from Nonviolence Today,
Australia’s nonviolence magazine,
ceased publication August 2000
At 3am on 17 January 1991, members of the Gulf Peace Team camped on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia were woken by the sound of heavy bombers flying overhead.
Thirty minutes later, crowded in the dark around Neville Watson’s short wave radio, we heard the regular BBC broadcast interrupted by an urgent bulletin: the bombing of Baghdad, and the Persian Gulf war, had begun.
Despite the long history of nonviolent struggle throughout the world, the idea of interposing a nonviolent peacekeeping team between two warring military forces is essentially a twentieth century idea.
Since it was suggested, there have been several proposals or attempts to put the idea into action.
This attempt was the first to succeed in placing a team in the war zone.
The idea for the Gulf Peace Team in one form or another had occurred to several people simultaneously around the end of September 1990.
However, it was Pat Arrowsmith, a veteran peace activist in England, and David Polden – secretary of a local Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament branch – who called a meeting of interested people on 1 October 1990.
From this meeting a working committee evolved. It decided on the name Gulf Peace Team and used the name in a letter released to the press calling for volunteers and donations.
It also drafted the policy statement which included the important words: ‘We are an international multi-cultural team working for peace and opposing any form of armed aggression … by any party in the Gulf.
We are going to the area with the aim of setting up one or more international peace camps between the opposing armed forces.
Our object will be to withstand non-violently any armed aggression by any party to the present Gulf dispute…. We as a team do not take sides in this dispute and we distance ourselves from all the parties involved, none of whom we consider blameless….’1
The Advance Party
In November the composition and objectives of the Advance Party were decided.
On 16 November members of the party travelled to Amman where some preliminary arrangements were made before they flew on to Baghdad.
In Iraq the Advance Party stayed at the World Peace and Friendship Camp on al Aras Island; this became the Baghdad base of the Gulf Peace Team.
After three weeks of meetings with officials of the Organization of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity as well as members of the Iraqi government, on 6 December the Advance Party was informed that permission had been granted to establish a camp.
A few days later a site was chosen at Judayyidat Ar’ar on the Iraqi-Saudi border about 420 kilometres south-west of Baghdad.
It was a pilgrims’ resting place at the Iraqi border post on the road to Mecca.
It was agreed that the camp would be autonomous and that there would be media access to the camp. However, while the Team would buy its own food and pay for transport, water would have to be supplied by Iraqi tankers.
Despite some obvious logistical dependency and some concern that they were accepting too much from the Iraqi authorities, members of the Advance Party felt that they had gone a long way to achieving their objectives.
The Gulf Peace Camp The Gulf Peace Camp was established on 24 December 1990 when the first group of activists travelled from Baghdad to Ar’ar.
The camp was about 500 by 200 metres in area and enclosed by a high perimeter fence.
It contained a long line of corrugated iron roofs (without walls) under which there was a line of joined tents.
There were showers and squat toilets in two old caravans.
A kitchen area had been created in a large shed.
On 31 December, some Iraqi officials, several television crews and several more volunteers arrived.
During a news conference, an open letter which Team members wished to present to the ‘Commanders of the International Armed Forces’ on the Iraqi-Saudi frontier was read out.
After some initial encouragement, this proposal was blocked by the Iraqi government.
On 1 January 1991, the Iraqi officials, media and many volunteers left.
There were just ten activists left in the camp.
In the Baghdad village during the early days of January, there was evident fear among activists about being in the camp at the expiry of the UN Security Council deadline on 15 January.
Regrettably, the poor organization and communication which had characterized the project so far reinforced this.
There were rumours about large contingents of people coming, but little of substance.
Accordingly, the number in the camp built up only gradually.
After twelve last minute departures, at the expiry of the UN Security Council deadline at 8am local time on Wednesday 16 January 1991, there were seventy-three people (forty-five men, twenty-eight women) from fifteen countries in the Gulf Peace Camp.2 At 3am the following morning the entire camp was woken by the sound of heavy bombers heading for Baghdad; the Gulf War was about to begin.
It is impossible to adequately describe the impact which the outbreak of war had on the Gulf Peace Camp, given its implications for the camp as a whole and for the individuals within it.
Physically, it meant an immediate, indefinite and unknown threat to our collective and personal security which was complicated by our limited supplies of water, food and fuel.
Politically, it challenged our commitment to nonviolence and raised new questions about the relevance of our presence.
Emotionally, it was highly disturbing as people dealt with their anger, fear, sadness and despair.
From the outbreak of war until we were evacuated to Baghdad on 27 January, we had the chance to discuss and explore many aspects of our nonviolent vision.
However, it was the question of evacuation which was the most taxing and divisive in the ideological sense.
The Question Of Evacuation
Just prior to the war, activists at a camp meeting had brainstormed a list of scenarios with which the camp may have been required to deal; these included a diverse range of contingencies including a missile or gas attack, food poisoning, the possibility of receiving no further supplies and a helicopter rescue/kidnap by the United Nations forces.
While there was a brief debate about the appropriate response to the possibility of evacuation by the United Nations forces (which was neither concluded nor resolved), and many other issues generated considerable discussion during the existence of the camp, undoubtedly one of the most important and contentious debates focussed on the question of whether to accept or resist evacuation by the Iraqis.
There was also a short-lived debate about whether we should belatedly set up a new camp on the actual borderline.
The argument in favour of resisting evacuation by the Iraqis centred on the point that we had come to resist violence and that by resisting evacuation and remaining in camp, we would at least be able to deter, and perhaps to resist, an Iraqi attack across the border near the camp.3 On the other hand there were several reasons offered for accepting evacuation without resistance and, to some extent, these reflected the altered circumstances created by the outbreak of war.
Ideologically, the Gulf Peace Camp’s capacity to non-violently resist violence by both sides had been seriously compromised.
This was significant given the structural violence built into Middle Eastern society and the concern that nonviolent resistance to physical violence not be used inadvertently as a tool to reinforce existing structures of political oppression and economic exploitation.
Politically, it was evident that our continuing presence in the camp compromised our neutrality – particularly given the structural shortcomings (including our logistical dependency on Iraqi supplies) built into the project by the refusal of the Saudis to accept the Gulf Peace Camp as well.
By using scarce Iraqi resources, we were clearly assisting (in a very small way) the UN forces.
Morally, the belief of the Iraqis that our continuing presence posed a threat to Iraqi lives was cause for considerable concern – partly because of the relationship we had built with ordinary Iraqis involved with the camp who felt some responsibility for our safety.
Even if we did not agree with their assessment of the risk – which we had no way of gauging – it was clear that we posed no equivalent risk to the UN forces.
In any case, it was also clear that our assessment of that risk was secondary to theirs; we were talking about their lives, not ours.
Strategically, it was apparent that remaining in the camp (and becoming increasingly irrelevant because of our inability to communicate) was a poor alternative to various other possibilities, especially for some activists.
This argument, however, did hinge to some extent on one’s reasons for coming to the camp in the first place.
For those who judged that the political impact of the interposition was more important than any of the possibilities for physical intervention, this argument was particularly persuasive.
Despite ten days of intermittent debate about whether to accept or resist evacuation, we were unable to reach a decision which would have allowed a united camp response.
Evacuation To Baghdad At 3am on Sunday 27 January two buses and a truck arrived together with the advice that we were all to be evacuated to Baghdad later that morning.
There were meetings at 4:30am and 8am to discuss resistance to the evacuation.
The tension in the camp because of this major ideological cleavage was very apparent.
In the end, thirteen people resisted by sitting in a semi-circle and holding a placard which read ‘We choose to remain. Peace be with you’ in English and Arabic.
After pleading with the group not to resist, it was left to two exasperated but friendly Iraqi officials to persuade some resisters to get onto the buses or to carry those who could not be persuaded.
Some activists verbally encouraged the removal of the resisters and this generated considerable ill-feeling in the group as the buses left the camp.
We finally left the Gulf Peace Camp at 11am and arrived at the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad that evening.
There was an excited reunion with eleven team members still in the capital.
There was no electricity; water was only available in the hotel for one hour each day.
We had a very light meal in the dining room which made us immediately aware that there was a severe food shortage in Baghdad as well.
After dinner we were urged to go immediately to the bomb shelter.
Several of us decided to return to our rooms first and when we did so we were immediately caught by the display outside our heavily sound-proofed windows.
We could see the bombing and the anti-aircraft fire right across the horizon.
We could see plumes of black smoke where bombs hit and the red line of tracers racing into the sky.
Sometimes the noise was so loud that we could hear it despite the sound-proofing; on at least one occasion we all ducked instinctively for cover as a loud bang went off near the hotel.
During our stay in Baghdad we asked the Iraqi officials to show us civilian damage caused by the war. We were taken on a tour of the milk factory – supposedly a chemical weapons plant – destroyed by UN bombing.
We were shown around Yarmuk Hospital where we saw civilian victims of the war and noted the severe shortage of instruments, bandages, medicines and anaesthetics.
We were also shown a suburban shopping centre and other buildings that had been bombed.
A brief expedition to a Baghdad bazaar gave us the chance to talk to Baghdadis and gauge their reaction to the war.
They were still very warm towards the ‘peace messengers’.
We shopped briefly which allowed us to gauge the sudden increase in price of some commodities; bananas were now $A2 each!
On 31 January we travelled west along the secondary highway to Jordan; there were several bomb craters in the road as well as several burnt-out vehicles including a truck carrying grain that was still burning.
We arrived in Amman at 3am on the following day.
Whatever its shortcomings, the Gulf Peace Team was profoundly significant both historically and politically.
Firstly, after decades of proposals and abortive attempts, it was the first nonviolent interposition in history.
Secondly, it did constitute a nonviolent presence in the war zone which drew public attention to alternative and peaceful solutions to the Gulf conflict.
Thirdly, it did inspire some grassroots resistance to the war.
And fourthly, it rapidly accelerated our learning in this vital area of nonviolent struggle.
However, it is equally clear that its shortcomings were legion and that the Gulf Peace Team raised a series of questions in relation to ideology, politics, strategy, morality and organization which need to be systematically addressed.4 It is now time for activists and scholars to reflect upon this latest experience in order to attempt to answer the fundamental question:
Is nonviolent interposition a viable and effective nonviolent sanction?
Robert J. Burrowes
1. Gulf Peace Team ‘Constitution’ 1990. p. 1.
2. The eight Australians in the Gulf Peace Camp were Steve Blair, Robert Burrowes, Liz Denham, Dean Jefferys, Jack Lomax, Tom Lynch, Jerry Smith and Neville Watson.
3. Two unconfirmed news reports after we were evacuated separately indicated that the Iraqi Army had attacked a Saudi village across the border at this point and that the camp had been destroyed by UN forces.
4. Some of these issues are discussed in a longer article to be published in a forthcoming edition of Social Alternatives.