BEIRUT, Lebanon –
Spring break is coming up, and everyone here asks me if I’m planning to travel. I haven’t decided yet, but on Wednesday I went to the Iraqi Embassy. As I understand it, they’re not really letting freelance journalists into the country right now, so I applied for a human shield visa. My reason for going to Iraq would be to act as an advocate for those caught in the middle of the war, though I’m not so sure I want to affiliate myself with a group that’s been placing volunteers at power stations and other targets that, while technically protected by the Geneva Convention, are fair game in the de facto rules of war.
At the embassy, my friend Hassan helped me fill out the visa form, which consisted of a copy of my passport and a blank sheet of paper on which I was to write my name, phone number and a short statement about why I want to travel to Iraq. Hassan was kind enough to speed the process by taking down my statement in Arabic as I dictated – writing it myself, dictionary in hand, could have taken all day.
While we were there, Lebanese men passed in and out as they signed up to go to Iraq as human shields, to fight against the American army or to serve as martyrs (their word, not mine). For persons traveling from other Arab countries, the visa approval is a same-day process, sans statement. I was a little disappointed the “official visa forms” were actually blank sheets of computer paper. I had a faint notion that perhaps there would be separate forms for each purpose, and the man behind the desk would say something like: “Human shield? That’s the yellow form. You want to blow yourself up? Blue form. Over there.”
While Hassan wrote, a middle-aged Lebanese man missing a number of fingers asked me to help him cut out his passport photo. We didn’t ask him why he was traveling; neither Hassan nor I wanted to know. I handed the man his picture and searched his face for any trace of discomfort or apprehension. I was beginning to feel lightheaded at the possibility of being involved as a noncombatant; this man was perhaps planning his own death and appeared entirely calm as he proceeded. As he stared back at me, I felt an odd sort of nexus. We have little in common. He is probably from one of Beirut’s heavily Shiite suburbs and direct verbal communication between us was prevented by the language barrier – just one indicator of our vastly different experiences. Yet there we were, both signing on to stand with people to whom we have no obligation other than that which we feel as fellow human beings. He is going to fight, I am going to write. We offer what we can.
Hassan finished writing down my statement.
“You got all of it? The part about witnessing what the media in the states won’t show? About telling people back home? About solidarity with the suffering of the Iraqi people and showing that Americans don’t all support their government’s policies?”
“Yeah man. I made it say ‘the evil American government.’ It sounds better.”
I guess George Bush isn’t the only person guilty of oversimplifying matters in order to get people into Iraq.
I’ve been trying to figure out what I’ll tell my parents. Assuming my visa is approved, I’m not entirely sure I’ll go. The way I see it now is that one can take calculated risks and reduce the chances of being harmed, but if carpet bombing or widespread martyrdom operations begin, I think I’ll stay away. The idea of the U.S. Army shooting anyone that moves for fear they’re carrying a bomb doesn’t leave me very optimistic. I’m a journalist, but I’m not suicidal.
After a quiet cab ride back to campus, one of my friends told me she’s worried I am “young and idealistic,” and that she’s not sure about my “ability to assess risk.” I told her I’m just more risk-acceptant than the average person. I am not na