By Rev. Ken Joseph, Jr.
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do you admit you were wrong? What do you do when you realize those
you were defending, in fact, did not want your defense and wanted
something completely different from you and from the world?
This is my story. It will probably upset everybody - those with
whom I have fought for peace all my life and those for whom the
decision for war comes a bit too fast.
I am an Assyrian. I was born and raised in Japan where I am the
second generation in ministry after my Father came to Japan in answer
to General Douglas Macarthur's call for 10,000 young people to help
rebuild Japan following the war.
As a minister and due to my personal convictions I have always been
against war for any and all reasons. It was precisely this moral
conviction that led me to do all I could to stop the current war
From participating in demonstrations against the war in Japan
to strongly opposing it on my radio program, on television and in
regular columns I did my best to stand against what I thought to
be an unjust war against an innocent people - in fact my people.
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.
Currently there are approximately six million Assyrians - approximately
2.5 million in Iraq and the rest scattered in the Assyrian Diaspora
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 and the people of the once great Assyrian Empire will
once again be home.
It was with that feeling, together with supplies for our Church
and family that I went to Iraq to do all I could to help make a
The feeling as I crossed the border was exhilarating - `home at
last, I hought, as I would for the first time visit the land of
The kindness of the border guards when they learned I was Assyrian,
the taxi, the people on the street it was like being back `home`
after a long absence.
Now I finally know myself! The laid back, relaxed atmosphere, the
kindness to strangers, the food, the smells, the language all seemed
to trigger a long lost memory somewhere in my deepest DNA.
The first order of business was to attend Church. It was here where
my morals were raked over the coals and I was first forced to examine
them in the harsh light of reality.
Following a beautiful `Peace` to welcome the Peace Activists in
which even the children participated, we
moved to the next room to have a simple meal.
in the world do you mean?` I asked.
could you not want peace?` `We
don't want peace. We want the war to come.`
next to me was an older man who carefully began to sound me
out. Apparently feeling the freedom to talk in the midst of
the mingling crowd he suddenly turned to me and said `There
is something you should know.` `What` I asked surprised at the
`We didn't want to be here tonight`. he continued. `When the
Priest asked us to gather for a Peace Service we said we didn't
want to come`. He said.
do you mean` I inquired, confused. `We didn't want to come because
we don't want peace` he replied.
`What in the world do you mean?` I asked. `How could you not want
peace?` `We don't want peace. We want the war to come` he
What in the world are you talking about? I blurted back.
That was the beginning of a strange odyssey that deeply shattered
my convictions and moral base but at the same time gave me hope
for my people and, in fact, hope for the world.
STRANGE ODYSSEY BEGINS
Beginning that night and continuing on in the private homes of relatives
with whom I stayed little by little the scales began to come
off my eyes.
I had not realized it but began to realize that all foreigners in
Iraq are subject to 24 hour surveillance by government `minders`
who arrange all interviews, visits and contact with ordinary Iraqis.
Through some fluke either by my invitation as a religious person
and or my family connection I was not subject to any government
`minders` at any time throughout my stay in Iraq.
As far as I can tell I was the only person including the media,
Human Shields and others in Iraq without a Government `minder`
there to guard.
What emerged was something so awful that it is difficult even
now to write about it. Discussing with the head of our tribe
what I should do as I wanted to stay in Baghdad with our people
during their time of trial I was told that I could most help the
Assyrian cause by going out and telling the story to the outside
Simply put, those living in Iraq, the common, regular people
are in a living nightmare. From the terror that would come across
the faces of my family at a unknown visitor, telephone call, knock
at the door I began to realize the horror they lived with every
Over and over I questioned them `Why could you want war? Why could
any human being desire war?` They're answer was quiet and measured.
`Look at our lives!`We are living like animals. No food, no car,
no telephone, no job and most of all no hope.`
I would marvel as my family went around their daily routine as normal
as could be. Baghdad was completely serene without even a hint of
war. Father would get up, have his breakfast and go off to work.
The children to school, the old people - ten in the household to
their daily chores.
`You can not imagine what it is to live with war for 20, 30
years. We have to keep up our routine or we would lose our minds`
Then I began to see around me those seemingly in every household
who had lost their minds. It seemed in every household there
was one or more people who in any other society would be in a Mental
Hospital and the ever present picture of a family member killed
in one of the many wars.
Having been born and raised in Japan where in spite of 50 years
of democracy still retains vestiges of the 400 year old police state
I quickly began to catch the subtle nuances of a full blown,
modern police state.
I wept with family members as I shared their pain and with great
difficulty and deep soul searching began little by little to understand
their desire for war to finally rid them of the nightmare they were
The terrible price paid in simple, down to earth ways - the family
member with a son who just screams all the time, the family member
who lost his wife who left unable to cope anymore, the family member
going to a daily job with nothing to do, the family member with
a son lost to the war, a husband lost to alcoholism the daily, difficult
to perceive slow death of people for whom all hope is lost.
The pictures of Sadaam Hussein whom people hailed in the beginning
with great hope everywhere. Sadaam Hussein with his hand outstretched.
Sadaam Hussein firing his rifle. Sadaam Hussein in his Arab Headdress.
Sadaam Hussein in his classic 30 year old picture - one or more
of these four pictures seemed to be everywhere on walls, in the
middle of the road, in homes, as statues - he was everywhere!
All seeing, all knowing, all encompassing.
`Life is hell. We have no hope. But everything will be ok once the
war is over.` The bizarre desire for a war that would rid them of
the hopelessness was at best hard to understand.
`Look at it this way. No matter how bad it is we will not all die.
We have hoped for some other way but nothing has worked. 12 years
ago it went almost all the way but failed. We cannot wait anymore.
We want the war and we want it now`
back to family members and telling them of progress in the
talks at the United Nations on working some sort of compromise
with Iraq I was welcomed not with joy but anger. `No, there
is no other way! We want the war! It is the only way he will
get out of our lives`
again going back to my Japanese roots I began to understand.
The stories I had heard from older Japanese of how in a strange
way they had welcomed the sight of the bombers in the skies
had been demonstrating against the war thinking I had
been doing it for the very people I was here with now
and yet I
had not ever bothered to ask them what they wanted.
course nobody wanted to be bombed but the first sight of the American
B29 Bombers signaled to them that the war was coming to an end.
An end was in sight. There would be terrible destruction. They might
very well die but finally in a tragic way there was finally hope.
Then I began to feel so terrible. Here I had been demonstrating
against the war thinking I had been doing it for the very people
I was here now with and yet I had not ever bothered to ask them
what they wanted. What they wanted me to do.
It was clear now what I should do. I began to talk to the so called
`human shields`. Have you asked the people here what they want?
Have you talked to regular people, away from your `minder` and asked
them what they want?
I was shocked at the response. `We don't need to do that. We know
what they want.` was the usual reply before a minder stepped up
to check who I was.
With tears streaming down my face in my bed in a tiny house in Baghdad
crowded in with 10 other of my own flesh and blood, all exhausted
after another day of not living but existing without hope, exhausted
in daily struggle simply to not die I had to say to myself `I was
How dare I claim to speak for those for whom I had never asked what
I COULD DO
Then I began a strange journey to do all I could while I could
still remain to as asked by our tribe let the world know of the
true situation in Iraq.
and with great risk, not just for me but most of all for those who
told their story and opened up their homes for the camera I did
my best to tape their plight as honestly and simply as I could.
Whether I could get that precious tape out of the country was a
I was not prepared for was the sheer
terror they felt at speaking out.
to make sure I was not simply getting the feelings of a long
oppressed minority - the Assyrians - I spoke to dozens of
people. What I was not prepared for was the sheer terror they
felt at speaking out.
and over again I would be told `We would be killed for speaking
like this` and finding out that they would only speak in a
private home or where they were absolutely sure through the
introduction of another Iraqi that I was not being attended
by a minder.
a former member of the Army to a person working with the police
to taxi drivers to store owners to mothers to government officials
without exception when allowed to speak freely the message was
the same - `Please bring on the war. We are ready. We have suffered
long enough. We may lose our lives but some of us will survive and
for our children's sake please, please end our misery.
On the final day for the first time I saw the signs of war. For
the first time sandbags began appearing at various government buildings
but the solders putting them up and then later standing within the
small circle they created gave a clear message they could not dare
They hated it. They despised it. It was their job and they made
clear in the way they worked to the common people watching that
they were on their side and would not fight.
Near the end of my time a family member brought the word that guns
had just been provided to the members of the Baath Party and for
the first time we saw the small but growing signs of war.
But what of their feelings towards the United States and Britain?
Those feelings are clearly mixed. They have no love for the British
or the Americans but they trust them.
`We are not afraid of the American bombing. They will bomb carefully
and not purposely target the people. What we are afraid of is
Saddam Hussein and what he and the Baath Party will do when the
war begins. But even then we want the war. It is the only way
to escape our hell. Please tell them to hurry. We have been through
war so many times,but this time it will give us hope`.
THE BORDER ... A FINAL CALL FOR HELP
The final call for help came at the most unexpected place - the
border. Sadly, and sent off by the crying members of my family
I left. Things were changing by the hour - the normally $100 ride
from Baghdad to Amman was first $300 then $500 and by nightfall
As we came to the border we began the routine paperwork and then
the search of our vehicle. Everything was going well until suddenly
the border guard asked if I had any money. We had been carefully
instructed to make sure we only carried $300 when we returned so
I began to open up the pouch that carried my passport and money
stuffed in my shorts.
Suddenly the guard began to pat me down. `Oh, no`! I thought.
It`s all over`. We had been told of what happened if you got caught
with videotape, a cellular telephone or any kind of electronic equipment
that had not been declared.
A trip back to Baghdad, a likely appearance before a judge, in some
cases 24-48 hour holding and more.
He immediately found the first videotape stuffed in my pocket and
took it out. I could see the expression of terror on the driver
as he stifled a scream.
The guard shook his head as he reached into my pocket and took out
another tape and then from pocket after pocket began to take out
tape after tape, cellular telephone, computer camera - all the wrong
We all stood there in sheer terror - for a brief moment experiencing
the feeling that beginning with my precious family members every
Iraqi feels not for a moment but day and night, 24 hours a day,
365 days a year. That terrible feeling that your life is not
yours that its fate rests in someone else's hands that simply by
the whim of the moment they can determine.
one born free a terrifying feeling if but for an instant.
the guard slowly laid out the precious video tape on the desk
we all waited in silent terror for the word to be taken
back to Baghdad and the beginning of the nightmare.
didn't have to say a word. I
had learned the language of the imprisoned Iraqi.
he laid the last videotape down and looked up. His face is frozen
in my memory but it was to me the look of sadness, anger and then
a final look of quiet satisfaction as he clinically shook his head
and quietly without a word handed all the precious videotape - the
cry of those without a voice - to me.
He didn't have to say a word. I had learned the language of the
imprisoned Iraqi. Forbidden to speak by sheer terror they
used the one language they had left - human kindness.
As his hands slowly moved to give the tape over he said in his own
way what my Uncle had said, what the taxi driver had said, what
the broken old man had said, what the man in the restaurant had
said, what the Army man had said, what the man working for the police
had said, what the old woman had said, what the young girl had said
- he said it for them in the one last message a I crossed the border
from tyranny to freedom . . .
Please take these tapes and show them to the world. Please
help us . . . . and please hurry!
Rev. Ken Joseph Jr. is an
Assyrian, a minister and was born, raised and resides in Japan where
he directs AssyrianChristians.com, the Japan Helpline and the Keikyo