Friday, August 3, 2018

Reflections from Weldon Nisly's presentation on his experience in CPT/ Kurdistan

By Verna Zook

            Around fifty persons attended our last JPOG meeting at Wellman Mennonite Church on Saturday, July 7, 2018, to hear Weldon Nisly address the topic "Building Peace in the Ancient-Contemporary Land of Iraqi-Kurdistan" about his work with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. 
  Following are some reflections written by Verna Zook with clarifications by Weldon Nisly and light editing by Roger Farmer.
            Weldon has many years of involvement with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and is now a CPT reservist.  His presentation focused mainly on Iraqi Kurdistan.  Weldon was with CPT in Baghdad when the US led bombing began in March 2003. He returned to Iraq in January 2010, again in 2014 at the height of ISIS activity, and most recently in April-June 2017 and 2018, returning to the US in mid-June.  So he has more than a passing acquaintance with Iraq and US involvement in the Middle East.
            Weldon’s perspective on the situation could be summarized thus: After the fall of communism in the early 1990’s, the United States and its allies needed a new enemy.  Nothing brings a people together like a war against an identified common enemy.  Particularly after the events of 9/11, the designated enemy became “terrorism”, and remains so.  The national identity of the United States is now tied to perpetual war, a situation wherein “(we) can’t win, can’t lose, can’t stay, and can’t leave”.  Later in his presentation in response to a question, Weldon related a conversation with a high level government official in Iraqi Kurdistan, during which it was suggested that what is driving much of the conflict in the Middle East is belief in “the great American lie,” which is that the answer to resolving all conflicts is war.  This belief basically gives countries in the region the permission to do as they please as far as invasion, bombing and other acts of war, as long as they are “fighting terrorism”.  War has become acceptable.
            Weldon began his presentation by quoting the first five verses of Luke’s gospel, and asking, “What is truth?”  He pointed out that all true stories take place in a specific context.  Luke’s context was the “imperial dominant warring Roman Empire.”  In a similar way, the first person stories Weldon shared with us happened and are still happening in the context of perpetual war.  Perpetual war, in which the US is involved, has become the “normal” state of affairs.
            Part of CPT’s work is to document acts of injustice, violence, and oppression.   Much time is spent in towns and rural villages, both Christian and Muslim, in the mountainous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, visiting with people, drinking tea, listening to their stories, and receiving their generous hospitality.  For example, one night Weldon lost his passport on the street in the neighborhood where the CPT house is located. Unbeknownst to him, his passport holder had fallen out of his pocket, including his passport, driver’s license, credit card, and money. Some boys found it and went to great lengths to find someone who could read English, going to several neighborhood markets until they found a local Kurdish man who knew English. Using the list of phone numbers in the passport holder to locate a member of the CPT team, the man called the CPT house that night yet and came to meet Weldon and return his passport holder with everything in it. 
             In some villages, huge craters remain after recent Turkish bombing.  A father who had lost a son in a recent bombing by Turkish warplanes, told the CPT delegation, “Be responsible for my son as if he were your son.”  Turkey’s military is encroaching further into Iraqi Kurdistan and frequently bombs mountain villages in the name of fighting the “war on terrorism” in collusion with the United States.  In addition to documentation with pen and camera, CPT works with local and international human rights and peacebuilding groups to actively resist violence by organizing workshops to train young people in peaceful methods of problem solving, and promoting understanding among various ethnic and religious groups.
            Weldon reminded us that this area is the home of ancient civilizations which go back to biblical times.  The contemporary city of Mosul, largely destroyed in the recent war with ISIS, is part of the ancient region of Nineveh.  Weldon showed a photo of a stone aqueduct, estimated to be four to five thousand years old.  The Assyrian Christian Church still active in Kurdistan traces its roots back to the early church in the book of Acts.
            Because of time constraints, Weldon was unable to say much about another truth - the refugee crisis, brought about by perpetual war.  In a subsequent e-mail, he wants us to know the following:
1. Currently, 68.5 million people are displaced by war and violence in the world (2017 UN documentation).
2.  The population of Iowa is 3.16 million.
3.  The number of displaced persons is equal to the number of persons living in the Midwest and plains states: Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and South and North Dakota!
            In the fall of 2017, Weldon spent two months with CPT in Palestine, living in the city of Hebron, monitoring the twenty-two (22) Israeli check points.  On their daily walk to and from school, Palestinian children must pass through one or more of these checkpoints.  Because of this, they are almost never on time, causing classroom disruption and teacher frustration.  Children are frequently interrogated, harassed and treated badly by the Israeli military at checkpoints.  CPT personnel are the primary documentarians for UNICEF.  Weldon related an incident in which sixteen boys, aged nine to sixteen years, were arrested for several hours before being released.  CPT works with other human rights groups to document Israeli arrest and mistreatment of Palestinian youth. It is difficult for Palestinian farmers and shopkeepers to deliver their goods to markets in a timely manner when they must navigate the checkpoints and be subjected to harassment and delays.  CPT works with Palestinian and Israeli peace groups to document the injustices and promote peaceful interactions between Israelis and Palestinians.
            Weldon suggested that there are four ways Christians have responded to war and violence. 
1.  Support war as the way to solve problems.
2.  Remain silent/neutral in the face of injustice and violence, which always supports war and violence.
3.  Actively resist war and work for peace.
4.  Cross over to the side of those who suffer from the violence and oppression of war to stand, sit, and sleep in solidarity with them, and collaborate with them to actively build bridges of understanding and friendships between peoples.

The vision and commitment of Christian Peacemaker Teams is “Building partnerships that transform violence and oppression.” While CPT works in multi-faith locations, it continues to be committed to the way of Jesus that exposes injustice and oppression which lead to war and actively works to bring about peace, understanding, and reconciliation in situations of conflict.

Thanks to Weldon for his timely report and insights into the difficult situations in Kurdistan and Palestine !

Verna Zook is officially "retired", but keeps busy with volunteer work and church involvement.  In recent years, she’s become more interested in how current issues of peace and social justice intersect with the Biblical mandate to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God", especially as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.  Her congregation, East Union Mennonite, Kalona, Iowa, is one of several that support JPOG (Just Peace Outreach Group) by hosting them among other things.

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