Among the scores of British nationals preparing to be human shields in Baghdad last week was the Old Etonian Godfrey Meynell. Like many of the protesters, Meynell, 68, is not the sort of person who might be expected to risk his life in a city on the brink of being bombed.
A Cambridge graduate, he had joined the Foreign Office, served in Saudi Arabia, and become a classic English country landowner. The comforts of home are now far away. This week he cannot wait to move into a makeshift dormitory in Baghdad’s southern electricity plant and dare the American military to do its worst.
“We are here to occupy key sites to try and deter the Americans from bombing,” he said. “I just don’t believe there’s ever been such an unjust war wished on the British people in my lifetime.”
With his dusty Arabic phrase book (a souvenir of his Foreign Office days), he cuts a curious figure and betrays nerves under his determination.
“I do think if we have a large number of people in the sites it will be very difficult for them to bomb,” he said. “I really do think so.”
Another former civil servant is Sue Darling, a veteran of 23 years at the Foreign Office, who rejects Tony Blair’s arguments for war. “This is not a computer game,” she said. “War kills people and this is something that needs to be said over and over again.”
She, too, recognises the risks in the event of a blitz.
“Yes, I think anyone can get killed anywhere. I think if we do die here at least we’ll know why we are doing it while we are here. It is different for the Iraqi people,” she said sombrely.
As well as these middle-aged, middle-class protesters there was Joe Letts, a bus driver from Dorset, who had delivered 50 human shields to Iraq. “Like Godfrey, I am not keen on dying,” he said, “but if I die I want everybody to know I was here and why I was here.”
He’s there because he thinks America is “now proposing to kill millions of Iraqis”, but he appeared less committed than the others to stick around and be a part of the destruction.
Another protester was Peter van Dykes, a former member of the Royal Navy who said he had spent the past two years studying a Japanese philosophy based on unconditional love. “I have been received here with so much love and appreciation and gratitude,” he said, adding that President George Bush, by contrast, was “very unloved”.
The Iraqis have certainly welcomed the human shields and last week Dr Abdel al-Hashemi, a former ambassador and education minister, greeted them as “our courageous and noble guests”.
He listed the sites in Baghdad where human shields would be useful, including the oil refinery, water treatment plant, electricity power plant, food-storage facilities and communication centres.
The Iraqis naturally milk the protesters for all they can, and nobody can argue that the human shields are unaware of the risks they run if war begins. But as a group of 20 more flew out from Britain yesterday, including 12 Britons, the growing band may pose an awkward obstacle for the military planners.
Faced with warnings that Britons should leave Iraq and Kuwait, the peace protesters in Baghdad had one response. Karl Dallas, a 72-year-old grandfather from Bradford, put it thus: “The fact that our government is telling us to leave this country is an indication that they know civilian people are going to die.
“Well, we’re not going to go away. We’re going to stay and if they have to kill Iraqis they have to kill us.”
Katherina Soederholm, front right, a Norwegian, and other members of the “human shield” group, which includes Americans, Britons, Australians, Norwegians, Greeks, Swiss and Turks, speak to journalists in Ankara on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2003, before their departure for the Turkey-Syrian border enroute to Baghdad. Iraq granted visas to some 65 “human shields” traveling to the country to protest a possible U.S.-led war, a group member said Tuesday. (AP Photo)