Catching up with a human shield

A Year Later

March 20, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

March 19, 2003: The human shields waited nervously for the bombs. The media had predicted that the American air attack would begin about 4 in the morning, and Faith Fippinger was awake - just like everyone else in Baghdad, she figured.

The 62-year-old retired school teacher was living in a one-story stucco house, just like hundreds of others in the community surrounding the Daura Refinery in the south end of Baghdad. She shared the house with several activists who had traveled from Turkey, Australia, England and Germany hoping to help preserve the peace.

When Faith looked out the front window, she could see the homes of Iraqis who worked at the refinery. Children came to visit after school, showing off their dolls and bicycles. They also showed her the shelters they would use if bombs fell while they were in class.

No country in the world has the right to do that to a child, she remembers thinking. Perhaps her presence - and the presence of the other human shields - would spare this neighborhood.

Faith did not relish risking her life. She did not enjoy disobeying her government's orders to stay out of Iraq, and, once there, to leave it. In her mind, though, her mission was clear.

"I was in no way there to support Saddam Hussein and his military," she says. "I was there to support those innocent men, women and children caught between their domestic tyrant and the ambitions of the U.S. government."

Many human shields went home when they realized war was imminent. But this blond, middle-aged woman from Sarasota, Fla., refused to leave. The United Nations had designated the Daura Refinery - a place damaged during the 1991 gulf war - as a humanitarian site. Other human shields stayed at water treatment plants, food silos, communications centers. Faith chose Daura because its neighborhood had a school and a clinic - places she thought could use her help.

Before the bombs dropped, the peace activists e-mailed the White House to let the president know where they were. They reminded him that international law forbids the United States or any other country from harming or destroying facilities that provide essential services to the civilian population. They even painted HUMAN SHIELDS in huge dark green and black letters across roofs near their posts.

But such preparations provided slender comfort in the hours before the bombing began.

Faith steeled herself. Like her Iraqi neighbors, she gathered extra provisions, food and water. She spent long hours worrying over what was next.

In the early morning of March 19, she sat in the bedroom she shared with another activist, too jittery to pass the time by reading or talking or writing.

Instead, she prayed: Please don't come, please don't happen.

Four o'clock, the moment for the bombing, arrived.

"It was silent," she recalls. "And we waited. Then at 5:30 in the morning, the first missiles flew over the house. There was this amazing hissing whistle of sound. But even more [terrifying] than that was the explosion that rocked the house and shook the taped-up windows. Even more was the knowing that when each bomb struck, with each explosion, it probably killed someone. That seemed to go on forever."

Over the next few days, whenever there were periods of silence, Faith found herself hoping that the protests of millions of people were actually making a difference.

March 19, 2004: Yesterday, Faith planned to mark the first anniversary of the war at home, by herself, in her study. She would light candles on the altar she assembled according to her Buddhist beliefs. She would pray for her former Iraqi neighbors.

For the dead.

For the injured civilians she tended, in particular the young pregnant woman whose arms were amputated just before she gave birth.

For American soldiers, like the one who beckoned her over at the hospital.

"He said, `I don't want to be here, and I thank you for what you're doing,' " she recalls. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him and wonder where he is or even if he is. He and many many others will also be part of my vigil. ... The vigil is for all of us."

Faith remained in Iraq, helping out at the overcrowded hospitals, until the president declared an official end to combat on May 1.

A few days later, she returned to Florida. Having traveled in Asia for almost a year before the war, the activist was homesick and out of money. She needed a time-out to visit relatives and friends and tend to matters at home - such as maintenance on her 13-year-old Geo. Her ultimate goal was to travel back to Iraq to help children left homeless by the invasion.

First, though, she would tell Americans about the horrors of the war she witnessed. She needed to describe the "civilian death side of it," an aspect she considered under-reported. Over the summer and fall, the human shield spoke to dozens of journalists, appeared at peace rallies, and discussed her experiences with groups at churches, colleges and retirement homes.

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