AMMAN, Jordan, March 27 (UPI) -- I was wrong. I had opposed the war on Iraq in my radio program, on television and in my regular columns -- and I participated in demonstrations against it in Japan. But a visit to relatives in Baghdad radically changed my mind.
I am an Assyrian Christian, born and raised in Japan, where my father had moved after World War II to help rebuild the country. He was a Protestant minister, and so am I.
As an Assyrian I was told the story of our people from a young age -- how my grandparents had escaped the great Assyrian Holocaust in 1917, settling finally in Chicago.
There are some 6 million Assyrians now, about 2.5 million in Iraq and the rest scattered across the world. Without a country and rights even in our native land, it has been the prayer of generations that the Assyrian Nation will one day be restored.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Iraq with supplies for our Church and family. This was my first visit ever to the land of my forefathers. The first order of business was to attend Church. During a simple meal for peace activists after the service, an older man sounded me out carefully.
Finally he felt free to talk: "There is something you should know -- we didn't want to be here tonight. When the priest asked us to gather for a Peace Service, we said we didn't want to come because we don't want peace. We want the war to come."
"What in the world are you talking about?" I blurted.
Thus began a strange odyssey that shattered my convictions. At the same time, it gave me hope for my people and, in fact, hope for the world.
Because of my invitation as a "religious person" and family connections, I was spared the government snoops who ordinarily tail foreigners 24 hours a day.
This allowed me to see and hear amazing things as I stayed in the homes of several relatives. The head of our tribe urged me not to remain with my people during its time of trial but instead go out and tell the world about the nightmare ordinary Iraqis are going through.
I was to tell the world about the terror on the faces of my family when a stranger knocked at the door. "Look at our lives!" they said. We live like animals -- no food, no car, no telephone, no job -- and, most of all, no hope."
That's why they wanted this war.
"You can not imagine what it is to live like this for 20, 30 years. We have to keep up our routine lest we would lose our minds."
But I realized in every household that someone had already lost his or her mind; in other societies such a person would be in a mental hospital. I also realized that there wasn't a household that did not mourn at least one family member who had become a victim of this police state.
I wept with relatives whose son just screamed all day long. I cried with a relative who had lost his wife. Yet another left home every day for a "job" where he had nothing to do. Still another had lost a son to war and a husband to alcoholism.
As I observed the slow death of a people without hope, Saddam Hussein seemed omnipresent. There were his statues; posters showed him with his hand outstretched or firing his rifle, or wearing an Arab headdress. These images seemed to be on every wall, in the middle of the road, in homes.
"Everything will be all right when the war is over," people told me. "No matter how bad it is, we will not all die. Twelve years ago, it went almost all the way but failed. We cannot wait anymore. We want the war, and we want it now."
When I told members of my family that some sort of compromise with Iraq was being worked out at the United Nations, they reacted not with joy but anger: "Only war will get out of our present condition."
This reminded me of the stories I heard from older Japanese who had welcomed the sight of American B-29 bombers in the skies over their country as a sign that the war was coming to an end. True, these planes brought destruction -- but also hope.
I felt terrible about having demonstrated against the war without bothering to ask what the Iraqis wanted. Tears streamed down my face as I lay in my bed in a tiny Baghdad house crowded in with 10 other people of my own flesh and blood, all exhausted, all without hope. I thought, "How dare I claim to speak for people I had not even asked what they wanted?"
Then I began a strange journey to let the world know of the true situation in Iraq, just as my tribe had begged me to. With great risk to myself and those who had told their stories and allowed my camera into their homes, I videotaped their plight.
But would I get that tape out of the country?
To make sure I was not simply getting the feelings of the oppressed Assyrian minority, I spoke to dozens of other people, all terrified. Over and over, they told me: "We would be killed for speaking like this."
Yet they did speak, though only in private homes or when other Iraqis had assured them that no government minder was watching over me.
I spoke with a former army member, with someone working for the police, with taxi drivers, store owners, mothers and government officials. All had the same message: "Please bring on the war. We may lose our lives, but for our children's sake, please, please end our misery."
On my last day in Baghdad, I saw soldiers putting up sandbags. By their body language, these men made it clear that they dared not speak but hated their work; they were unmistakably on the side of the common people.
I wondered how my relatives felt about the United States and Britain. Their feelings were mixed. They have no love for the allies -- but they trust them.
"We are not afraid of the American bombing. They will bomb carefully and not purposely target the people," I was told. "What we are afraid of is Saddam and the Baath Party will do when the war begins."
The final call for help came at the most unexpected place - the border, where crying members of my family sent me off.
The taxi fares from Baghdad to Amman had risen within one day from $100 to $300, to $500 and then to $1,000 by nightfall.
My driver looked on anxiously as a border guard patted me down. He found my videotapes, and I thought: It's all over!
For once I experienced what my relatives were going through 365 days a year -- sheer terror. Quietly, the officer laid the tapes on a desk, one by one. Then he looked at me -- was it with sadness or with anger? Who knows?
He clinically shook his head and without a word handed all the tapes back to me. He didn't have to say anything. He spoke the only language left to these imprisoned Iraqis -- the silent language of human kindness.
"Please take these tapes and show them to the world," was his silent message. "Please help us ... and hurry!"
(The Rev. Ken Joseph Jr. lives in Tokyo and directs Assyrianchristians.com)