatable.  For several hours we listened.  Some in our group took notes.

In explosive conditions like that day my conscience vacillates between two responses, don’t give false hope or delve deeply into each case.  On the one hand I hesitate to listen too much because even listening is an indication of commitment to find information and create a strategy of intervention.  At Abu Ghraib on that particular day my colleagues and I had no response method for individual cases except to publicize the trends through our church and human rights channels.  This was not enough.

My second response was to lean more deeply into each individual case to follow through with specific actions and to accompany the fear stricken families to the few offices in the occupation administration that existed.  We had tried that route before with no success.  With hundreds screaming for help we were overwhelmed.  In those days we could have set up a table for complaints outside of Abu Ghraib every day and we could have taken stories from sun up to sun down. Such a strategy would could have been dangerous but danger is inherent in authentic nonviolent work. We didn’t do that in part because we had so few ways to help the desperate family members.  Maybe we should have.

On another day we went to Baghdad Airport to seek information about prisoners held there too.  Once again we encountered hundreds of persons outside the gates who were beside themselves seeking information on disappeared family members.  Again we were overwhelmed with stories.  The American guards tried to help.  A sargent even went to get his lieutenant to talk to us.  He could not help.  Finally, in desperation the sargent pleaded with us to go but promised to take the matter up with his colonel, the senior officer .  We never heard anything and the disappearances continued as house raids increased throughout Baghdad.  Later we went to military bases, holding areas and restricted offices set up to support Iraqis where we encountered more scenes of desperate people literally grasping for help and information.  Only months later when a low level military person gave us access to a data base of detainees were we able to provide at least rudimentary information for some desperate families.

Each day before we departed on these missions of fact finding and intervention among foreign soldiers we gathered for prayer, reflection and strategizing.  We were reminded of the efforts of Jesus’ followers and family to keep track of him during his interrogation, trial and execution.  Little did we know that Jesus’ last days of torture were being reenacted inside the walls of the places that we visited.  We saw his bold and pushy follower, Peter, in a new light.  We remembered Peter’s denial as he sat in the courtyard around the fire with the religious leadership who instigated the arrest.  But now we recognized the Peter within ourselves who went to the place of disappearance, interrogation and mocking to try to track Jesus’ treatment.  Peter wanted to protect the disappearing one, but his own survival meant denial of association, a kind of quick interim ethic that shows its face among allies convinced they must help the targets of torture..

We remembered the women of Jesus’ life at the execution and seeking the body at the tomb in order to perform the rites of death and purification of the corpse. For them, disappearance of the corpse was shocking.  Even the apparent appearance of two unexpected persons at the tomb did not overcome their terror until their memories were jolted about his earlier words.  When they went to inform friends and supporters of Jesus’ absence from the tomb the story was treated as an idle tale.  Belief, disbelief, rumours, depression, and urgent attempts to do something and keep the network informed, are all present in this story, a story that reflects the culture of the disappeared and their supporters today.

In the modern world we have two widely acknowledged resources to follow the disappeared.  The International Committee for the Red Cross is charged by international customary law to make contact between prisoners and their families through letters.  In August 2003 the Baghdad offices of the ICRC were bombed, severely curtailing the ability of the ICRC from doing its work in the unfolding emergency.  Secondly, we have the widely established principal of habeas corpus in modern law, a writ ordering that the prisoner be brought before a judge in order to protect the prisoner from illegal imprisonment.  Those rights were suspended for detainees in Iraq.

Disappeared (the word is now used as a verb) detainees is one of the most terrifying forms of control that political authorities engage in.  According to the UN more than 70 countries have  “disappeared” people since 1980.  The story of the interweaving of the culture of fear surrounding the arrest of Jesus is one in the long history of the use of this tactic to control populations.

Among Peter and the women who were close to Jesus we see a very personal and moral response more akin to what families everywhere must do in their reach for information and hope.  At Abu Ghraib I learned that our responses in those moments calling for urgent action are determined by a lifetime of preparation.


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