:: Article

Two Million & Three

By Alistair Cartwright.

The Ten Years On conference that took place on February 9th was a milestone. It was the biggest anti-war conference this country has seen in five years. Anyone who knows Friends House will know that it’s a hard place to fill. The main space – with its tiers of old wooden pews fanning out in blocks of a hundred, like felled trees in a shallow crater, and its three galleries, which deceptively hold half as many people again – is more like an amphitheatre than a hall. It’s big without being grand or cavernous. But it has none of the power to channel and concentrate that your average town hall or lecture theatre does. It’s classic Quaker in this sense, designed for listening not to a preacher but to the person sitting next to you. But that Saturday Friends House was packed. By the time of the closing speeches the only seat I could get was by a side door, perched on the edge of a step. Not ideal, because you couldn’t see a thing of the top table. You could hear fine though, which is what mattered, most of the time. And even when you couldn’t there was enough goodwill to compensate for the direst acoustics.

In the opening session one mic wasn’t quite enough to pick up Tony Benn. At 87 years old his words are still powerful but his voice has gotten fainter. So the five speakers pushed their five mics together — a gesture of solidarity I imagine him smiling at. And Noam Chomsky had to call in his technical assistant — his niece — to coax a glitching Skype connection back to life.

So I sat there with several others, ears trained on the stage and eyes pointing the wrong way.

Have you ever looked at something without seeing it? That’s exactly what I did for about six hours (in.c breaks, running between workshops, queuing for coffee, helping with ushering, talking in corridors). What I didn’t see was the thing we were inside of.

At about 5pm, when energy levels not assisted by caffeine or rabble rousing begin their natural tail-off, I saw this thing for the first time. US campaigner Phyllis Bennis was describing how the demonstrations of February 2003 followed the arc of the sun, starting in the Middle East, rippling through South East Asia, welling up in South Korea and Australia, sailing the Pacific to the US West coast, jumping from one city to another, before crossing the Atlantic to the UK, sweeping up through Scandinavia, and down through mainland Europe and North Africa. The same slogan in 150 languages. What became known as ‘the uncommitted six’ was a phenomenon left in the wake of this wave of protest: six dependents of US foreign policy, who this time bucked the trend and voted against — Mexico, Chile, Guinea, Cameroon, Angola and Pakistan. It meant the defeat of the second UN resolution that the US and the UK sought as a legal go-ahead for the war.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, between the far sides of the Pacific and the Atlantic, I started looking at the faces in the audience.

Scanning the crowd I saw faces black and white; heads grey, red, mohawked and crew-cut; and among them what must have been the youngest delegates of the day: a boy about 13 years old squeezing sideways down a row of seats, right in the middle of the hall.

When he reached his seat I saw he was with two others, a girl and a boy the same age. Out in the corridor I managed to catch the whole family. The parents peeled away and let the kids do the talking. They were a sister and a brother, Sheween and Dereen, and their cousin Daroon.

Only Daroon was on the February 15th demonstration, which is not surprising when I learn that his father is Iraqi dissident and antiwar campaigner, Sami Ramadani. At the time Daroon was four years old. He remembers only a few things: a home made placard, a whistle bought from a demo-hawker, and above all the noise. The noise drowns out the other details. It’s clearly a strong memory for him but nearly impossible to describe. An event, an object, a person or a place would be easy, but how do you describe an intensity?

* * *

The three young people I spoke to represent a generation that has grown up with war. The war on terror has brought death and destruction to Afghanistan and Iraq. Under the cover of humanitarian intervention it has been extended to Libya and Syria. Now in Mali and Somalia the old term is openly reprised. But this war has also stoked racism and hollowed out democracy at home. Born and raised in Britain, with family in Iraq, Sheween, Dereen and Daroon have in some ways seen the worst of both worlds.

They came out of the conference a mixture of intense interest, some sadness, plenty of excitement, and hope. Daroon was all smiles and the words came tumbling out of him. Articulating ideas, shaping and colouring them with speech, and reciting, speedily and somewhat breathlessly, the flow of events, seem to spurr him on. As if talking kept his smile going. His cousins are more quiet but far from listless and not exactly shy. When I ask if they plan to be on the next protest, Sheween is the first to interject: a declamatory ‘yes!’. Her brightness comes in bursts, clarifying and reaffirming, or jolting the conversation onto the next stage.

Dereen, who I spotted in the audience, is in many ways more unassuming. What sticks in the mind are his selections: of examples, instances, events, objects and tales. He speaks slower than his cousin and less definitively than his sister, but everything he alights on is in some way bigger than its immediate contents. Every selection opens up a vista.

Like when I ask him for his highlght of the day and he tells me about a leaflet outlining the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian and the youngest person to have been held at Guantanamo Bay. Khadr was 15 when he was arrested in Afghanistan, allegedly following a firefight that killed a US soldier. He should have been treated as a child soldier, in other words released and rehabilitated. Instead he was tortured and held without charge for three years. Last autumn he finally returned to Canada where he remains in prison awaiting parole. He is 26 years old, the same age as me.

Khadr’s story reminded Dereen of the dangers of him and his sister’s visit to Iraq in 2007. Sectarian violence was then at its height. The role of the US divide-and-rule strategy in engineering this situation is well known. In 2004 Sunni and Shia militias fought alongside each other in the resistance. They drove back US troops in Fallujah and had the British vitrually confined to Barracks in Basra. Sectarian co-option was the strategy devised to try and turn this situation around. It half succeeded, although success is not the word: the resistance was immobilised by drowning it and half the country in blood. In the process Bush and Blair lost their cherished dream of Iraq as a stable base of operations in the Middle East. Elections and the creation of a new government were a farce; the oil law that would give the multinationals a constitutional guarantee fell through time after time; finally Maliki kicked out his own patrons, with a polite ‘no’ to Obama’s request to extend Bush’s Status of Forces agreement. Of course the neoliberals didn’t do so badly. Halliburton cleaned up in a botch-job reconstruction. BP and ExxonMobil are also in there, pumping millions of dollars out of the country, but they sit less comfortably than they would have liked alongside French, Russian and Chinese competitors. The set up is far from stable. It is basically cowboy territory; hegemony fast and loose.

Sheween and Dereen’s family are from Kurdistan. The two of them are well aware of the tensions and frailities existing between that region — where amid the chaos, the Barzani government has pushed for autonomy and cut advance deals with the oil companies — and the rest of the country. They wish next time they will be able to vist Baghdad, and that Iraq will be a unified Iraq.

At the same time they talk about the beauty of the country. About Sulaymaniyah, known as the cultural capital of Kurdistan, and how they were amazed to find it surrounded by mountains on all sides, like a bowl — a three dimensional experience I imagine no picture postcard can replicate.

Dereen mentions Basra which they also visited. He remembers a soldier coming to speak to their class in school. The soldier described Basra as a desert. But Dereen knew the city was once regarded as the Venice of the Middle East: when Sheikh Zayed built Abu Dhabi, Basra was his model.

Dereen describes how the city used to be surrounded by palm trees, whose shade and shelter held back the creeping desert. Basra sits squarely within the band of desert encircling North Africa and the Middle East, the Syrian desert to the west and the Sahara beyond that. It is one of the hottest cities in the world. But within the desert there is an oasis: the world’s largest Palm grove, including orchard after orchard of hardy date Palms. Lodged in the basin of the Shatt al-Arab river, which carries the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris into the Persian Gulf, this was Iraq’s most fertile agricultural region. But war and neoliberal policies forced many farmers off the land. Basra’s orchards, with their dense tree cover and crucial position on the Iraq-Iran border, have been a battle ground three times in the last thirty years. If famers weren’t deterred by violence and unexploded mines, they had to contend with the destruction of the city’s water and electricity infrastructure during the bombing of March 2003. Then the new government cut subsidies and dropped protectionist measures. The result is acres of farm land uprooted, dredged and sold off for urban sprawl.

* * *

From earlier in the day I remember two phrases, a statement and a question. Something said by John Rees, an officer of Stop the War Coalition, and something asked by Tariq Ali. The statement, that if this movement didn’t exist we would have to invent it. The question, what happened to the two million people who marched in 2003?

Being rhetorical, it was natural that the questioner should answer his own question: the fact is that many who demonstrated in 2003 wholeheartedly and without a shadow a doubt expected the demonstration to succeed — then and there, in its immediate goal, before the war had even started. If it had done it would have been unprecedented. Movements of opposition have constrained, hampered and derailed existing wars. None so far has prevented a war from happening in the first place. It was necessary then for everyone on the 2003 demonstration to learn a lesson about political struggle. We had to learn that every gain worth holding onto, whether the right of women to vote or the end of Apartheid, is hard won; that major social transformation, even when it happens suddenly, all at once and on a seismic scale, doesn’t come overnight; that every movement has a prehistory, and if it doesn’t, if it explodes onto the scene as something new and at least partly unforseen, then it needs to create and live through this prehistory.

Being rhetorical, it was also a question asked in the plural. ‘What happened to all those people?’ was a question for this room full of people to take up and ask itself.

Here’s what happened to three of them.

Alistair Cartwright
has writing published and forthcoming in the poetry magazines The Delinquent and Department, in the London Consortium journal Static, and in the ‘nocturnal’ Nyx. He writes reviews and features for Counterfire.org and is an editor of DifferentSkies.net, a new online publication for experimental prose and creative non-fiction.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 22nd, 2013.