A physician's prescription for peace in Iraq

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 31, 2004

A powerful blast outside his Baghdad hotel room last week shook coffee companion Dr. David Swann out of a fitful sleep. It was a stark reminder of why he had come back to this war-torn country.

David is the former provincial health officer for Palliser Health Region in Southern Alberta who was fired from his job in 2002. He had dared to speak out on environmental issues impacting health, something his bosses found objectionable. When offered his job back, he turned it down, choosing instead to conduct an on-site child health assessment in Iraq, on the brink of war.

Now he had returned to Baghdad for a few days as a guest of Life For Relief and Development, a Muslim humanitarian organization. He was hoping to sift through the rubble of war and his own life for clues on how to make the world a more peaceful place.

The following is taken from two letters he sent from Baghdad.

He was staying at the same hotel near the Tigris River where he had stayed over a year ago, but now there were tanks and soldiers out front. That's when it happened . . .

"An explosion occurred on my first day at 4 a.m., from a block away (the second at the Sheraton Hotel, I later learned)," he wrote. "It was a rude awakening, literally and figuratively. This is what Iraqis have lived with for 30 years! Incomprehensible! These are among the most educated and hard-working people I've met and they have endured terrible suffering as individuals, families and communities."

Debris and uncollected garbage were everywhere. Air pollution and the "deafening roar" of military helicopters day and night added to the stress.

"But life goes on, as it must," he said. "Five times daily the mosque loudspeaker cries out to Allah for guidance, peace and justice, and people pause for a few minutes of prayer.

"Children are seen walking or being driven to and from school. They are also playing on sidewalks or in the alleys and on makeshift garbage-strewn fields. They laugh and play and tease as they do all over the world, seemingly oblivious to their harsh realities.

"Shops remain open into the evening in hopes of a sale, with many taking a few hours off in the heat of the afternoon, and friends still greet on the street with combination hugs and kisses.

"Men sit in the shops and on steps, talking, drinking tea and smoking water pipes and playing dominoes. Women are not as visible but many are uncovered on the face, as before.

"I often ask guidance of strangers, mostly men, and usually there is a smile as we struggle to communicate. I leave a little humbled by their extraordinary civility.

"Still, I have listened to a number of conversations which frankly criticize the U.S. management of this conflict and people's difficulty in getting enough to live."

David's quest for peace led him inward. He had spent a great deal of energy over the years trying to avoid conflict and people who are "very different" from himself, he wrote.

"So what am I doing in a war zone?" he asked.

"This is about recognizing that we are all in war zones – home, work, community, politics – and our ability to live fully and contribute to the well-being of each other is directly related to our willingness to face the discomfort, even fear, of differences.

"The Arab world and terror have always been linked for me. It is part of the western ethos. I am racist. I admit it. Perhaps I have an advantage in knowing that I am prejudiced and that this is part of why I am here. I have found that avoiding or denying my prejudice sows the seeds of greater fear, breakdown in relationship, and sets the stage for violence.

"I want to be part of the solution, now."

David's desire to be part of the solution reminds me of his response to a question I asked our coffee companions some time ago about what they would include in a "whack pack" for a world out of whack. He suggested a candle, adding: "You can curse the darkness or light a candle."

Thank you, David, for being a candle for peace wherever fear and prejudice cause us to stumble.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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