Norman Kember, the British pacifist released after being imprisoned in Iraq for almost four months, has returned home to face a predictable lack of understanding of his pacifist stance - just as his captors in Iraq themselves showed little sympathy towards his pacifism.
He had been one of four activists from the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) network who were abducted in Iraq on 26 November (see the cover story in December/January's PN), whilst there to support human rights for Iraqi civilians, to undertake reconciliation work, and to oppose the military intervention.
Together with two Canadian CPTers, Jim Loney and Harmeet Sooden, he was released - without any fighting - by a British-led military team early on 24 March. The fourth captive, Tom Fox from the USA, had been found shot dead just two weeks earlier.
On his return to Britain, Norman Kember - while thanking everyone who played a part in his release - reaffirmed his belief that armed force was not the way to achieve peace. And he pointed out that the massive media interest in him would be better directed towards trying to communicate with the ordinary people of Iraq.
His wife, Pat, said on his return how she had been supported by her local church group, and also “by the many peace organisations that Norman has worked with over the years”. Until recently he was secretary of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, and was active in various religious and secular peace campaigns.
The CPT faced criticism that its members' presence in Iraq meant British and US soldiers had to take risks to help them in a situation such as the kidnapping of the four. The CPT response was that they were pleased not only that no soldiers were killed, but also that the soldiers hadn't killed anyone else during the rescue.
Indeed, as PN reported in December, the CPT - in line with its antimilitarist beliefs - was on record before its volunteers ever went to Iraq that it would not want violence to be used to save the lives of team members in such a situation. Chris Cole, director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), who has worked closely in support of the hostages during their captivity, confirmed to PN “that Norman, James and Harmeet would not have wanted violence to be used,” and added, “The media is full of stories of the SAS storming buildings, but our understanding is that an Iraqi civilian led the multinational hostage team - made up of military and civilian personnel - to a building where the three men were alone but tied up. Reading between the lines it seems that months of behind the scenes work has paid off allowing all sides to save face.”
As Peace News was going to press, there was still speculation as to how much the declared position of the imprisoned men and their supporters influenced the nature of the governmental action taken to release them. But whether or not their wishes were honoured, claims in some military and media circles that the CPT was reckless in risking other people's lives are clearly nonsense.
Simon Barrow, of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which works with the CPT, pointed out that it was “unreasonable to ignore CPT's willingness to operate without armed protection, and then accuse them of diverting resources”. He also commented that the US and British authorities “seem to be enjoying the propaganda value [of the rescue] in the face of public outcry against their military strategy”.
Unlike most other foreign residents in Baghdad, CPT members - who have been working in Iraq since before the US and British invasion - don't live behind fortifications, or have security guards. They have been involved in facilitating the formation of a Muslim Peacemaker Team composed of Shias and Sunnis together.
One realisation which is reinforced by the events surrounding Norman Kember, is that the attitudes of many of those on different “sides” of a conflict often have far more in common with one another than they do with “their own” dissidents - including pacifists.
And as to the accusation that military time might have been “wasted” on the rescue - one might wish that the military spent more time rescuing people nonviolently rather than fighting people violently. In fact, if the seemingly limitless resources and infrastructure used in the military intervention in Iraq had instead been spent on sending thousands of Norman Kembers, Iraq would likely be a much safer place for everyone by now.