'Human shields' on mission to stop war


BAGHDAD, Iraq - He is white-haired and slightly bowlegged, but with crystalline blue eyes and a ruddy face that bears the glowing look of a man who feels that - in the autumn of his life - he is exactly where he ought to be.

Godfrey Meynell, former British colonial officer in Aden, former high sheriff of Derby, former Home Office civil servant, former independent Green candidate for Parliament, a self-described loyalist of church and queen, is spending his days and nights on a cot at the previously bombed South Baghdad Power Plant.

He is a part of the burgeoning movement of "human shields," people who hope their presence will help prevent what they see as an unjust and unnecessary war against Iraq. Their mission may seem quixotic, but they are inspired by the millions of protesters around the world and feel that they, rather than the political leadership of the United States and Britain, are the true voices of the people.

Meynell, a 68-year-old grandfather and country squire, is married to a Church of England priest. He traveled for 21 uncomfortable days on a double-decker bus, crossing France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Syria before arriving in Baghdad late Feb. 15. His back sometimes ached. He kept his eyes on his book rather than looking out at the drop-offs as they crossed Turkish mountains in a snowstorm. He has put up with younger protesters who smoke too much, drink too much and "swear in the most boring fashion."

But the discomfort, inconvenience and fearful thoughts that sometimes cross his mind are, he says, a small price to pay to defend the best values and traditions of his country and to oppose what he calls "this hideous force" driving the world toward war.

Iraqi authorities agreed this week to begin allowing some of the would-be human shields to take up posts at strategic installations likely to be bombed if the United States and its allies launch a war to force President Saddam Hussein to give up weapons of mass destruction he denies having.

Although the U.S. government has said it will not be swayed by the presence of human shields, the protesters hope that they can deter or abort military action.

Meynell was in the first group of 20, which arrived Sunday at a power station that was hit by five missiles in the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Other activists will go to oil refineries, water treatment plants, and food-storage and telecommunications sites.

Meynell's group includes people from Britain, Turkey, France, Norway and the United States. Assigned a room large enough to accommodate two lines of cots covered with thin mattresses and thick woolen blankets, they have made themselves at home. Anti-war posters went up on the walls immediately, including one that reads: "Capitalism wants war. People of the world want peace."

"I am not here for a death wish," Meynell says, and when the time comes he is still not sure if he will "cut and run." But for now, he says, "I am from the heart of traditional England and wish to stand for all the good things of my country which rebel against this great evil."

No stranger to the Middle East, Meynell speaks Arabic and was a colonial administrator in the early 1960s in what is now Yemen. He earned an M.B.E. - Member of the Order of the British Empire - in part, he said, for "jumping a rather small chap from behind" in those days. As he tells it, he disarmed a Muslim fanatic who had just stabbed another official in the back with a knife.

While still a student at Cambridge's Magdalene College in 1956, he collected supplies for anti-Communist rebels in Hungary and tried to drive them into the country. Fortunately for him, he says, he did not manage to cross the border.

Also as a young man, he said, he was invited to an anti-colonialism youth congress at Moscow State University where he rose in debate to defend colonialism. "I've come a long way since then," he joked.

An admirer of American democracy, he feels the United States has lost its bearings.

"I see a darkening of the spirit," he said. "I think that by this war, America and Britain are only bringing a curse upon themselves."

Meynell emphasized that he has little sympathy for Hussein or his government but does not think Iraq's differs much from other dictatorships, many supported by the United States. In any case, he says, there is little global threat from Iraq.

"The worst dictator in the world, up to his elbows in blood and working 10 days a week, couldn't kill as many people as America is going to with global warming."

As Meynell sat for an interview, employees of the power plant wandered in to thank him and the other human shields.

"We admire these people very much," said Ghazi Aziz, an engineer. "They came here to sacrifice themselves to stop the war."

Like the human shields, the engineer said he would remain at the plant, bombs or no, although he hoped there would be no attack. "War is the worst thing," he said. "It should not be an easy decision for the Americans. I wish they would think again."

Those who have come to Baghdad are only a tiny fraction of the millions of people around the world who oppose a war, said Joe Letts, a commercial bus operator from Shaftesbury, England, who hired out his two London double-decker buses and a white London taxi to the cause and drove one of them all the way from Britain.

A former activist against the gulf war who once worked on a documentary about the hardships of Iraqis under international sanctions, Letts said he is revolted by the idea of another one-sided war against a country that has suffered greatly.

Abdel Hashemi, a former ambassador and education minister who acts as Iraq's liaison with the peace activists and other foreign visitors - including a papal envoy and a German beauty queen - said they all are welcome as "courageous and noble guests."

The human shields already number in the hundreds and more arrive every day. On Monday, a group of Spaniards turned up chanting "No to war!"

Maria Rosa Benawroya, a 30-year-old nurse from Barcelona, said she was surfing the Internet looking for information about coming anti-war demonstrations when she read a call for volunteers to travel to Baghdad. "My heart went boing!" she said, "followed by my head."

"This is a very important moment for the world," she said, "all people everywhere coming together for one reason."

John Daniszewski writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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