This isn’t news for my local readers, but I want to say a few words in tribute to Art Gish, who was killed in a tractor accident earlier this week. Art was a fixture around Athens, Ohio, selling his organic produce at the farmer’s market, often including such exotica, by American standards, as dandelion greens. You’d see him on campus if a progressive speaker came to town. You’d see him and his wife Peggy in front of the courthouse, demonstrating and holding vigils.
But sometimes you wouldn’t see him, or Peggy, because they were somewhere in the Middle East delivering a message of peace and compassion that was inspired by their Mennonite faith. Peggy, who was once taken hostage, was in Iraq when Art was killed. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to get such news while far from home. Neither she nor Art ever fliched because something was hard. Still, my heart aches for her.
There’s a terrible irony in his own tractor causing his death, on his own land, after he had stood up to tanks and bulldozers far from home in the West Bank. Here’s an AP photo of Art facing down an Israeli tank.:
Art’s life and work were honored on Democracy Now yesterday; I can’t embed the clip, so go here and then fast-forward to about 9:35. Last year, DN interviewed Art and Peggy here about their work with the Christian Peacemaker Team. (It’s also impossible to embed, so I’ll include the transcript at the end of the post.) But Art was no publicity seeker. To the extent that the AP and DN recognized his work, he would want us to direct our attention to the work yet to be done, the peace yet to be made.
Art was just 70 – no longer young, to be sure, and with a full life behind him, spanning all the way back to his work in the civil rights movement of the 19960s. I didn’t know Art well – just to say hi to him – but I know his work was not done.
It seems almost trite to wish him eternal peace, and to wish his family peace in the here and now. But that’s what Art stood for, and that’s what he and his loved ones deserve. Peace – and the living memory of the work to which he dedicated his life.
AMY GOODMAN: Five years ago this month, in April of 2004, the first photographs from inside Abu Ghraib appeared in the US media. The photos showed Iraqi prisoners being tortured, abused and humiliated by US forces and private contractors.
While the first photos were broadcast on 60 Minutes and published in the pages of The New Yorker, the initial reports of torture actually came months earlier. Beginning in 2003, members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq began documenting dozens of cases of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners inside US military facilities.
We’re joined right now, here at Ohio University in Athens, by two local peace activists, longtime members of the Christian Peacemaker Team, Peggy and Art Gish. Peggy Gish has worked in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams since October of 2002. She helped document the first reports of abuse inside US prisons in Iraq. She’s author of Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. Her husband, Art Gish, has been part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank since 1995. He’s the author of several books, including Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking.
Thank you so much for being with us. It’s wonderful to have you with us. Peggy Gish, let’s being with you. President Obama just took a surprise trip to Iraq. You, yourself, were kidnapped there in Iraq.
PEGGY GISH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Just talk to me.
PEGGY GISH: I’m sorry, I’m not hearing you right.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, just listen to what I’m saying, just as I’m talking to you here. What happened to you in Iraq?
PEGGY GISH: What happened in Iraq?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
ART GISH: What happened to you in Iraq?
PEGGY GISH: In Iraq, yes. Well, two of us were traveling to a very impoverished area in northwestern Iraq, and there were groups of people who wanted to work nonviolently to deal with the struggles there. And two of us were abducted on the way home. I was kept only two days, and my—
AMY GOODMAN: Where?
PEGGY GISH: In the compound out in a desert. And my colleague was kept for another six days. Then we were released unharmed, which we think has something to do with them hearing about the work of CPT and the kind of work that we were doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Of the Christian Peacemaker Teams.
PEGGY GISH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about that, and your work being seminal in getting out the photographs of Abu Ghraib.
PEGGY GISH: Yes. We started this work in the summer of 2003, and what—it grew out of just helping the Iraqi families that had people detained among their family. And then we began discovering gross abuse in all of the prisons of Iraq, not just Abu Ghraib. And there was a lot of brutality from the very beginning of the house raid in the middle of the night, where soldiers acknowledged that they had thirty seconds or forty seconds of absolute terror to subdue the people, and then brutality in the questioning, the interrogation process, torture going on in that process, as well as in the imprisonment time. So we were hearing stories from men and women who had been in Abu Ghraib and other prisons, and we compiled a report on seventy-two prisoners that became part of a pool of evidence, and we were one of several organizations, Iraqi and international groups, that put tremendous pressure on the system to make it public.
AMY GOODMAN: Why have you chosen to live in Iraq for so many years under the gun, I mean, in the midst of the US attack, why you’ve chosen to live in Iraq?
PEGGY GISH: Yes, why do I go back? I go there because I’ve been given a deep love for the Iraqi people, and love is really what has overcome the fear that I have to struggle with when I go there, but also because I am from a country that has done tremendous damage to their society, to the people, devastated the lives and culture of a people, and I want to do some small part in trying to help the people of Iraq, but also to let the people here know what is really happening there. So part of our work is just truth telling, witnessing what the occupation has done, what that has meant for people.
And it has been a horrible thing for the people of Iraq. It has meant up to a million people killed, a continued physical devastation of the country. There’s still very little clean water or electricity, very poor medical care. People have been traumatized. Friends tell us that they are so despairing and depressed and do not see much hope for the future of their country, at least not for generations. And so, it is a devastated country. And people say, “I don’t feel like it’s getting better.”
AMY GOODMAN: When were you last there?
PEGGY GISH: Two weeks ago. I just came back.
AMY GOODMAN: What was your reaction to President Obama’s recent surprise trip this week and his calling for troop reductions in Iraq?
PEGGY GISH: Yeah, I didn’t catch all that question.
ART GISH: What was your reaction to Obama going to Iraq this week?
PEGGY GISH: Yeah, I wish that Obama would be speaking out clearly, acknowledging the harm that the US has done there more clearly. And what we see and what Iraqis see is that Obama is just following in the same policies concerning Iraq that Bush has. The timetable for withdrawing is very similar to what Bush had put on the table. And they—I guess I’m afraid that he’s just being sucked into it, being pressured into a kind of aggressive military policy for dealing with the struggles of the world.
What’s happening with Iraq is now being transferred over into the work with Afghanistan, so we’re going to take troops from Iraq, but we’re going to increase the war there, the war on terror. And that is what we ought to be addressing, is our whole foreign policy, the way we are dealing with this whole problem of terrorism in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peggy Gish. Her husband Art Gish, also a Christian Peacemaker. Art, you spend your time in the West Bank, in the Occupied Territories.
ART GISH: Yes. Since 1995, I’ve been going to the West Bank every winter for three months. And I just came back from spending another three months there.
AMY GOODMAN: Why? Why have you chosen to go there? And explain how the Christian Peacemaker Teams developed.
ART GISH: Christian Peacemaker Teams came out of the peace churches, the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, out of the idea that if we’re really serious about peace, we ought to be willing to take the same risks as soldiers take and go into a nonviolent—into violent situations and be a nonviolent presence there. What if people who want peace made the same kind of commitment that soldiers make?
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
ART GISH: That we go there, and we take risks, and we stand in the middle, and we work for peace in there.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you’ve done in West Bank.
ART GISH: OK. The most important thing we do is listen. And we listen to all sides. We act as international observers. I like to say we have the grandmother effect. There are things nobody would do if their grandmother is watching. So, in any conflict anywhere in the world, it’s really important to have outside observers there who are a presence there, and the people know they’re being watched, and that will reduce the violence.
And then, third, we also engage in nonviolent direct action. If the Israeli military wants to demolish a Palestinian house, we’ll sit on the roof of the house. We stand in front of tanks and bulldozers, and our slogan is “getting in the way.”
AMY GOODMAN: We just passed the anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie on March 16th.
ART GISH: Yes, I knew her.
AMY GOODMAN: A few days before the invasion of Iraq—
ART GISH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —she was killed in Gaza by an Israeli military bulldozer. She stood in front of a house—
ART GISH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —just like you, standing to prevent it from being crushed. How did you know her?
ART GISH: I did some work for ISM. That’s the group she was working with, International Solidarity Movement. And I led the training for two days of nonviolence training for her, so I trained her to stand in front of bulldozers.
AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts, your reaction after she was killed?
ART GISH: Well, that touched me very deeply, since I have some responsibility in that. But she’s one of my heroes, of course. And, you know, I think of the times I stood in front of tanks and bulldozers, and it could have happened to me.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened in those cases? Explain exactly what you do. For example, talk about your experiences in Hebron. Did it happen there?
ART GISH: Yes. There was—in the main central produce market in Hebron, I saw two Israeli bulldozers, two Israeli tanks smashing the whole area. And a big tank came toward me, and I stood there, and it stopped, right in front of me. I didn’t realize that day that maybe I saved my wife’s life that day, because while she was kidnapped, she showed a picture of me standing in front of the tank to the kidnappers, and they were quite impressed and said we’re going to let you go.
AMY GOODMAN: You were in the West Bank. But you, when you were kidnapped, in Iraq.
PEGGY GISH: I was in Iraq, yes.
ART GISH: She was in—yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And you had this photograph with you?
PEGGY GISH: I had the photo with me and the photos of my family, my children, right, and showed that to them. And then they went out with it, and ten minutes later the guard came back in and said I would be released the next day with our translator.
AMY GOODMAN: What drives you to devote so much time to this kind of activism? For our radio listeners, your white hair, Art, your white beard. For kids who might think, what on earth are you doing? You live safely here in Athens, Ohio, but you’re constantly going off to places where you put your own lives in danger.
ART GISH: Well, first of all, it’s a privilege and a gift to be able to stand with the victims, with the oppressed of the world. That’s a privilege. I wouldn’t want to give it up for anything. What motivates us is our religious faith, our faith in God. And as Peggy put it so well, it’s love. It’s our love for the people that drives us.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born, Art?
ART GISH: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
AMY GOODMAN: And Peggy?
PEGGY GISH: I was born actually in Nigeria. My parents were working there when I was very young. And then I grew up in Chicago.
AMY GOODMAN: And what got you involved in this peace work, Peggy?
PEGGY GISH: Ah, what got—well, we started our activism with civil rights work, and it a just opened the door to all kinds of other issues for us. Then we became involved with the anti-Vietnam War protests and draft resistance, death penalty abolition. And so, we began to see the interconnection with so many oppressions and problems, economic problems, with the war machine. And then we heard about a group that had a different kind of response, one that would be of standing with people and working with them nonviolently within their countries in those situations.
And so, as we worked in Iraq, we looked for those creative people who were interested, and we did a training with a group of Shia Muslims in Karbala in 2005, and they became known then as the Muslim Peacemaker Teams. With them, then we went into the city of Fallujah seven times during the year of 2005 to work for reconciliation between Sunni and Shia. So that’s the kind of thing that we do. And it’s exciting because we’re a part of a movement of the local people who are doing that and building that up for their country.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you planning to go back to the West Bank, Art? Peggy, to Iraq?
ART GISH: I hope to.
PEGGY GISH: I hope so.
ART GISH: Insha’Allah.
PEGGY GISH: Yes, we hope.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Peggy and Art Gish.
ART GISH: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: They’ve written a number of books. Peggy’s book,Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. Art Gish’s book, Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking and At-Tuwani Journal: Hope and Nonviolent Action in a Palestinian Village.