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imperialism & war

Iraq - Send in the Clowns - when a smile can break a thousand chains

The article looks at activist Jo wilding whose work in iraq is focusing upon setting up the circus2iraq project and other cooperation building schemes. Jo is due to speak in Portland in the next week or so

By Davey J.C. Garland

In a world of growing fear and insecurity, where wars seem to be increasing, the mortality count grows daily, and the environment becomes a kicking stone for exploitation, then it is hard even for the most optimistic pundits to raise a smile to their faces - unless of course that is if you are George Bush or Tony Blair - though even their faces seem to have become reasonably glum as of late!!

Laughter in periods of torment or disaster has always been interesting to me, possibly the origin being one of my heroes or at least inspiration, the stage clown and creation of Rafael Sabatini: Scaramouche. For those who haven't read the book or watched the film (Stewart Granger plays the lead) Scaramouche is a complex character who lives two separate lives, one of stage clown and actor, whose mask of long nose and physical awkwardness for his audience, disguises the alter-ego, the avenging idealistic lawyer: Andre-Louis Moreau who, backstage, has a quest to expose and gain vengeance on the faults, excesses and ignorance of the ruling classes within pre-revolutionary 18th century France. For Scaramouche, joking and ridiculing those who wield power, could be as deadly as his sword.

But inspiration to resist those forces of exploitation and greed in the emerging 21st century, does not lie in a fictional hero, buried in the pages of a dog-eared book. A real, if not comparable, model (and others waiting in the wings) is operating in the streets, schools and makeshift camps of Iraq. For writer, lawyer and circus clown, 29 year old Jo Wilding, the face paint may resemble Sabatini's character, the sword is swapped for non-violence, perseverance, humility and witness, which in a climate that is dominated by weapons, are proving to be very powerful tools indeed.

Jo Wilding has a long association with Iraq and human rights. While studying for her law diploma at university in Bristol, Britain, (part-time) she was actively campaigning against the sanctions imposed on Iraq, having gained media notoriety by a perfect aim with a rotten tomato which hit Prime Minister Tony Blair during a visit to the city. Subsequently arrested, Wilding eloquently used her impending court appearance to condemn Blair's and Britain's stance over sanctions, using the opportunity to heap further embarrassment on the government.

Wilding's determination to oppose the draconian embargo resulted in her arrest whilst attempting to break it and her being taken into custody by Customs and Excise for carrying medical supplies in 2002. She gained further notoriety through her involvement in breaking the month-long siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when, with other activists, she attempted to bring food and international observers into the church to stop the slaughter.

Leading up to the war on Iraq in 2003, Jo was there sending alternative news to the peace and anti-war movement, with her graphic diaries and observations of people praying the impending war would be avoided. She reluctantly left the country 12 days into the bombing by US and British forces, due to visa requirements and safety. She reflected: "I left a country in chaos and a lot of friends who I didn't get to say goodbye to. I really wanted to come back and work on some positive projects, like the twinning links which I hope will build friendships between British kids, students, doctors, teachers, and so on and also give practical help with, for example, rehabilitation of university libraries."

She keeps to her promises and Iraq saw her face again last year when she began to tour the villages and cities with a travelling circus. For many children (and adults) the weight of war is broken temporarily by the emergence of clowns on stilts, juggling balls, magic tricks, all singing "Boomchucka, Boomchucka!". The laughter and shy giggling breaks the months of hardship, and brings maybe even for the hardened, precious moments of normalcy, that some maybe thought would never reappear. But never underestimate a clown, for under that colourful make-up and chaotic manner are organised and empathetic individuals whose works seems to match the needs of the Iraqis in the chaotic world imposed upon them by foreign invaders.Wilding, eloquent as always, articulates the reason for the Circus:

"The circus came about because I saw how traumatised some of the children were in the hospitals, after the bombing, and how simple things like blowing bubbles could help a bit. I knew of other projects which went to Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, East Timor, Afghanistan and other places where there had been war or where a lot of refugees or street children were living. I put out an e-mail and a few people decided to come over and be in the circus. I planned just to be the coordinator, but Amber taught me to walk on stilts, in our living room, Peat taught me a clown routine and I ran away with the circus!!"

But the circus isn't just a one off show, its activities are also there to exchange and impart teaching and learning techniques for teachers and schools that have few resources, devising activities such as dance, puppetry and running parachute games. Wilding acknowledges that especially for girls in the South, "the lack of physical activity and outlets for creativity is causing developmental delays, such as a lack of spatial awareness which affects their ability to write, arrange things in a room, even stack objects. Normality needs nourishing. Learning stilt walking, juggling and simple acrobatics, boosts the youngsters' self esteem!"

The work to make the circus a success also falls on the many youth workers who often spend weeks encouraging parents to allow their children, especially girls, to attend the performance. Wilding and her colleagues acknowledge that it can be difficult to get access to these girls in the more traditional areas, or to encourage any kind of interaction. However the circus has been endorsed by many local figures and religious leaders, who welcome the chance to see the people, especially the children laugh again - and in a country where communication through technology is seldom reliable, word of mouth tradition, as through the ages, is the timeless traveller.

War through a Clowns Eyes

For Jo Wilding, the "travelling circus" provides just that - an opportunity to interact with people and places that mainstream news reporters fail to witness or visit. A prolific writer, her regular diary contributions have been circulated far and wide by a bunch of dedicated net workers and supporters of Circus2Iraq. This has meant that the clowns' view of occupation: the disintegration of the country's infrastructure, the false promises of assistance by the unelected governing council and American administration becomes very apparent, strengthening the imperative for independent reporting. The circus visits places often far from news reporting and would never normally reach the world: "but gives us a good insight into the lives of ordinary people, such as those in the camps, and situations like those faced by the poorer schools and the disabled peoples' homes."

Observations of everyday life reflect the grinding hardships and dangers stifling this proud population. The siege of Falluja saw the circus team desperately attempting to deliver medical supplies. Their foreign status meant opportunity to enter the city more likely with passage granted by occupying American troops. What, after all, do you say to three clowns with an ambulance full of life-saving supplies?

Once there, the crew mucked in and assisted with the gathering of injured, comforting the crying, and reassuring those facing the operating table. Wilding's diary of "front-line" clowns encapsulates the trauma far more than the many similar news reports that were coming from the city. The clowns were not alone there to witness, they were there to assist and help. They were committed to the people of the city. They were "clowns without borders". At the height of the carnage, through Wilding's words, the reader enters the city. Here is her April 17th Account:

"Screaming women come in, praying, slapping their chests and faces. Ummi, my mother, one cries. I hold her until Maki, a consultant and acting director of the clinic, brings me to the bed where a child of about ten is lying with a bullet wound to the head. A smaller child is being treated for a similar injury in the next bed. A US sniper hit them and their grandmother as they left their home to flee Falluja.

"The lights go out, the fan stops and in the sudden quiet, someone holds up the flame of a cigarette lighter for the doctor to carry on operating. Electricity to the town has been cut off for days and when the generator runs out of petrol, they just have to manage till it comes back on. Dave quickly donates his torch. The children are not going to live.

"Snipers are causing not just carnage but also paralysis of the ambulance and evacuation services. The biggest hospital after the main one was bombed, is in US territory and cut off from the clinic by snipers. The ambulance has been repaired four times after bullet damage. Bodies are lying in the streets because no one can go to collect them without being shot.

"Some said we were mad to come to Iraq; quite a few said we were completely insane to come to Falluja and now there are people telling me that getting in the back of the pick-up to go past the snipers and get sick and injured people is the craziest thing they've ever seen. I know, though, that if we don't, no one will."

There are also the long term, pernicious dangers of environmental poisoning. An environmental activist of many years and one who has worked with academics and activists in Iraq, establishing an ecological network, Wilding has used much of her previous knowledge of - and advocating against - Depleted Uranium contamination to take readings from bomb sites and to record the hidden casualities that continue to mount near these sites. Wilding acknowledges the complexities of distinguishing between pollutants, especially in a country, where since 1991, multiple assaults on immune systems have taken place. Through her investigations carried out at the Abu Ghraib area next to Baghdad airport, a very high level of auto-immune allergic
reactions were found, resulting in the affected body basically attacking itself.

The rise in illnesses and health problems mirrors the trend after Gulf War One. Many doctors comment that it is too early to tell what effects this latest, additional burden of magnitude of DU will bring. The clowns are unsure of the full implications of what they are currently witnessing; they are certain nothing is being done to alert or prevent the population from being continually contaminated by DU. For an example, Wilding cites:

"..... a tank cemetery near Al-Daura where several square kilometres worth of burnt out tanks have been dumped. I can't remember the percentage of defeated tanks that were targeted with DU, but it was a majority. Men and children cut pieces of metal off the tanks to sell to traders who melt the metal down for re-use. I met a fourteen year old boy called Aala who came every day to cut metal. He explained that each group or family had its own territory within the cemetery where it was entitled to salvage. There are no warning signs, no attempts to keep people out, and no health checks. Aala said no one had ever been to warn them except some people he thinks were British journalists, who told him it, might be dangerous?"

The Value of the Circus

With the educational infrastructure in chaos - schools not being refurbished, no teaching materials, not even a national curriculum yet written, security collapsed, teachers unable to protect children from kidnappings - the circus is proving a unique niche, with many children finding safety and sanctuary at the performances.

Having little contact with the new administration, beyond obtaining a permit from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to entertain at orphanages, the circus is left largely to it own devices. The clowns meet the occasional soldier - mainly at checkpoints - with one pointing out that: "We're trying to do exactly the same thing as you are. We give the kids sweets to try and win their trust."

Wilding argues that this particular soldier and the many others who walk the streets are missing the point. Ability to interact with the Iraqi communities contrasts with the isolationism and siege mentality that the US, and to a lesser degree, the other occupation forces are display. There is a "non-Iraqi workers only" rule at "Burger King", with rigid contractual restrictions on locals and the import of foodstuffs, rather than building bridges by local purchasing. Justifiably resentful Iraqis, broke, deprived and occupied, now target and burn the supply trucks so that even the military are in many areas suffering severe shortages.

A recent short film on Channel 4's news showed the psychological pressures the US army, with its large numbers of suicides and staff off sick due to depression, is now facing. The footage was intersperced with the Circus2Iraq group, performing with a full room or market square of children and parents hooting and hollering in merriment. The first point to cross one's mind was that the victor was already in view - and it wasnąt those in military uniforms.

Jo, Amber, Peat and the many other volunteer clowns, acrobats, and musicians who instill a positive mood into the children of Iraq are determined that their efforts must grow, not alone in providing a circus, but also in linking the children, university students, schools and teachers, with their peers around the world, providing solidarity and dialogue. Wilding aims for links between schools, friendships, children exchanging drawings, letters, photos and building initiatives, even schools "twinning": raising funds for materials, equipment for their sister school in Iraq. Dialogue between teachers, exchange of ideas and methods is also vital.

With commitment, these goals can be realised. The circus has already made an impact by raising money for a home for 125 families at an old farm near Shula. Money was desperately needed to rebuild the water systems to provide fresh running water. Through e-mails, funds were raised to build a drain in a number of days.

To maintain this project, Circus2Iraq needs support. The clowns' selfless approach is defined by the request that they make on their website, i.e. enough to support their living costs, a van, and most important circus tools, crayons, paper, and of course parachutes and other essentials to play their games.

In a climate of exploitation, with occupying soldiers dying for oil and multi-national greed, it is humbling to witness the empowering few who are giving something back to those who have lost so much. The occupation forces are attempting to harness a nation through weapons and war. As long as the tiniest toddler and oldest pensioner are still able to laugh at the simplest joke, the spirit will flourish and the occupation will flounder

Force cannot defeat a nation as long as imagination and creativity sparkles. Iraq does not just have one Scaramouche, they multiply in the wake of Circus2Iraq. Sabatini, sums up the situation of their colourful band very well when he says: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony."

Keep going, Clowns ! The peacemakers of the world are fully behind you !

For those who want to find out more of how you can support Circus2Iraq, then go to  http://www.circus2iraq.org/ &
 http://www.circus2iraq.org/pics.asp for wonderful "be there" pictures.

For those who wish to help the Clowns develop those essential links and exchanges between schools etc, then look at  http://www.wildfirejo.org.uk/ or contact Jo Wilding direct at:  gurneyernie@yahoo.co.uk

By Davey J.C. Garland

(Mr. Garland is a Contributing Editor for the U.N. OBSERVER & International Report, a Tutor in Radical Media at Lancaster University, (UK) and organiser for the Pandora Depleted Uranium Research Project  http://www.pandoraproject.org )

homepage: homepage: http://www.unobserver.com