By Weldon D. Nisly
Every day for nearly seven years I have remembered Iraq and envisioned returning to that war-torn occupied land. I have longed to return to Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams and dreamed of going back to Rutba, a desert city in Western Iraq. Rutba holds a special place in my heart. I will always remember Rutba as the place where Iraqi people bandaged our wounds in a time of war.
In March 2003, as the Bush administration led the way to war on Iraq, 32 people from Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and Voices in the Wilderness were in Baghdad as the Iraq Peace Team. I was there with CPT. Through intense spiritual discernment with my family and congregation I felt called by God to go to Iraq to "get in the way of war" by standing with the victims of war. I knew that the American people would see the war primarily through the eyes of the U.S. military machine and I wanted to help reveal the war that Iraqi people experienced. So I joined others compelled by Christ to stand with the Iraqi people living under the "shock and awe" of our country's merciless bombs.
On March 29, 2003, several of us were traveling in three cars from Baghdad across the Iraqi desert to Jordan. Along the way our car blew a tire, careened into a ditch, and turned over, injuring all five of us. Some Iraqi men in a car heading the other direction stopped to help us, even though U.S. bombers were flying overhead. They quickly put us in their car and took us to Rutba. We were taken to a clinic where a doctor and his medical assistants saved our lives, even though their hospital had been bombed by U.S. forces three nights earlier, killing a little boy and his father. When we tried to pay them they refused money but instead asked us to tell the world about Rutba. We have remembered their compassion and generosity and have been telling the Rutba story ever since that day (see resources listed below). The story does not end with what took place in Rutba seven years ago however. We wanted to return to the town and find the Good Samaritans who cared for us while our country invaded theirs.
In January 2010, eight of us met in Amman, Jordan, as the Rutba Peace Team (RPT) to make this journey to Iraq. Our team included four members of the original team, three of whom had been injured; Shane Claiborne (The Simple Way), Cliff Kindy (a veteran CPTer), and me, as well as Peggy Gish (a veteran CPTer in Iraq who was in the other vehicle that returned to find us). The remaining members of the team were Greg Barrett (a writer/journalist who will write a book about the Good Samaritans of Rutba), Sami Rasouli (from Najaf, Iraq, and leader of the Muslim Peace Team), Logan Mehl-Laituri (a former U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq who became a Conscientious Objector and left the Army in 2006), and Jamie Moffett (a filmmaker/photographer who will produce a film about Rutba).
We spent four days in Amman trying to get visas to enter Iraq. After exhausting all normal procedures without receiving visas, we asked to meet with the Iraqi Ambassador to Jordan. We were granted a visit with Ambassador Saad Al-Hayani, who welcomed us into his office and served us tea. He listened to our story then told us, "Because your mission is a noble one, I will grant you a special visa to go to Iraq." We thanked him profusely and went happily on our way to arrange our journey to Rutba. Early the next morning we eagerly set out for Rutba in two taxis. I noted in my journal: "Friday, January 15, 2010--Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday--how appropriate!"
At the Jordan-Iraq border it took three hours to get through six security check points. At each check point the border guards were surprised and puzzled to see Americans going to Iraq in peace without weapons. But each time, after checking with higher officials, they sent us on our way.
The strangest experience on our journey took place in "no man's land" halfway between the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Here we encountered Captain Foster, the U.S. Army officer responsible for the security of the Iraqi border. He arrived in an impressive show of military might with two fully armored Humvees topped by camouflaged machine guns. My saddest moment was to see these huge machine guns operated by young U.S. soldiers solemnly scanning the landscape for signs of danger on which they could unleash a barrage of deadly bullets. Captain Foster warned us not to go into Iraq without weapons, saying, "It is a dangerous world over here. A hundred yards beyond this border you're not safe. You can be kidnapped or get your heads cut off." He was not persuaded by our response that weapons would make us less secure on our journey to Rutba and that we were going in peace to thank the Iraqi doctors who saved our lives early in the war.
Despite Captain Foster's ominous warnings we arrived in Rutba late that afternoon and were taken to the hospital and welcomed by the hospital's Administrator and Dr. Nazir, the managing doctor. We were soon joined by Mayor Gasem Meiry Awaad who also welcomed us to Rutba. With typical Iraqi hospitality, they offered us sweet tea and bottled juice and informed us that we were their guests. They graciously provided our lodging and meals for the duration of our visit to Rutba.
The next day we were given a tour of the small hospital, which had been rebuilt after it was bombed the first week of the war. We saw a small operating room with the old operating table that had been dug out from under the rubble. We met a father and mother who brought their very ill baby daughter to be treated at the hospital. We saw again that what they lacked in modern medical facilities and equipment they more than made up for with compassionate care, just as we had experienced seven years ago.
One day when we were in Rutba the electricity was out almost all day long, so there was little the doctors could do. That day Dr. Nizer saw five or six patients rather than his usual 100 or more people in need of medical care. Dr. Nizer told us that they have only half the medical staff and supplies they need to fulfill the medical needs of Rutba.
A highlight of our return to Rutba came when we met with some of the people who had cared for us when we were injured. Late one afternoon we were in the hospital guesthouse lounge when a man wearing a white coat and big smile walked into the room. He was soon followed by another man with a beaming smile. They were Tariq Ali Marzoug, a nurse, and Jassam Mohamed, a medical assistant, who had both been at the clinic and tended to our injured bodies on March 29, 2003. When Jassam entered I reached out to shake his hand but he gave me a big hug and exclaimed, "I welcome you with an Iraqi greeting!" He went on in amazement, "When I heard you were here I thought you must have forgotten something. I could hardly believe that you came such a long distance to thank us." Later he added, "This moment makes me very happy. It is my reward for all my thirty years of medical service."
We eagerly asked questions of Tariq and Jassam and listened to them tell us about their encounter with us that day. They explained that they were still setting up their clinic because their hospital had been bombed three days earlier. When we asked what they thought when injured Americans were brought to their clinic that day, they assured us "We did not see you as Americans or as an enemy. We saw you as injured people who needed help. It is a matter of ethics. It is also the Iraqi way and what Islam teaches."
Cliff and I asked if one of them had stitched the cuts in our heads. They told us that they both had cleaned and stitched our wounds. I will never forget the feeling of having stitches put in my head without anesthesia because none was available. I asked if they had given me an IV. I could not remember for certain but remembered that they had few medical supplies. Jassam confirmed that he had put an IV in my arm. He told us how once he had given someone an IV and then stood by the bed holding the bag above his head because no IV stand was available.
Jassam and Tariq also told us about Dr. Farrouq, the doctor who took care of us and talked with us that day. Dr. Farrouq is now at the hospital in Ramadi near Baghdad, more than 3 hours from Rutba. As much as we wanted to see him, it was not possible for us to go to Ramadi or for Dr. Farrouq "to leave his post" and come to Rutba. We were sorry to not meet Dr Farrouq, but we were deeply grateful to meet Jassam and Tariq.
I assured them, "We have not forgotten you and we will never forget your great care for us. Now we will tell even more about you and Rutba." Shane added that, "This story has been transformative to many people in the U.S. who have heard it." Our Iraqi friends responded, "We are also committed to tell about you here in Rutba."
The most emotional moment for me came that evening when we were in the guesthouse lounge. I was sitting near the corner of the room to the right of the door. Suddenly I saw a big smile on the weathered face of a man standing in the doorway. Instantly a strange feeling flooded over me, a feeling of puzzlement and recognition as if 'I know this face!' He surveyed the room and walked in and said with delight, "I remember you," pointing to Cliff, "I remember you," pointing to Shane, and "I remember you," pointing to me. Then he added to me, "And I carried you." It took a moment for Sami to translate what he had said to us and another moment for me to fully grasp what he was saying. He told us that his name is Sa'ady Mesha'al Rasheed and that he is the ambulance driver for the hospital. Sa'ady explained that he was at the clinic when we arrived that day and helped us into the clinic. I have told our Rutba story many times but I have never told about Sa'ady carrying me from the car to the clinic because I had not remembered--until I saw his face in the doorway at that moment and heard him speak. Then my body began to remember! With tears in my eyes I thanked him and listened as he told us what he experienced that day. He was suffering from asthma, he explained, then added, "But you were collapsing, so I carried you."
At that moment I knew that my dream for returning to Rutba had been fulfilled--and that I was seeing the face of Jesus in Sa'ady. I remembered, too, how on that day in Rutba, seven years earlier, I had seen the transfigured face of Jesus in an Iraqi man who helped carry me on a stretcher from the clinic to the car that would take us back to Jordan. Now I was seeing the face of Jesus again.
In Sa'ady, Tariq, and Jassam I see people of great faith and compassion whose greeting, "Salaam Alaykum" voices their genuine desire that "the peace of God be with you." Their lives give answer to Jesus' great Good Samaritan question, 'Who is neighbor to the one who is injured?' (Luke 10:36).
I will forever see Jesus and hear that parable in a new way. I am also haunted by Jesus' weeping lament over Jerusalem, "If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes" (Luke 19:42). Deep questions confront Christians today, especially in the United States: Where do we see Jesus? Who is neighbor to those who are wounded? How do we give answer?
One way you can "give answer" is to join us on the Rutba Peace Team to support the Hospital in Rutba. Their urgent need is for $3000 to repair the generator at the hospital. Before we left Rutba we gave Dr. Nizer a gift of $1000 toward the repair of the generator and promised to raise the rest of it and send it to them as soon as possible.
May the salaam/shalom of God be with you!
Weldon D. Nisly
For earlier printed versions of our Rutba story, please see:
Weldon Nisly, "Victims of war are not our enemy" Op-ed column written while recovering in Amman, Jordan: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 4, 2003
The Mennonite, May 6, 2003 <http://www.themennonite.org/pdf/magazine_pdf_51.pdf> (p. 14)
Peggy Gish, Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace, Herald Press (2004)
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, To Baghdad and Beyond, Cascade Books (2005)
Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Zondervan (2006)