Just a few days ago, I returned from a short trip into Iraq with a small group of Christian peacemakers. Most of us had been to the country before, but under varying circumstances: I was on a combat deployment in 2004; Greg Barrett, our organizer, went as a journalist in the run-up to the invasion in 2003; and four were part of a peace team protesting the bombing campaign during that same period.
Shane Claiborne, Cliff Kindy, Weldon Nisly, and Peggy Gish were leaving Iraq in March 2003 when one of their vehicles was involved in an accident, leaving Cliff and Weldon with life-threatening injuries. Had it not been for a few Iraqi Good Samaritans, they may have never made it out alive.
This more recent journey was meant to reconnect with the Iraqi folks who saved lives and moved hearts. The doctors had treated the injured with what little supplies they had after a decade of sanctions, just days after their own children's ward was bombed, leaving two people dead. What really inspired the group was the doctors' refusal of payment for their life-saving services, asking only that the group "Go and tell the world about Rutba."
After several days of cajoling at the Iraqi embassy in Amman, Jordan, we were able to enter Iraq on the 15th. Almost seven years after their accident, Shane, Cliff, Weldon, and Peggy were able to meet the doctors once again, this time under less dangerous circumstances. Our trip was not without risk, however, and many measures were taken to ensure our safety as well as that of our hosts. Due to time and security concerns, we were only able to stay for three days, returning to Amman on the 18th.
What our trip lacked in length, it more than made up for in inspiring stories and moving reunions. We were able to find the same doctors and ambulance drivers that offered help to the very people whose government was bombing their country. We were fed and housed like kings and queens, given every measure of imaginable hospitality. What left us most impressed was the repeated refrain that this was not at all uncommon treatment of guests in Iraq.
As I write, Shane and Greg are in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), including the Gaza Strip and besieged Bethlehem. Most of the rest of us have returned to our lives, continuing to process the experience and consider how best to take what we learned there and reflect the same grace in our own lives, and to bring home the hospitality we were extended in Iraq.
One of the tangible results of the trip was the decision to pursue a sister-city relationship between the cities of Rutba, Iraq and Durham, NC. Durham is where Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove, who were with the 2003 group, have created Rutba House, a community within the New Monasticism movement. Rutba House was formed in response to the request to 'tell the world,' and to celebrate the kindness they experienced at the hands of doctors with hearts fuller than their medicine cabinets (did I mention Cliff and Weldon were stitched up without anesthesia?).
In the next several weeks, more information will emerge as we continue to process our individual experiences. Jamie Moffett, established documentary filmmaker, accompanied the group to chronicle the journey, taking many pictures and video that will become viewable soon. My own experience was probably quite distinct from that of many others, and I am continually unraveling the depth of emotions that this exposed me to. Eventually, I will post a synopsis of the day-to-day events at my own blog, and Greg and Shane have been posting some updates from the OPT over at Brian McLaren's blog.
One thing that impressed me was the commonplace nature of such incredible generosity expressed by everyday Iraqis. Stories of admirable courage and care astounded me almost entirely by the unassuming character they were couched within. One thing is for sure: As the U.S. moves toward withdrawal in the years to come, we have a lot to learn from Iraq. Let's hope the human connections that were cultivated this past weekend may be only the first of many that assist in rebuilding and reconciling the relationship between our two countries.
Logan Laituri is an Army veteran with combatant service in Iraq during OIF II and experience with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel and the West Bank. He blogs sporadically and is a co-founder of Centurion's Guild.