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"Human sheilds" armed with prayers : Wahington Post report

he is in her little house now, preparing to have a cup of tea. Tea, then a deep breath, then prayer. She spent the morning on what she calls a "march for the children," accompanying Buddhist monks. In the evening, she attended an antiwar rally in downtown Baghdad
FONT SIZE="2"> By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2003; Page C01

She is in her little house now, preparing to have a cup of tea. Tea, then a deep breath, then prayer. She spent the morning on what she calls a "march for the children," accompanying Buddhist monks. In the evening, she attended an antiwar rally in downtown Baghdad.

Now, Faith Fippinger, a retired Sarasota, Fla., schoolteacher, has returned to her post, her temporary home, one block from the Daura oil refinery -- the target of a U.S. bomb in 1991 -- to spend her night praying. Praying that the bombs will not start falling. Praying that she, and her Iraqi neighbors, will not die.

She is a "human shield," and even now, when her president, George W. Bush, is giving Saddam Hussein ultimatums and when most of the world now believes war is imminent, she has no intention of packing up to come home.

"It's late in the day here," she said yesterday. Her voice is wan, tired, fading in and out on the overtaxed phone lines into Baghdad.

"I want to be here with my neighbors, who have no place to go. I want to stay with this community. . . . Today it felt like our last rally for peace. Our last day to change minds."

Fippinger, 62, is one of perhaps 100 human shields who still remain inside Iraq. Some are trying to leave, fearing the bombs will fall any minute. Others are in Amman, Jordan, still trying to enter Iraq, no matter how grave the circumstances have become.

They have been called foolish, naive, idealistic. Heroic, in some quarters; stupid, in others. Martyrs for peace at one turn, and traitors (at least those who are American) at others.

The organization that assisted many of the shields in entering Baghdad in February -- Truth Justice Peace -- required them to sign waivers acknowledging that they were entering a potentially fatal situation. American military leaders have said that it will be difficult to protect them.

"We'll do our best to avoid noncombatant casualties and, I will tell you, we will not be 100 percent successful," Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks warned late last month.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft asserting that human shields should be prosecuted as traitors if they impede U.S. military efforts. Graham argues that the shields have damaged the morale of the troops, and possibly their safety.

"People who do this, who want to act as a human shield for the Saddam Hussein regime, I think need to be dealt with in the most severe terms," Graham said yesterday. "It's a regime that should never be shielded."

Graham is offended by the shields' argument that they are supporting not Hussein but the Iraqi people; that they are not anti-American, but simply antiwar. He calls that stance "as naive as their presence."

"They're under the control of Saddam Hussein's government," he says. "They're aiding and comforting his government. Their actions speak louder than their words."

The shields fight this image fiercely.

"I'm not a supporter at all of the Saddam regime," says 58-year-old Judith Karpova of Hoboken, N.J., a political activist who spent more than three weeks in Iraq before returning to Jordan on March 9. "But it's more complex than reducing a country of 25 million people to the actions of one man. There is something in the nature of this particular war that is breaking a lot of boundaries and portends very ill for the future. . . . A preemptive war against a country that has never attacked the U.S. is an extremely dangerous precedent."

Fippinger and Karpova met on the bus from Amman to Baghdad a month ago. Sixteen hours the journey took, including long stops at both the Jordanian and Iraqi border stations. There were stops for food at little roadside restaurants, conversations that wafted from seat to seat, relationships that were forged -- a young woman nestling into the young man seated beside her, someone she met only a few hours before.

A self-described "gypsy," Fippinger is long-ago divorced, has no children and has spent her retirement on tennis and travel. She says she protested the Vietnam War, but has not been much of an activist. Traveling in India earlier this year, she ran into a young man who spoke fluent English, and they fell into conversation about the possible war. He took her to an Internet cafe to read a Web site about human shields.

"I knew immediately that was what I needed to do," she says.

Karpova is a member of the Green Party, and has been active in previous protests against the Bush administration. She married and then divorced in her twenties, and has no children. She, too, was drawn to becoming a human shield from information she read on the Internet. Unlike Fippinger, though, she was not well traveled, and never intended to stay longer than a few weeks -- long enough, she hoped, to draw attention to growing antiwar sentiments around the world.

"I was very frightened about going in," Karpova admits.

When they met on the bus, Fippinger was carrying the Rudyard Kipling novel "Kim," about an orphan who travels through India with an old Tibetan lama and becomes, in effect, his apprentice. As they came to know each other -- and were posted together near the oil refinery -- Karpova began to feel that Fippinger was her mentor.

"I really loved her," Karpova says. "She taught me what courage is. And courage isn't this thing they parade in movies about 'You can't dominate me, you can't beat me.' Courage comes from love of others. That's what I learned. And now they might kill her because she's in their way."

Then she is crying.

"It's like survival guilt," she says. "I'm sitting here on the other side of the fence. I'm looking over the fence at this beautiful place, at these truly beautiful people, and I feel as if I've abandoned them."

Karpova limited her time in Iraq because she has a brother who is in failing health. When she left, she took letters Fippinger had written to her only brother, John, who lives in Sarasota.

"You have to respect her for having the courage of her own convictions," John Fippinger says from his home. "But as I told her, if she wanted to demonstrate for peace, she could do that just as well here at home."

When Fippinger first called her brother and his family from New Delhi to tell them her intentions, they cried. She asked them to read what she had read, to learn what she had learned.

"And when I called back again, they said they understood, but when it's over please come home."

And now she is crying, her words ragged.

"But of course there is a chance I won't."

Truth Justice Peace -- founded by Ken Nichols O'Keefe, a Gulf War Marine who has renounced his American citizenship -- is in some disarray now. O'Keefe and four more of the organizations' leaders were forced by the Iraqi government to leave the country on March 8 in a clash over who would control placement of human shields. On the organization's Web site, O'Keefe asserts that "those that enter now will be under the direct charge of Dr. Al Hashimi of the NGO [non-governmental organization] Friendship Solidarity and Peace, which is for all intents and purposes an extension of the Iraqi Government."

O'Keefe's statements have given fuel to the arguments of those who, like Graham, believe that when war comes, the shields will be forced to protect military and other targets. Thousands of foreigners residing in Iraq in 1990 were held at such strategic sites before Hussein released them a month before the Persian Gulf War began.

"I don't understand why I would have to justify standing up for peace," Fippinger says. "That alone tells you the mentality of people in the world now -- when people have to defend themselves when they stick up for peace."

And so Fippinger and the other shields marched again yesterday but with more of a sense of doom. Ruth Russell, a 57-year-old mother of two from Adelaide, Australia, made what she termed "perhaps her final calls" to her 86-year-old mother in Melbourne, her children (Amanda, 24, and Ashley, 18, both students), and her sister. She also sent out her last mass e-mail for what she fears will be at least a week, if not forever.

"Of course, I'm still hopeful that I will survive," Russell says. "You've got to live in hope, or who knows, but at the same time I also left instructions on my will, my burial. I'm being realistic. I know this is a high-risk business and there are no guarantees. But it is very disappointing to see that the people of the world have not been listened to. I really thought we could have avoided a war."

She is there not despite being a mother, she says, but in part because she is one.

"I just phoned them both a half-hour ago," she says of her children. "I told them that if I die, it's because I'm hoping to create a better world for you."

Then Russell starts speaking about the fallout she sees from the last Gulf War. Cancer rates. Birth defects. When it comes to the children of Iraq, she gets, she says, "a bit wound up."

She is not alone. Every day Fippinger tries to visit a nursery school a block away from her temporary home. Asked what she is going to do in the morning, she says: "I'm going to hold the kids tighter than I've ever held them before, a little bit longer this time."

Now she breaks down completely, openly weeping.

"Sometimes," she says, her words coming slowly, "I have wished that every American could be by my side to listen to these people, to go to tea with my neighbors, to see the babies dying . . . to sit with their crying mothers."

And perhaps those Americans would still think she is naive, or foolish, and maybe even criminal. And perhaps some would understand. It doesn't really matter. This is her neighborhood now, and she is not going home.

? 2003 The Washington Post Company