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Harmeet Sooden Interviewed By Sahar Ghumkhor

Harmeet Sooden Interviewed By Sahar Ghumkhor


23 July 2006

Sahar Ghumkhor: Upon arrival in Baghdad, what was your first impression of the city?

Harmeet Sooden: In Amman, Jordan, on the way to Baghdad, I met a little 3-year old girl Alaa’ – she ran up to me and gave me a big hug, just like my niece. Except she couldn’t really see me – her face and legs were peppered with micro-fragments of shrapnel.

In May of 2005, her older brothers, aged 4 and 5, were killed when a tank shell or rocket fired by the US military hit their home in the city of Al Qa’im in Iraq near the Syrian border. Three of her cousins were also killed. Alaa’ and about 8 others, mostly children, were injured. Her mother lost an eye. They were having a party.

Alaa’s father asked her to lift up her shirt. She complied obediently to reveal a large scar and hernia resulting from a crudely treated shrapnel wound. He turned to me and said: “Is this democracy?”

I’ve just heard from Alan Pogue, from Veterans for Peace. He’s been trying to get the family to the US for treatment. He says that when her father returned home from work on the day of the incident, Alaa's condition was so poor that a doctor on the scene had prioritised treating the other wounded children instead of Alaa’. Her father refused to give up and drove her for a couple of hours to get medical help. The doctor he found just sewed her intestines back together to placate the father. In Alan’s words: “That Alaa' lived actually is a miracle.”

This is just the story of one Iraqi refugee out of hundreds of thousands that have fled into Jordan over the past few decades, escaping one horror or another. I have relatives that have been living in refugee camps since 1947 in Kashmir. It’s not a pleasant experience.

We were greeted by the presence of blue-uniformed Gurkha guards at the Baghdad International Airport reminiscent of the depravity of the British Empire in India that my grandparents used to describe to me.

There were passengers at immigration control. Some of them were security contractors – highly paid mercenaries. Quite a few New Zealand soldiers have gone to Iraq as mercenaries. There were second-hand American Bradley vehicles lining the notorious Airport Road, each sporting a freshly painted Iraqi flag in an apparent display of Iraqi sovereignty; and kids squatting in a looted department store. All this had a veneer of normalcy in a city of blast walls.

Like Norman [Kember], I think it’s the people of Iraq we should be listening to. If we care to look that information is readily available.

Sahar Ghumkhor: You were in Iraq for only a short time before you were kidnapped. What did you witness amongst ordinary Iraqis?

Harmeet Sooden: Well, being captives did not prevent us from being witnesses.

We, like the Iraqi people, suffered from lack of food, an inadequate supply of electricity and shortage of kerosene during the cold winter. We actually went to the power generating facility in Al Dura to interview managers and employees before the kidnapping. The power plant was severely damaged in 1991 by American bombing – a war crime. Baghdad’s power infrastructure has not been operating at full capacity since then because of the US/UK-initiated UN sanctions. This stopped spare parts for public utilities and medical supplies reaching the people of Iraq for 12 years.

Much of the construction in Iraq has been US military facilities, concrete blast walls and oil extraction facilities. This is not really helpful to civilian populace. One reason the US has for the construction and reconstruction is to serve US companies, like Bechtel, which has been given a contract to rehabilitate the Al Dura power plant. Essentially, this is a way to relocate American tax dollars to the private sector – the US public footing the bill. It’s an assault on the American people. Another reason is for the US to be able to sell its client government to the Iraqi people. This has not worked, so far, because of the extremely insecure environment of occupied Iraq. So the US’s help is basically reduced to forcing compliance by violence.

The occupation is also economic in character, forcing the client government to sell off state-owned assets to privateers, easing legislation governing corporate behaviour and impoverishing the people as their resources flow out of the country.

Many Iraqis I spoke with believed the United States had invaded their country for its oil. Certainly, this is the first time the US has had troops in the centre of the foremost energy-producing region in the world, giving it greater control over other economies like the EU and China.

A soldier in the Iraqi National Guard quit when his son was born. He said it was too dangerous. Struggling for an income, he became a driver for CPT [Christian Peacemaker Teams].

There’s a women’s human rights group we went to visit called Iraqi Al-Amal. They have mobile clinics that travel throughout the country providing medical services as well as healthcare education to mainly women and children – groups that are always the first to suffer in war. They sponsor an income-generating programme for widows and legal seminars on women’s rights amongst other things. So the people are mobilizing themselves, as there is limited help from state agencies. The children, there that day, put on a marvellous play for us about racism in the contemporary United States.

An Iraqi priest we visited before the kidnapping said: “Iraq's recovery may take ten years or more. But we can't wait until the tragedy is over to work, laugh, and hope.”

Sahar Ghumkhor: News reports have implied you are a delusional Christian missionary. What is your relationship with Christian Peacemaker Teams and your reasons for going to Iraq with them?

Harmeet Sooden: Friends and family don’t consider me a Christian although I do have the confidence to identify myself as such if I wish. Some consider me a Sikh, some an atheist; others prefer to think of me as possessing secular values.

Anyway, words like “delusional Christian missionary” are a form of ignorance, having the effect of ridiculing and dismissing the work of organisations like CPT without understanding their work. In this instance, my religious identity is irrelevant.

First of all, I’m not a member of CPT. I joined a short-term delegation to Iraq. CPT’s delegations have proven to be an extremely effective tool in raising awareness in the West of the reality of occupation. I wished to acquire a greater understanding of the nature of the conflict and to learn various non-violent conflict resolution techniques. My role was to bear witness to the suffering of Iraqi people living under a harsh military occupation, and to provide this narrative, based on humanitarian interpretations of events, to a wider audience and as a Westerner to offer a sense of solidarity to the Iraqi people and human rights groups. CPT felt I had the required training and experience.

I was working as a software engineer for Oscmar International, a US-owned company based in Auckland that produces simulation and training equipment for “defence” forces. Oscmar had been awarded a contract to supply the Israeli Defence Force. Shortly after I resigned, an NZ peace organisation revealed that it had received leaked documents showing that although the NZ government had denied Oscmar an export permit, Oscmar, undeterred, tried to fulfil the contract by electronically transferring the completed design to the US for manufacturing. This exposure forced a rather reluctant NZ government to open an investigation. The NZ government’s final decision was that there was no case to answer and therefore no further action would be taken. No further explanation was given. There were student demonstrations outside Oscmar’s facilities. Sadly, the New Zealand government continues to support companies like Oscmar and weapons or weapons-related research and production. So, that’s another motivation for me.

You know, my great-grandfather was a soldier in the British Indian army. He was killed in Basra in 1916. Now a century later not much has changed.

Sahar Ghumkhor: Many would criticise Christian groups like CPT for exploiting the suffering of others – in this case the Muslim world – by taking advantage of a vulnerable environment and spreading Christianity. Could you comment on that?

Harmeet Sooden: Christianity informs the internal structure of CPT drawing upon centuries of Mennonite, Brethren and Quaker peacemaking tradition. Proselytizing is strictly beyond CPT’s mandate: aside from being potentially immoral, it would render CPT’s work virtually impossible.

CPT’s Iraqi working partners and welcoming bodies, know that CPT doesn’t evangelise nor provide any material humanitarian aid. It works ecumenically with other faiths. CPT assisted in the creation and training of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams a predominantly Shi’a group based in Karbala. CPT joined MPT in a carefully planned programme cleaning the streets of the largely Sunni city of Fallujah, after it was devastated by US forces in November 2004.

CPT went to Iraq with the approval of the Iraqi government in 2002 before the US invasion. At the time CPT supported the UN Weapons Inspection Program as a means to avert war and also exposed the injustice and deaths resulting from UN economic sanctions – initiated by the US and UK. UNICEF estimates that at least 500,000 children under the age of 5 died as a result.

CPT remained with the Iraqi people during the so-called “shock and awe” campaign of March 2003. In the aftermath of bombing, CPT documented and publicised the detrimental effects of the invasion on the civilian population.

CPT works with and advocates for families of people detained by the US military and collects testimonies of detainee abuse. In January 2004, CPT released a report documenting the systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners, which was ignored until the photographs of Abu Ghraib prisoners brought international attention to the issue. Lately, CPT had begun to work on prisoner abuse cases in prisons run by the Ministry of the Interior. Detainee work also entails accompanying detainee families to the Green Zone, the Iraqi Assistance Centre and secure areas like Iraqi Ministries – as internationals CPT members may have access to facilities and resources that Iraqis may not.

CPT connects Iraqi groups committed to non-violence to each other. This is where short-term delegations come in. CPT also trains them and, of course, learns from them. And it builds relationships between local and international human rights groups.

The Palestinian community in Baghdad is subject to intense harassment by Iraqi government militias. The US government basically did nothing. Last year, CPT managed to get some Palestinian families to the Syrian border and they were eventually accepted into Syria as refugees.

CPT also met regularly with the staff at the Baghdad central morgue. In late 2005, for unknown reasons their staff stopped supplying information. At the time about 50 bodies, showing signs of death by violence, were arriving every day – that’s not including military-related deaths. The daily death toll now is much higher.

More recently, CPT was documenting cases of torture by the Ministry of Interior. Some survivors have indicated US personnel were present during the incarceration and interrogations, which included electrocution of sensitive body parts and beating with plastic pipes.

Incidentally, the historic Iraqi Christian community is rapidly decreasing in size as a direct result of the conditions in their country. I think people should realise that CPT is a part of, in fact a tiny part of, a brave Iraqi non-violent movement.

Sahar Ghumkhor: Based on the reports made by CPT, how extensive is the problem of the coalition violating the civil liberties of Iraq? How accurate is the impression we have here in the West?

Harmeet Sooden: The “occupation” includes the actions of the multinational forces, the client government, and the insurgents. And one thing I’d like to make clear is that the crimes that stem from the occupation are the responsibility of the occupiers. That’s common sense.

Yes, as I mentioned before, I think the CPT’s projects in Iraq illustrate some of the problems people in Iraq have.

The impression we are getting in the West does not reflect the reality of the situation in Iraq. Western media is generally confined to the safety of the Green Zone and other fortified compounds and doesn’t get to see the suffering of the ordinary Iraqis but CPT is part of the local community living outside the Green Zone. Let’s just take New Zealand, specifically New Zealand media’s message, which is basically gleaned from international media outlets. There are a few central themes. One is racism. The other is Islamophobia. There’s a business-orientated bias. What opinions we adopt are mostly up to us.

Sahar Ghumkhor: In your press release you mentioned the complicity of the NZ government in Iraq. How influential a role have the NZ government played in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Harmeet Sooden: In 2003, the New Zealand government deployed “engineers,” a euphemism for army engineers, to Iraq under the direct control of British occupying forces. The NZ troops are mainly there to construct military facilities and repair military equipment – much like the British imperialists who commissioned the building of railways in British India (having destroyed indigenous industries), not for the local populace, but to transport goods and troops for the benefit of the British economy. The New Zealand Herald was lauding NZ’s achievement in criminal and undemocratic behaviour.

I don’t think these occupying forces particularly required the handful of NZ troops from a logistical point of view. Under the guise of helping Iraqis, NZ lent political support and an air of legitimacy to the crimes of the Anglo-American occupation and Coalition Provisional Authority (to which it donated token amounts of money.) There are potentially substantial opportunities for New Zealand business in the region and elsewhere and trade agreements to preserve and foster.

Reasons for New Zealand’s intervention in Afghanistan are similar.

The US demanded that the Taliban government (which grew out of US-financed anti-Soviet forces) hand over the people it suspected were involved in the destruction of the World Trade Centre otherwise it would bomb the Afghan people. The Taliban agreed to hand over the suspects to a third party for trial, an offer that was rejected by the US. It was only some time after the bombing began that the decision to overthrow the Taliban was announced. Anti-Taliban forces said the invasion was undermining their own efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within the country. The war planners went ahead with the attack on Afghanistan with the knowledge, based on their own assessments, that millions of people would be put at risk of starvation.

The New Zealand SAS has been operating there (intermittently) in a combat role since 2001 under US command. We didn’t know for weeks. Further deployments are still shrouded in secrecy. There are also troops participating in “provincial reconstruction teams.” NATO and the US, the primary sources of violence in the area, are bound by the laws of war and international humanitarian law. The NZ government has therefore, again, demonstrated its contempt for international law and human rights in general.

The Afghan people should decide what form their future should take. Not what I want, certainly not what US government or their Afghan subordinates want.

Sahar Ghumkhor: You also claimed a ransom was paid to secure your release. Could you comment on that?

Harmeet Sooden: I didn’t claim or believe that a ransom had been paid. That was asserted, falsely and knowingly, by NZ media and the BBC in their headlines, and replicated by others. What I actually said, as reported in the body of the same articles at the time, was that a negotiated settlement was “likely or highly probable” but I consistently said that I had no evidence. The official Canadian government position is that no ransom was paid. Furthermore, such irresponsible journalism, making a big deal of the issue of ransoms, could have increased the risk of kidnapping for other aid workers.

My position is that payment of ransom was one of the many possibilities. Likewise, I have no evidence or proof that we were rescued. A negotiated release can take the form of a “rescue.” The episode of ransom is fairly insignificant in this story. The key point I wanted to make was that the governments as institutions aren’t moral agents and don’t always behave ethically.

I knew that being kidnapped could possibly lead to deaths, to military involvement or ransoms. There were precedents. After all it’s currently a war zone. My position before I went into Iraq was clear: I did not want force or public funds (that could be better used elsewhere) to be used for my sake. My wishes were overruled – in the end I had no choice in the matter.

Sahar Ghumkhor: Paul Buchanan from the Political Studies Department claims in his article “Paying for the rescue of Western Martyrs” you and your colleagues suffer from the same ‘Martyr complex’ that of ‘Islamic Jihadists and Iraqi resistance fighters’. What is your response to those who believe you put yourself and others who helped in your release in harms way?

Harmeet Sooden: I will comment, but with reluctance, only because Mr. Buchanan’s misconceptions are common misconceptions.

From what I remember, he wrote that we found ourselves in a predicament because we have psychological problems and we’re naïve enough to confuse the US occupation of Iraq with the Israeli occupation of Palestine. And that legislation should be enacted that would require survivors, who ignore expert advice, to reimburse the government for costs associated with rescues to deter mercenaries, thrill-seekers and manic peace activists, lest they be infected by our example.

Pop psychology terms such as “martyr complex” are like any cultural trend: they appear and disappear and don’t require much thought. I’d rather live and I don’t like conflict zones. It can’t be said that fire-fighters want to be martyrs solely on the basis of their profession. What about soldiers? Mr. Buchanan believes the "Stockholm syndrome" doesn't apply in our case, because we were "sympathetic" to our kidnappers long before our capture. Yes, in a way as sympathetic as we are to US soldiers suffering in Iraq. But again, he employs “psychology” to draw parallels between resistance fighters and us. Such exercises carry no information.

CPT and its working partners are in a very good position to assess the conditions in Iraq, simply because the conditions are affecting them directly. The specific work of any CPT project, like Columbia, Palestine or Iraq, varies according to the nature of the conflict and the needs of the community in question. The thing all have in common is gross human rights violations.

Mr. Buchanan suggests we pay for the costs incurred by governments as a result of our captivity. That principle must also apply to governments for their crimes – the US government should pay due reparations to the Iraqi people (although that could never replace what they have lost) and compensation to US soldiers and aid workers. There are plenty of sources of funding such as war profiteers. CPT’s presence in Iraq was sanctioned by the US, Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi interim government.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences estimates that over 10 years, the war could cost as much as $2 trillion. The October 2004 Lancet report estimated 100,000 excess deaths since the US invasion in 2003. Violence accounted for most of these excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths and most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children.

You can see now how the use of language serves to distract us from the real issues at hand. We’ve already spent valuable time talking about diversionary trivialities. I find the article, by an academic of Mr. Buchanan’s calibre, to be irresponsible. I’m not sure what else to say.

CPT was already in Iraq before 2003 and relatively safe under the vicious Saddam regime. But foreign soldiers are under continuous threat of harm simply by virtue of being present in Iraq – that too on the basis of lies. These soldiers have my sympathy. I want them to be home and safe with their families.

Sahar Ghumkhor: There were claims made by those who helped in your release that you and your colleagues showed little gratitude. Could you clarify this?

Harmeet Sooden: CPT and the captives were vilified by sectors of the media, public and various officials by being called naïve, foolish, ungrateful, ineffective, uncooperative, inexperienced, untrained and so on.

It doesn’t take much effort to expose such things as false. I’ve already talked about the CPT’s work. In particular, I was astonished to read that Norman was accused of “not thanking the troops.” I also read that photos on the walls of the SAS compound in the Green Zone depict otherwise. I, also, did actually thank the troops in person in the same way I would’ve thanked an equally brave and courteous Baghdadi taxi driver for escorting us to the Green Zone. We wouldn’t have been kidnapped in Iraq – we wouldn’t even be in Iraq – if not for the actions of these soldiers’ employers.

We cooperated and continue to cooperate with British and Canadian authorities to promote human rights and conflict resolution. Governments are also CPT’s working partners.

Again, such disparaging remarks have the effect of drawing one’s attention away from the real issues at hand. The UNAMI [United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq] Chief of the Human Rights Office and the Deputy Head of the Red Cross Iraq Delegation both acknowledged the important and valuable role CPT plays.

Sahar Ghumkhor: During your capture, what kind of insight did you have on the nature of the insurgency in Iraq?

Harmeet Sooden: In our situation, not much beyond speculation, I’m afraid. We only interacted with low-level members of the group. The authorities have not been very forthcoming in terms of sharing information. What I’ve seen in the media so far is largely unsubstantiated. In time, research will reveal more. Our captors were, of course criminals, having abducted us, but it is likely that they were also insurgents and members of the armed resistance.

What’s referred to the insurgency or armed resistance is complex but it was formed in reaction to the occupation. The background of our immediate guards, who said they were Sunnis from Fallujah, illustrates why. One asked me: “What would you do if Canada was invaded by the Americans? And your family killed? Your home destroyed? Your livelihood taken away?” I replied, “I don’t know,” because I have the luxury of a non-violent approach.

Our immediate guards and their handler were adamant that they were not related to the so-called “Jihadi” groups and would not hand us over to them. They emphatically told us that they didn’t see “Zarqawi” as representing their interests. They claimed they had kidnapped us to raise funds to fight the insurgency, to purchase arms, to pay their fighters and so on. They used the same pejorative words to describe Bush and Saddam. They said they would not be treating us relatively well if we had not been “men of peace”. They murdered Tom, an American national, which shows they are as ruthless as the US forces whose widespread atrocities are only now coming to light – although the means of violence available to the US is vastly greater.

But please note: there’s a very large non-violent resistance, which is very powerful. It forced the occupiers to allow elections, it’s not much but it now means that the people have a little more say in the running of their country. This is what CPT is trying to support.

In a recent interview, Jim [Loney] said he eventually came to see our captors “as good people who had been infected with a toxic kind of religion.” I feel that shrewd observation should be extended to our own nationalistic societies.

Sahar Ghumkhor: John Pilger says that the conflict should not be referred to as ‘sectarian violence’ but believes that the ‘Salvador Option’ has been evoked. Is this a reasonable assertion?

Harmeet Sooden: “Sectarian violence” is an interesting phrase. It tends to disguise the fundamental causes of the violence by pandering the racist assumption that Iraqis are mindless killers. And it overlooks the fact that the cause of current ethnic and sectarian tensions has roots in the creation of the modern nation-state of Iraq by the British, exacerbated by Western-supported regimes and especially the US-led Gulf War in 1991.

This “sectarian violence” – or in this context its more severe synonym “civil war” – is part of the US’s evolving strategy. The illegal US invasion and harsh occupation resulted in the creation of the resistance. The US then opted to use a sectarian approach and restructured Iraq’s political institutions to favour Shi’a and Kurdish groups but with the US keeping much of the power arrangements in its favour. The US trains and arms them to fight the Sunni-based resistance and any others who don’t fall into line.

Now the US has to stay to protect its client regime and also to make sure it doesn’t take an independent course. The Salvador Option or death squads are integral to this strategy. I’ve no reason to doubt John Pilger who’s backed by many others such as Robert Fisk, Dahr Jamail, Patrick Cockburn etc. Baghdad’s central morgue is overflowing with evidence.

An occupying army should comply with international law and remain only if there is strong evidence that shows the occupied people want it to stay. My personal experience and various studies indicate the people of Iraq overwhelmingly want the occupiers to leave. A gradual timed withdrawal would remove the major source of violence in this conflict and also any rationale for an armed insurgency. There are many feasible scenarios of withdrawal. Otherwise chances of these groups reconciling are slim.

Sahar Ghumkhor: During the period of your capture, despite the efforts of SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine], AUSA [Auckland University Students’ Association] and the University declined the opportunity to show support for your release. Their reasons being it would jeopardise your chances of being released. What are your thoughts on this?

Harmeet Sooden: Unfortunately I don’t consider the particulars of my university’s behaviour important much beyond the personal. As such I don’t really know much. Many colleagues, students and lecturers alike, have expressed great disappointment. Of course, the university had shown support through a letter posted to my family and stated it would act in a manner so as not to jeopardize our lives during captivity. The president of AUSA has admitted to me, informally, that the university was “a little too harsh,” but I don’t know exactly what he was referring to.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the support we received from a range or people and groups around the world. I didn’t really expect so much. From friends, family, soldiers and government officials, people I’ll never meet, virtually all Palestinians (who are enduring a harsh and brutal Israeli occupation) and Jewish groups, Hezbollah and Lebanese Christian leaders, New Zealanders and Canadians, the Muslim community worldwide, including Iraqi human rights activists, called the Independent Activates, who held vigils and took to the streets demonstrating and calling for our release. One of the Activates offered to exchange his life for our release. The Muslim detainees still held in Canada under security certificates – three of them said they valued our freedom more than their own. No charges have been brought against them just like a large proportion of Iraqis in US custody.

Where is the support for the victims of this war? Our plight received a lot of media attention. Where is the coverage of Army Staff Sgt. Stacey C. Brandon? Where are the stories about Zeynab, Noor, Mohammid and Mohanid, the nieces and nephews of one of our captors – children killed by US soldiers?

Sahar Ghumkhor: Clearly CPT has not let your kidnapping and other possible dangers hinder their work in Iraq as they have already sent another group into Iraq. Do you agree this is a wise decision considering Tom Fox’s death? And if given another opportunity, would you go back?

Harmeet Sooden: Members of CPT chose to remain in Baghdad during the hostage crisis. CPT is in constant dialogue with Iraqi NGOs and other advisors about its work in Iraq including its continued presence. After our release, based on these discussions, they decided to leave temporarily, because of security concerns and then re-evaluate the situation.

CPT has now returned to Iraq to a location outside Baghdad but the Iraqi government so far has refused to renew current resident visas or issue new ones for CPTers.

I have to continue to work for peace; commitment, not necessarily location, is what’s important.

ADDENDUM: My words appearing in a recent NZ Herald article, entitled "Ex-hostage blasts NZ role in Iraq, Afghanistan," require clarification. The quote from the original interview: "The NZ troops are mainly [in Iraq]..." contains a typographical error and should read "The NZ troops were mainly [in Iraq]..." The spokesperson for the Minister of Defence is correct in stating that "army engineers...had been in Iraq for one year from 2003 to 2004." It was my responsibility to proofread the transcript before submission. - Harmeet Sooden (20/8/06)

*************

This article first appeared in Craccum, the weekly magazine produced by the Auckland University Students' Association of the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Sahar Ghumkhor and Harmeet Sooden are students at the University of Auckland. Harmeet can be reached at harmeet_sooden(at)yahoo.co.uk

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