Feature: Odyssey of a human shield

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK, UPI Chief White House Correspondent  |  April 5, 2003 at 12:16 PM
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AMMAN, Jordan, April 5 (UPI) -- The cruise missiles, he said, made a "shushing sound" as they came in, and the explosion sent a shock wave "and you feel pressure on your chest, like the signs of a heart attack."

Tom Cahill, 66, a grandfather from the northern California coastal town of Fort Bragg, was describing in the Jordanian capital the 10 days he spent as a so-called human shield around a water treatment plant in Baghdad, enduring what U.S. military analysts called a "shock and awe" bombardment from the perspective of the bombarded.

Cahill is one of several busloads of volunteer human shields who went to Baghdad to deter coalition attacks from humanitarian institutions, schools, hospitals, electrical power generators and, in his case, a water purification facility. Last week several shields returned to Amman by bus. Many others are still in Iraq, Cahill said.

"We would go out and watch the attacks start," Cahill said, "and in my conscious mind, I was not afraid, but I realized later that in my subconscious mind, I was terrified." As the bombing continued chronic back pains that he had defeated years before came back. "I could feel my back tightening up."

"When I started to leave Baghdad my back was okay," as it is now, okay that he is back alive and unscarred and trying to tell his story in Amman and wherever people will listen.

Cahill is a photographer and one-time journalist as well as an activist for "peace and justice" virtually all his adult life. He has worked on labor issues, been jailed in San Antonio, Texas, as a result of his peace activities and, along with his sister, been the target of an FBI "COINTELPRO" operation in 1968 which he charges resulted in his imprisonment in a Texas jail and his brutal attack there by inmates.

In the Saraya Hotel -- the name means "palace" -- a neat, if not palatial 50-room hotel in Amman's working class district, Tom Cahill talked about the anger that brought him from retirement along California's beautiful north coast and a town that grew from a 1850s military post on the Mendocino Indian Reservation.

"This war is George W. Bush out to control the world," he argued, that arises "from America's greed." He stopped to point out half the world's billionaires live in the United States. "The U.S. needs to be cut down. The world doesn't need a superpower," he argued, "but an effective world organization."

Convinced that even if the war removed a dictator, it would terribly punish the Iraqi people, Cahill saw a notice on the Internet calling for human shields. He decided to go to London and volunteer. He didn't tell any of his friends for fear they would dissuade him.

He flew to London in February and joined the group brought together by Uzma Bashir, who is still in Baghdad. After staying with her mother for several days, a group was put together, the second wave to go, and flew to Amman.

They entered Baghdad by bus on Feb. 20 on a special visa. He had wanted to be a human shield at a children's hospital, but those slots were already taken. His shield group worked with an Iraqi "committee on friendship, peace and solidarity," which gave out assignments. Cahill had seen a documentary about the 1991 war, which showed the terrible disease and difficulties of the loss of a water treatment plant and that was his second choice.

In the weeks before the war, the group lived two to a room at the Palestine Hotel, where journalists are housed. In the weeks before the war, they could go downtown alone in a new car provided for their use. They were taken on trips to southern Iraq to hospitals where children were suffering from leukemia and other problems.

But when the bombing started things change. They took up their posts at the water plant, men and women living together in a dormitory. They had "minders" as the journalists do and were told not to walk on the street without them. One shield who did was set upon and beaten by police.

Through Cahill's time there, they were warned they were being electronically eavesdropped on. He said they devised a code name for talking about Saddam Hussein calling him "Fred" when they wanted to mention him. There so many photos, paintings and sculptures of Saddam, Cahill concluded he posed so much that he couldn't have time to govern.

There were no military activities at the water treatment plant, he said, but it was near old military barracks and they could see other military facilities in the area. The plant was not damaged but glass in nearby buildings was.

He personally saw no civilian casualties, but he said two Belgian doctors described horrendous injuries at a children's hospital where they worked.

After 10 days, the smoke from oil fires and bombings began to acutely affect many of the older shields and about a dozen or so left. "It is strange, I was willing to give my life, but not my health," Cahill said.

They were roaring down the highway to Amman when they were stopped by a group long-haired, armed men in desert uniforms. They all sat frightened in the bus until one shield, a woman from Australia, jumped up and ran out to talk to the soldiers. He could hear her say "G'day." She had seen the patches. They were Australian special operations soldiers.

Cahill, who served in Air Force intelligence from 1954 to 1958, said it made him angry. "That's the U.S. Air Force up there. If you go to Baghdad angry, you come back angrier."

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