In 1963 a young Gene Stoltzfus, Mennonite conscientious objector, found himself working with International Voluntary Services in Saigon, Vietnam. Daily faced with the carnage of the Vietnam war, he had to ask himself “whether I was as willing to die for my convictions as the Vietnamese and American soldiers all around me were being asked to do.”
His answer led him to a 45 year career in peacemaking, first with a succession of Mennonite organisations, and latterly as co-founder of the Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Stoltzfus was in Hastings on April 17, the second stop of a multi-city UK tour. Speaking to a meeting organised by Hastings Against War and local Quakers, Stoltzfus spent most of his talk describing the experiences of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Baghdad in the months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Christian Peacemaker Teams were set up in the late 1980s in response to a desire to have some well-trained people who could “make peace in times of war.” Stoltzfus was the first paid staff member and over the next few years helped organise training workshops and conferences to explore models of peacemaking. Their first delegation to Iraq happened in 1990, just before the first Gulf War. In 2002, just before the second Gulf War, they already had a team in place. Their team, including Stoltzfus, was in Iraq throughout the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.
While exploring contacts with local communities, the CPT teams were thrust into the role of investigating the fate of the thousands of detainees. “People started coming up to us asking for help in finding family members who had disappeared or been arrested by the occupation forces,” he said. They helped Iraqi families communicate with the occupiers. “Sometimes we helped people communicate with the soldiers, and sometimes we helped the soldiers communicate with each other,” he said. “The US soldiers on the ground often had no idea how their own system worked.”
The work of the CPT became even more important after the departure of most NGOs after targeted bombings in September, 2003.
Work with the detainees helped the CPT to publicise the issue of prisoner abuse, ultimately leading to the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison. After ignoring the problem at first, in early 2004 the media began approaching CPT for pictures and stories of the detainees. The media wanted stories, so CPT linked them with the families of the prisoners .
In November 2005 four members of the Baghdad delegation of CPT were kidnapped, one of whom was killed before the others were freed in early 2006. Subsequently the CPT decided not to operate in Baghdad, though there continues to be a delegation at Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The CPT has projects in several conflict zones throughout the world and operates high profile projects at Hebron in the West Bank and in Gaza.
Asked about the biggest challenges of peacemakers in conflict zones, Stoltzfus said that one of the big problems facing residents in all conflict zones is the presence of unexploded ordnance.
He also talked about the changing face of war, describing how the Iraq conflict was a transition between the technology of WWII, and the ‘robotic’ wars of the future. In the future, “soldiers will go to the PTA after work,” he said. Meaning that wars will be fought remotely, by controllers away from the battle zone, whose lives will be barely disrupted.